Restoring the Dunes

Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative explains what it takes to bring the region back to its former glory

Aug. 22, 2018 — “In Wales, we like to look after the Scotch broom and the gorse because it’s so pretty,” Dafydd Balston said. “But one of the invasive species there is rhododendrons. They’re a weed over there, spreading and taking over. But the Scotch broom, with its bright yellow in the spring time, we work to preserve those.”

Balston, who now lives in Florence, was volunteering for the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative last Saturday, a group that is dedicated to restoring the Oregon dunes to their natural habitat. Once a month, the collaborative sets out to pull or cut the species that have wreaked havoc on the local dunes ecosystem.

But in his home country of Wales, Balston would be doing the exact opposite.

“Rhododendrons were introduced in Victorian times,” he said. “There are still some stately manors in the UK where you go in May, and it’s an absolute blaze of color because there’s so many different species from all around the world. It is a big tourist attraction. But, they spread. In the ornamental gardens they’re controlled. Out in the wild it can be a real nuisance.”

So, in Wales, collaboratives would be set up to eradicate the wild rhododendrons and preserve the native Scotch broom.

“It’s a worldwide campaign to maintain some different ecosystems,” he said. “Trying to preserve different species.”

Balston and the collaborative were working in the Heceta Dunes area, just northwest of Florence’s city limits.

“We try and come out once a month,” said Bill Blackwell, who helps organize these excursions. “In the spring, it was even twice a month. We work primarily here at Heceta Dunes, and we also went to Lagoon Campground at Siltcoos, Honeyman State Park and the Oregon Dunes day use area.”

Blackwell’s group was focusing on Heceta, starting a four-hour expedition that began with cutting down invasive species and ended up with a tour of one of the most pristine areas on the entire Oregon coast, a hidden area of dunes that have been virtually untouched by the species that have overtaken much of the coast’s dunes.

The trek began at the end of Joshua Lane, located just east of Heceta Beach. The entrance to the dunes is unassuming, looking almost like an unkempt backyard — a wire fence hidden amongst a row of wild bushes.

Blackwell spoke to a group of a few dozen volunteers before the hike began.

“What we have on our agenda today is, it’s about a half mile hike out to where we’re going to work,” he said. “It’s a place we’ve worked a few months ago, so I’m sure we’ll be able to finish that part of it.”

The volunteers were an eclectic group of all ages, from children below the age of 10 to a woman in her 80s. They all held different tools for the job — loppers, saws and other weeding instruments.

“I appreciate you guys to come out to continue our work here,” Blackwell said. “This is one of the best places to find the dunes in their natural habitat.”

The group began hiking eastward. Just a few paces into the trek, the scraggly bushes made way to a beautiful, sand-swept tree island resting in the sands.

Each expedition begins with a group photograph at the spot, which is special for the collaborative. It’s one of the first places they helped restore.

“When we first started in the spring five years ago, it was just totally yellow,” Blackwell said. “Scotch broom seeds last 50 years, so unfortunately you’ve got to keep coming back to the same area. They’ll re-sprout. We have to still come back each year to get the new plants coming up, but we have made an impact.”

Several nonnative species were introduced to the dunes decades ago to prevent sand blowing in to nearby coastal towns. Grasses, such as European beach grass, would dig into the sand, spreading over it completely, thus preventing the strong coastal winds from picking up the sand.

The plan worked only too well. Soon, the invasive species overtook the dunes completely, choking out the native plants. Aerial photography of the dunes taken over the years show a completely different topography than it was before cities began to grow.

So, organizations like the collaborative are working to restore the dunes to their original glory.

After the group photo, the volunteers worked their way east up a tall dune, then headed due south, finding themselves on a sand path surrounded by large trees and various native shrubs.

The Heceta Dunes are very quiet, as far as human visitors are concerned. No one would know that a major highway and shopping complex rest just a few miles west.

It wasn’t always so quiet. Around 10 years ago, it used to be open to motorized vehicles, but due to complaints with noise and parking around the entrance, their use was restricted, Blackwell said.

Now, the majority of visitors to the area are locals, exploring the area by foot or bicycle. It’s also a popular dog-walking spot.

“Most of the tourists from out of the area wouldn’t even know that it’s here,” Blackwell said.

After walking for half an hour, a small outcrop of land was found where a plethora of Scotch broom could be seen protruding out of the ground. The plant is one of the nonnative species that the collaborative hunts for.

During the springtime, Scotch broom is easy to find, with bright yellow blooms dotting the landscape.

“It’s like a beacon when you’re trying to find them,” Balston said.

But in the summertime, the broom is a little bit more difficult to spot. The larger plants have dark seed pods on them.

“Ah, there’s one right here,” Blackwell said, moving toward a large bush. He described the ways one can take out a Scotch.

“There’s different methods, depending on your tool,” he said. “You can dig these up with a shovel. You can take loppers or hand saws and cut it, but you want to cut it as low as possible. If you leave some, especially on young plants, that will come back up from the stump.”

Blackwell began lopping off the branches of the broom, leaving a stump in the ground.

“The older plants won’t sprout back,” he said. “if you can get it as low as possible, that’s better. This one was an old plant, which you can tell because of the wider diameter, so it didn’t sprout back. About right here is the top of the roots. If you can get to this point, you can kill it.”

For immature plants, the best practice is to simply yank them out by hand.

To dispose of the plants, they put them in piles on the sand where it’s more difficult for the seeds to burrow back into the ground. One pile the group worked on that day was nearly five feet tall.

The group took a break to show a new tool called Wild Spotter that is being utilized to help identify areas that are infested with invasive species.

“It’s a campaign that was created by the US Forest Service, the University of Georgia and a lot of other agencies that got together,” said Chelsea Monks, forest botanist for the Siuslaw National Forest.

She pulled out a tablet and brought up the app, which had a whole host of information including types of invasive species and how to identify them.

Wild Spotter, which can be downloaded for tablets or phones and can be found at, helps organizations tag infestations throughout the country.

“If you find something, you can hit report,” she explained. “You can attach pictures. It auto-populates your latitude and longitude, which is really handy here. You can put in the time you spent here, the infestation size. You can put in acres and acres of an infestation, or report you just found one or two plants.”

The information goes to a mass database that helps agencies get a grasp on how prevalent an invasive species might be in an area.

“If it’s something that needs a rapid response, we’re going to get out to it as soon as we can, confirm it’s there, see how big it is, and see if we can immediately pull it and treat it,” Monks said. “The public is much better able, and more likely, to get onto those spots than we are. There’s a whole lot more of you than us. The hope is we can get people out there utilizing it and interested in caring, to help us figure out what’s going out in the landscape.”

After the small break, the group worked their way east, stopping at various hot spots of Scotch broom, picking out the offenders.

It’s at that point they came upon the most brutal of invasive plants: gorse.

“It’s like scotch broom in a way, except it has needles on it, and they don’t bend,” said Blackwell.

The gorse was massive, four feet tall and just as wide. The sharp needles made it almost impenetrable.

Balston described how small animals such as rabbits hide under the bushes in Wales to protect themselves from predators.

“And gorse is flammable,” Blackwell said. “There’s a lot of gorse around the town of Bandon, and in the late 1800s, the town actually burned up because the gorse helped fuel the fire.”

Beyond the dangers of handling the plant, it’s also difficult to eradicate. Unlike Scotch broom, where one can simply leave the stump behind, gorse has to be dug up at the root ball or it will come back.

Blackwell didn’t have the time to take out the gorse that day, so he marked it with a pink ribbon to make it easy to find the next time the group came through.

After two hours, the cleanup portion of the day had ended, and it was time to head toward one of the most pristine places on the Oregon coast. A small path eastward, turning south, led to an oasis of untouched dunes. The wind drifted sands mixed with patches of native grasses.

“This is one of the places we thought would be really worthwhile to work on,” Marty Stein, a forest botanist, said. “We look for areas with relatively intact native communities that wouldn’t take a lot of work if we got in there and started doing something. The category is called ‘Preserve the best.’ This is actually one of the largest that we’ve been able to find in this whole mid-coast area.”

He explained how the native grasses thrive on open sounds, growing in small tufts in certain areas, sparsely growing. They thrive on an ever-changing dune. But when invasive species come in, they stabilize the dunes, choking out the natives and small, ephemeral wetlands that are indigenous to the dunes.

The area wasn’t entirely pristine, with patches of gorse and Scotch broom still visible. There was also a solid mat of European beach grass that was threatening the area.

“But there’s not a lot of it here,” Stein said. “If we do nothing, over time I image we’ll end up losing this whole area.”

However, the collaborative has plans to restore the area, using herbicides for the beach grass and pulling out the Scotch.

This area represented the end goal for Stein and the collaboration.

“You can get the idea of what a more natural system looks like,” he said. “Think about driving down the coast and looking at the beach and seeing a very solid mat of European beach grass growing out it. Compare it to this. You can see what was, and what is now in most places.”

The group walked around the dunes, their footprints seen momentarily in the sand, quickly disappearing with the strong winds. The entire area was quiet, peaceful.

On the way back from the tour, Balston explained why it was good to have volunteer groups like the collaborative work on the dunes.

“It’s good to have a group to keep you motivated,” he said. “If it was just me, maybe I would only spend a half hour out here. But with a group, it keeps you on your toes to get the work done. And that’s the important part. Maybe we won’t be able to fix all this, nor our children. But after that?”