PORTLAND, Ore. – Land managers in the South Willamette Valley have discovered a disturbing trend on the properties they manage: Oregon grape plants are being illegally harvested in large numbers, presumably to sell for the herbal properties of their roots.
In addition to being illegal, removal of these plants takes away important wildlife habitat. The Oregon grape, known as the state flower of Oregon, provides nectar for bees and butterflies in the spring and berries for birds and small mammals during summer.
The illegal take is happening on federal, state, county, city and even private lands in the Coast Fork and Middle Fork Willamette River Watersheds, as well as the Long Tom River Watershed, according to Audrey Squires, Restoration Projects Manager for the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council.
“I was pretty shocked to learn about illegal Oregon grape harvest from a local private landowner, so I wanted to find out if this was happening elsewhere,” Squires said. “I contacted our partner organizations and learned that it is pretty extensive and has been happening for several years.”
Squires is now working to increase communication among local organizations and to raise public awareness of the issue.
“Some people may not realize that many government agencies prohibit the collection of native plants on public land, and those that do allow collecting require a permit,” said Christie Johnson, Park Ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The state fine for removing plants without a permit can be up to $2500.”
Johnson says that people who use herbal products made from Oregon grape may want to make sure their supplier is using materials that were obtained legally.
One long-term solution to these kinds of problems is environmental education.
In the Cottage Grove area, the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council has been working with middle school students to develop a sense of stewardship for the natural resources in their watershed.
The Watershed Action Teams for Education, Restoration and Stewardship Program includes monthly field trips to restoration project sites. At these sites, students have an opportunity to get hands-on learning experiences. On Thursday, students from Dorena School will be planting tall Oregon grape at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers managed park near Dorena Lake.
This project will help restore some of the plants that were illegally harvested over the past year.
“By helping to solve a real-world environmental problem, these students are making a connection that is meaningful and memorable,” said Maggie O'Driscoll, Education Coordinator for the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council. “When they become adult members of this community, we hope they will continue being involved in protecting and caring for their watershed and pass this legacy on to their own children.”
Members of the public are encouraged to report any suspicious activity related to Oregon grape theft to the local county sheriff department or to the Oregon State Police non-emergency line- 1-800-442-0776.