West Eugene Parkway or Parklands?

by Mark Robinowitz

The Runoff (Many Rivers Sierra Club newsletter, Summer 2002)

In July, Eugene, Springfield, Lane County and Lane Transit District amended the West Eugene Wetlands Plan, TransPlan, Metro Plan and Rural Plan to include the West Eugene Parkway, a bypass of the West 11th commercial strip. But approval at the local level does not necessarily mean that it will be built – like all federal aid highways, the ultimate decision will be made by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Some of the hurdles blocking the bulldozers include Oregon’s land use laws (which prohibit new urban freeways outside urban growth boundaries), the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, FHWA regulations regarding highway approval, the Clean Water Act, and Section 4(f) of the Transportation Act (which prohibits federally funded roads through parks and wildlife refuges).

The Wetlands Plan was established a decade ago to deregulate wetland protection in west Eugene under the guise of mitigation. Its sponsors claim that it provides "balance" between preservation and destruction, allowing continued industrial development in wetlands while protecting critical habitats.

In the mid-1980s, while planning the WEP and building sewers to facilitate sprawl, the City realized that much of west Eugene was wetlands and difficult to develop. The Wetlands Plan was crafted to make it easier for developers to get permission to destroy remnant ecosystems, since the City established a "mitigation bank" to compensate for the loss of wetlands, which assumed the responsibility for mitigating the damage done by businesses like Hyundai.

Most of west Eugene’s wetlands are wet prairies, which are seasonally inundated yet completely dry in the summer. It is estimated that only 1/1,000th of the original ecosystem remains in the Willamette Valley, making it far more rare than oak savannahs or even old growth conifers. It is so scarce that when initial studies on wet prairies were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s there was only one site known (Finley Refuge near Corvallis).

Before the construction of dams and drainage systems, much of the Willamette Valley floor was underwater in the wintertime, which prevented forests from encroaching. In the summer, undammed rivers reached much lower levels than today, which would prevent their use as sewers for our toilets and industries.

The rare plants in the west Eugene wetlands refuge are dependent on this delicate cycle of wet and dry, and are dependent on a narrow range of hydrology. Any drier, and the wet prairie ceases to be seasonally flooded. Any wetter, and the type of wetland shifts toward marsh and swamp.

Over the past decade, the Bureau of Land Management has spent over $12 million to acquire, protect and restore native wet prairie remnants in the west Eugene area, part of a cooperative effort with local governments, nonprofits and other federal agencies. In total, about $20 million has been spent on the West Eugene Wetlands project. These efforts have included undoing the channelization of Amazon Creek, native seed propagation, and environmental education efforts.

Despite these successes, local developer interests and the Oregon Department of Transportation have sought for decades to build a freeway through the heart of these natural areas. The highway would puncture Eugene’s urban growth boundary in the direction of the burgeoning suburb of Veneta, fueling further "Californication" of the southern Willamette Valley.

For the WEP to be built, the BLM must provide a "waiver" for use of these lands bought with Land and Water Conservation Funds. The BLM is on record that they could only consider a waiver if full funding of the highway is available.

Parkway promoters claim that it would cost $88.5 million, and the local governments have now modified the regional "TransPlan" to allocate this much money for the WEP over the next 20 years. However, the TransPlan amendments made in July effectively canceled the Beltline / WEP grade-separated interchange ($17 million) to fund the WEP. ODOT is on record stating the interchange would be needed for the WEP to work, so this change violates federal highway standards on "segmentation" and "independent utility."

In addition, the $88.5 million figure ignores inflation, road-widenings to accommodate WEP induced traffic increases, the future extensions across Fern Ridge to Veneta ($13.319 million) and to the I-105 Washington / Jefferson bridge. My conservative estimate is that the full West Eugene Parkway would cost at least $150 million, more than ODOT plans to spend on new highways in Eugene / Springfield over the next two decades.

Please contact Senators Wyden and Smith, and Rep. DeFazio to urge them not to "earmark"funds for the parkway or promote "riders" that would exempt the project from environmental laws.

Mark Robinowitz is a "road scholar" who has a website about the "porkway" at www.sustaineugene.org/wetlands.html



“The proposed highway would introduce visual, auditory and olfactory influences to the wetlands environment that appear to be inconsistent with the BLM’s management objectives for this area as described under the West Eugene Wetlands Plan. The Final Supplemental EIS discusses noise levels in terms that seem inconsistent with experience. The claim that noise will not be significant affect beyond a short distance from the highway centerline, especially given the fact that the Amazon canal overpass structure will require a grade on either side resulting in increased motor vehicle engine noise and increased heavy truck engine breaking noise, seems to have been largely ignored in this document. The ability of visitors and school classes to enjoy the wetland’s natural features to communicate with one another at the interpretive outlooks and environmental education sites will be interfered with by traffic noise on the parkway. The noise combined with the visual affect of automobiles and large trucks passing on the parkway will substantially affect the visitor’s experience opportunities in the wetlands.”
“The statement that ‘no planned parks will be directly affected by the Modified project.’ should be changed to address the visual and noise affects of the project on the bikepath and environmental educational facilities which are planned for the Amazon Bike Path and adjoining wetlands wildlife viewing and environmental facilities.”
“The discussion [in the SFEIS] of visual impacts appears to ignore the visual intrusion that would be created by the parkway structures themselves as well as by the vehicular traffic on the parkway. The planned recreational access and environmental education facilities and uses would very likely be strongly affected by the parkway. ... The bikepath and environmental education facilities will be a major and significant recreational attraction in the future. Visitors to these facilities will notice the parkway structures and traffic ... so close to them as to have their interpersonal or group communications interfered with by vehicular noise. The WEP will become the dominant feature in the West Eugene Wetlands.
– “Section 4(f) properties - The Fern Ridge Bike Path / August 2000, Recreation issues relating to the WEP Final Supplemental EIS of January 2000,” Joe Williams, Recreation Senior Staff Specialist, BLM

"While most people know about the prairies of the Midwest and Great Plains, many are surprised to learn that much of the Willamette Valley was prairie when it was first settled by Euroamericans.

"The name ‘prairie’ refers here to wet grasslands that developed on clay soils in the Willamette and Umpqua valleys and the southern Puget trough, south of the glacial outwash plains ...

"[This] landscape [was] created by a regime of frequent fire from lightning and thousands of years of occupation by Native Americans, who burned much of the valley almost every year to improve hunting and to maintain populations of wild food plants. Prairie occurred on both wet and dry soils, and on bottomlands as well as foothill slopes.

"Today, only about 800 hectares of wet and dry prairie are thought to remain, just 0.2 percent of an estimated 400,000 hectares in 1850. ... After annual burning ceased in about 1855, woody plants invaded many prairies and gradually converted them to shrublands or forests. As recently as 1960, federal and state maps of natural vegetation in the Willamette Valley indicated that it had originally contained coniferous forest.  ....

"In 1850 wetland prairies covered one-third of the Willamette Valley, between 120,000 and 160,000 hectares. They have since been reduced to about 400 hectares, 0.3 percent of their historic range.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers rediscovered the forgotten prairie as a component of the Willamette Valley landscape. The Willamette Floodplain Research Natural Area (RNA) in Finley National Wildlife Refuge was for several years the only known remnant of wetland prairie. Intensified searches for rare plants in the late 1970s and 1980s located several important prairie remnants west of Eugene, near Corvallis and east of Salem. Currently, the following five sites in these areas have been preserved, and some are being managed with prescribed fire: Willow Creek Preserve, Fern Ridge RNA, Long Tom Area of Critical Environmental Concern, Willamette Flood plain RNA, and Jackson-Frazier Natural Area. Efforts are underway to protect stands at other sites west of Eugene and east of Salem."

– B. Jennifer Guard, "Wetland Plants of Oregon and Washington," Renton, WA: Lone Pine Publishing, 1995, p. 94-95