By Dave Hanson, Friends of Deer Creek Park
A nature lover's delight, this park contains the largest wet prairie ecosystem in the lower Willamette Valley. The tall-grass prairie at Deer Creek Park attracts regional attention each spring when both very rare and more common wildflowers burst into bloom. Located in Gopher Valley at the confluence of Cronin Creek and Deer Creek, this 30-acre park is one of the county's finest, with abundant picnic areas beneath a grove of 100 year-old Oregon ash.
Gopher Valley's open prairies and densely vegetated riparian corridors were seasonally occupied by the Kalapuyan people, who periodically set fires to maintain conditions favorable to their needs, as people did throughout the Willamette Valley's fire-dependant prairies and oak savannas. The riparian forests along Deer Creek included large trees that would fall and be carried downstream, along with large woody debris from the forested uplands, to produce frequent log jams in the stream channel. These dams, along with those made by beaver, created meandering streams with multiple side channels. The strong forces of floodwaters and debris were dissipated by riparian vegetation and dispersed over the adjacent floodplains. The seasonal inundation of the floodplains recharged groundwater crucial for maintaining cool stream flows during summer months.
The settlers arriving in Gopher Valley in the mid-1800s brought land-use practices that eventually produced major changes in the landscape. They began ditching and draining the wetlands and prairies to make cultivation possible. Riparian forests were cut for firewood. But the most profound change was the suppression of wildfire. When the Kalapuyan seasonal burning practices ceased, natural successional processes changed vast prairies and savannas into forests. Taken together, these changes and impacts resulted in the near-elimination of many of the native plant communities of the pre-settlement valley.
The prairie at Deer Creek was used as a pasture for livestock and for hay production. To make it produce annual crops, ditches were constructed along the edge of the parcel, and it was plowed into a series of raised berms and drainage channels. Still, persistent wet soils made farming difficult on the site, and farming was abandoned in the 1950s.
In 1962, Cecil and Delores Gross donated the six-acre parcel along the creek that would be developed into Deer Creek Park. The 23-acre prairie was purchased in 1978. It was only in the 1990s that people began to recognize the value of the prairie parcel. A 1992 assessment by The Nature Conservancy identified the site to be one of the largest areas of wet prairie remaining in the Willamette Valley. In 1993 Biology professor Kareen Sturgeon and her botany students at Linfield College discovered a small colony of a rare, dry-prairie species Lupinus sulphureus kincaidii (Kincaid's lupine) in the upland portion of the prairie. Kincaid's lupine is a relict species from the ice age endemic to the Willamette Valley that serves as the host plant for the rare Fender's blue butterfly. In the developed area of the park, the ash grove was allowed to go unmowed and has since awed park visitors with a display of camas (a staple food for native peoples) and other wildflowers. A group of community members formed Friends of Deer Creek Park, which continues to work toward the integration of recreation, ecological restoration, and education objectives in the park.
In 1998 a group of natural resource agencies and organizations (including Yamhill County, Linfield College, Yamhill Soil & Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, BLM, Yamhill Basin Council, and OSU Extension Service) partnered to conduct a prescribed burn to help restore the native plant community in the wet prairie and upland dry prairie. The burn revealed topographical features that vegetation had obscured, which has led to a better understanding of the hydrological patterns of the site that will help us to address future management challenges. A story of the geological, cultural, and natural history is recorded in the wet prairie in Gopher Valley, making Deer Creek Park a significant asset to our region. It is a priceless natural heritage demonstrating the ecological functions of the wetlands, floodplains, and watersheds, and will eventually contribute to increased public awareness and appreciation of these vital processes."