The coastal sands of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, part of the Siuslaw National Forest, hold an interesting place in literary history. In the 1950s, author Frank Herbert wrote the now-classic science fiction novel Dune after being inspired, in part, by a visit to these dunes, located near Florence, Ore.
While there, Herbert learned about the efforts state and federal land managers had been making over several decades to stabilize the sand dunes in order to protect coastal infrastructure. A variety of non-native species were being planted on the sand to help prevent the wind from blowing it over roads and burying buildings.
That project stabilized the slopes, but had unanticipated consequences. In just a short time, the introduced species, particularly European beachgrass, have dramatically changed the dunes and the ecosystem they are a part of. No longer a place characterized by open, moving sand and different habitat types shifting about the landscape, Oregon’s coastal dunes are rapidly being converted to forest, and native vegetation that relied on the sands is being by invasive plants.
Now, the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative has published a book of their own, “Restoring Oregon’s Dunes: The bid to save a national treasure,” to raise awareness about the ecological and cultural importance of this unique stretch of Oregon coastline, and the urgent need to restore the area before the habitat is lost.
We spoke with Andy Vobora, a collaborative group member and representative of Travel Lane County, about the project.
How did your collaborative come up with the idea of producing a “coffee table book”?
Most people know the issue with invasive species on the dunes has been around for decades, and there have been people working on it for years. But a few years ago the collaborative formed to start talking about what they could do, and the idea came up of developing a restoration strategy that could be shared with people. Rather than creating a heavy document that people might not read, the idea morphed into creating something that would inspire people to action.
Who has joined your collaborative?
It’s a pretty diverse group. You’ve got recreational users from Save the Riders Dunes, you’ve got Oregon Wild, folks like me from the tourism industry (Travel Lane County), elected officials, and more. And of course we’ve got the Forest Service, since they’ll be doing a lot of the restoration and heavy work on the dunes. We’ve tried to identify in an easy way for people to understand and get behind this work. It’s about trying to restore the dunes, to preserve the best, restore landscape-scale natural resources, and prioritize where along the dunes the work should happen.
It’s interesting, that you’re trying to “preserve” a landscape whose main feature is constant change!
Yeah, it is. I think, that’s always going to be one of the challenges. Grasses were planted to stabilize the dunes for specific purposes. And those purposes, in many people’s minds, haven’t gone away. But they impacted other natural processes along the dunes in ways that weren’t fully understood or could have been predicted back in the day. So there’s a need to balance where we need them stable, where people see the need for that, and what’s needed to support the natural life cycle of native plants and animals in this ecosystem, as well as provide the important recreation opportunities the dunes have become famous for.
Since you work in tourism, why do you think people should consider a trip to the Oregon dunes?
From a visitor standpoint, that’s one of the things we like to key in on in Lane County. We have a beautiful coast and appreciate that it’s public. If you are heading south, we’re the first place along the coast that has the dunes. Other places have beaches, but they don’t have the opportunities to play on the dunes, like we have. You can go hiking, sandboarding… if you’ve never heard of it, it’s like snowboarding on dunes, just like you would on snow. There’s an international racing circuit, so one of the international meets takes place here on the dunes and brings people from all over the world. Sandmaster Park, the first dune park in North America, is here and designs and builds boards for people all over the world. Sand sleds, as well. So if you aren’t comfortable going that fast, there are other ways to get on the dunes. Off-highway vehicles (which includes dirt bikes, dune buggies and four-wheelers) are pretty popular here. Some of the members of our organizations take groups out, so there are unique opportunities to see the dunes that way. What’s great about the dunes is that it’s huge area, 40 or 50 miles long, and so it offers a range of opportunities for people, whether you want to get your adrenalin pumping or you want to ride your horse or you want to explore quiet nooks and crannies on foot away from it all.
Anything else you’d like people to know about the collaborative and its work?
We have a website, SaveOregonDunes.org, that’s a companion to the book (and where an electronic version of the book can be found). A lot of work has been done by the larger collaborative, and we’re getting to the point where we want to start making people aware of opportunities to get involved. We’re doing outreach locally, like bringing our book and staffing a tables at events. Our next big event is in April, when Save the Riders Dunes is planning a big restoration event for volunteers out on the sand. People who are interested can keep an eye on our website where we’ll be posting updates and new events as they’re scheduled. Whether you come out to help with the restoration work, or just come to visit, we just want people to understand how unique and special the dunes are.
This interview has been edited for clarity.