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Panels are used to inform hikers about the trail and things to look for along the routes. (KATY NESBITT/The Observer)
Open vistas, wildlife draw hikers to grassland preserve near Enterprise
The Zumwalt Prairie is bursting with spring wildflowers and bumble bees under azure skies dotted with cotton ball clouds.
The 33,000-acre preserve surrounded by working ranchland is a testament to both the natural ecosystem of the prairie and its ability to sustain creatures as large as elk, as small as insects, and the interconnected web of flora and fauna.
The prairie is an increasingly popular destination for nature seekers and photographers from around the country and the world.
On a late spring afternoon, visitors from as far away as Europe stroll the grassy trails along with locals out for a day-trip to the preserve.
The first parcel of grassland was purchased by The Nature Conservancy in 2000 and the second in 2006.
According to preserve manager Jeff Fields, word is getting out about the prairie.
“The increasing visitation year by year is in part by people who have heard about the Zumwalt through OPB’s (Oregon Public Broadcasting) Field Guide and some high profile articles,” Fields said.
New kiosk, markers
This year a new kiosk was installed at the entrance of the preserve as well as trail head signs and trail markers along the four routes.
The trails are grassy and not well-defined, so rock jacks, wooden and rock structures, dot the trails and are marked with blue to help guide hikers.
“The prairie can be a tough landscape to know where you are with a variety of fences and ownership boundaries,” Fields said.
“One of the things we wanted to do was let people know where they could hike and direct them to one of the four hiking trails that cover a range of habitat from canyon vistas to buttes to upland prairie headwaters to streams,” he said.
“ We’ve got these really cool trails and we want to let people know where they are and how to get there.”
The kiosk at the entrance of the preserve, said Fields, is a good introduction to the natural history of the prairie.
“It lets visitors know where they are, where they can hike, how people have used the prairie for thousands of years and why The Nature Conservancy is interested in this landscape - how we work out there - what is special about it,” said Fields.
The interpretive panels highlight the plant and animal biodiversity one finds on the prairie, said Fields, like the Belding’s ground squirrel, ferruginous hawks, bumble bees, rare plants, badgers, snakes, and their relationship with one another.
It also talks about how the Nez Perce Tribe lived on the prairie in pre-history time and homesteaders brought their livestock to graze the native bunchgrass and Idaho fescue.
“This is the largest remnant type of this grassland in America,” said Fields, “It’s a beautiful and diverse place to work.
This spring the U.S. Department of Interior designated 4,400 aces of the preserve as a National Natural Landmark. Established in 1962, the program features areas that best illustrate the biological and geological character of the United States, enhance scientific and educational values of preserved areas, and strengthen public appreciation.
The featured area includes one of the Findley Buttes, chosen to represent the volcanic cones that have shaped the plateaus, as well as expansive vistas of bunch grass-dominated prairie that is rich in flowering plants.
In a landscape with a long history of livestock grazing, the Conservancy continues to manage the preserve as part of the working landscape by leasing pastures for local herds.
Fields said, “My sense is that things like National Natural Landmark designation and Oregon Field Guide coverage get people’s attention in a different demographic. These are the things in our backyard that hopefully are a great resource for people who live here, a cool place to hike that’s low key, and right now there are lots of stuff in bloom.”