Hidden in a sea of sand, there are plants, insects and animals that call the Oregon dunes home. But some species, such as the Siuslaw hairy-necked tiger beetle, are seeing their habitat shrink year after year. Dina Pavlis is a dune enthusiast and author of the book, “Secrets of the Oregon Dunes.” She joins us to share the ecology of the dunes and how invasive plant life is changing the landscape of Oregon’s coast.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Thirty years ago Dina Pavlis fell in love with a landscape. She was living outside of Seattle at the time, but one visit to the Oregon dunes changed her life. She and her husband made a plan to move to Florence so they could be closer to the ever-shifting sands, and they never really looked back. Now Pavlis visits the area basically every day. She is the author of the book ‘Secrets of the Oregon Dunes.’ But she’s not just celebrating this unique ecosystem. She’s warning the world that it is quickly disappearing. We met up with Pavlis yesterday at the Oregon Dunes Day Use Area outside of Gardiner.
Dina Pavlis: As you come out here over this crest, you can see now what you should be looking at. If we were standing here 200 years ago, this would be sand all the way out to the ocean.
Miller: Instead it looks like a forest.
Pavlis: Instead, we have a forest growing. And 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have had a forest. We could still see out, but it would have been low shrubs. The reason these dunes are here is that sand comes in, it blows in. You can feel the breeze. We’re standing out here. We have a breeze coming in.
Miller: Yeah, I think people can hear it, too.
Pavlis: You can see with the fog, we happen to have some fog showing us which way it’s blowing. This wind is coming out of the northwest. In the summer we get really strong gusts here, and our sand is really light and dry. So the wind literally blows that sand in from the beach. What happens is, anywhere on our coast where the coastline is flat – and that’s about four sections of our coastline – there’s nothing to stop that incoming sand. It comes in and it simply buries anything in its path: the forest, roadways, jetties, everything. That was really a problem for white settlers once they came to the area because they’re depending on resources for their survival. Right? So Native Americans, when they lived in this area – they still do, but when they were the only ones in the area, before white settlers – if the sand came into an area, they moved. They said, ‘Okay, we’re just gonna move with the land. As the land changes, we adapt and move.’ White settlers came in, they laid claim: ‘This is my land, this piece.’ Well, if the sand is encroaching on that land, what are you going to do? You’re not moving because that’s your land that you’ve claimed.
Miller: You’ve put invisible boundaries on the map and said this is my parcel.
Pavlis: Yes, and you have the idea of land ownership. You need your land for farming, or you need it for harvesting wood or hunting or whatever it is that you’re doing. If it’s becoming buried by sand, that’s a problem. Before Highway 101 was here, in the 20s, ships would come in and bring supplies into the towns here up the rivers, like the Siuslaw River, Umpqua… That was the only way to get supplies into the area. Well, the mouths of our rivers would shift up to a mile southward every summer. The sand would blow in and block the mouth of the river on the north end and then the south end would blow out, so the mouth would move.
Miller: And it could actually move up to a mile in one year?
Pavlis: Yeah, and in fact the creek where I live – Sutton Creek, which doesn’t have any jetties, it’s a creek – that thing moves quite a bit. You never know, you go out there and you’re like, ‘Where’s the mouth of the creek gonna be today, when I go out there?’ Then in the winter, now, our sand is wet and heavy, in the winter, because it’s raining. But we have stronger winds coming from the south. Now we have these 100-mile-an-hour gusts out here. That can move large amounts of sand as well – not as far, but bigger amounts. So now those mouths of the rivers are shifting back. So these ships are coming in, they’re getting on sandbars, they’re sinking, [they] can’t get supplies into the area. Jump ahead now we start to get Highway 101 in here in the 20s or so. Now we don’t have to rely on ships as much. But guess what? A roadway is a flat surface. And what covers a flat surface? Blowing sand. So now we have the problem of the sand covering the roadways. We still have this issue of the sand causing problems. It’s burying fences. Some of the lakes around here... In fact, if you were to pull a map out and look at the lakes, they all have tons of fingers and arms. That’s because we have a lot of creeks that were blocked up, and that caused those rivers to back up – now we also have some dams on some of them but not all of them – and that caused the valleys to flood. So the moving sand was a huge problem. People were like, ‘We have to do something.’ This grass that you’re looking at here, which is a few feet tall, maybe a foot and a half tall or so, that we’re looking at, is called European beach grass, Ammophila arenaria, which means ‘sand lover.’ They brought this grass in, and they planted it along the jetties and along the roadways. The idea, if you were to come over here and to bend down and actually feel this… You can kind of look at this [and] you can see it’s very, very dense. You actually can’t even really pull it out. Go ahead and try to pull some out and you’ll see. You can get a little bit usually.
Miller: Wow. Yeah, it’s really tenacious. I was able to break it off, but I didn’t get any roots.
Pavlis: What happens is, this grass traps the incoming sand and holds it. Now, I told you the name of this grass is sand lover. So, what happened? It started spreading all across the dunes. If you were here, let’s say back in the 1940s or so, you might have started to see a little bit of grass right out along the ocean there. Can you see over the trees, there’s like a hill of grass?
Pavlis: That’s a foredune. You would have seen low foredunes. There would be no trees here. You would just see some little patches of grass out there.
Miller: So from here, all the way there. That could easily be a mile away. Right?
Pavlis: Yeah. Exactly. This is about, I think, as the crow flies, it’s about three quarters of a mile.
Miller: Okay. But from here, all the way there, where there’s now a little bit of sand in front of us and then a bunch of trees…
Pavlis: That would have been all sand.
Miller: All that. Just pure sand.
Pavlis: Yeah. There would have been no plants here at all– well, there would have been some native plants. But the native plants would die off in the winter and allow the sand to move and shift and continue to come in. But now, this grass is trapping that sand out there at the coastline. What happens is, when this grass gets buried, it actually sprouts new rhizomes and grows taller. It loves to get buried. It thrives on that. If you look out on the sand that we can still see, do you see how there’s hills, little hills of grass?
Pavlis: Those are called hummocks. We didn’t really have hummocks here originally, other than in the summer [when] we’d get some lupine or some sand verbena, and we’d get these little lumps, and then that stuff would die off in the winter and allow the sand to shift again. This doesn’t die. What happens is, as it gets buried it grows taller, traps more sand. . .grows taller, traps more sand. So these foredunes that you can see the top of over the trees, those are probably, I don’t know, like 25-30 feet high or more at this point. They’re now like a cliff. Where we have rocky coast, we don’t have dunes because that sand can’t come in. Well, where we have foredunes locked in place, we are not going to have dunes eventually because no new sand is coming in. When you see these little hummocks, the larger the hummocks like the ones that are right here? These are old hummocks. They’ve been here a long time. Those are new ones now that are forming down there because they’re low.
Miller: So it’s a hill of sand that is only possible, can only be formed, because of the grass that grows on top of it.
Pavlis: Exactly. We have a native beach grass here, a dune grass, and there’s none right here. The only place here I could show it to you would be out right before the beach. But it’s a wide-blade grass, and it bends over in the wind. See how this is stiff in this wind, and it’s not bending over? The dune grass bends over, and the sand can blow over it. This holds it.
Miller: The native grass lets sand go through it.
Pavlis: That’s the native dune grass, American dune grass. Right.
Miller: So, why does this matter? I mean, what you’ve just described is the decades-long results of colonization…
Miller: Of white people arriving and changing the environment. Either, sort of intentionally it seems? I’m not sure if, 100 years ago, white people knew exactly what this European grass… how much it would change the landscape.
Pavlis: I don’t think people thought about the land like we do today. Today we understand the importance from an environmental standpoint, right?
Miller: Well that’s my question. What’s lost when dunes are lost?
Pavlis: So what’s lost are native plants and native animal species that live out here. There are some animals that only live here. For example, the Siuslaw hairy-necked tiger beetle, one of the fastest insects in the world, chases down its prey. It’s rad, it lives only here and it’s almost gone because it needs that open sand and when the sand is gone they will probably be gone. We do have some weevils that tunnel underground. You see these little tracks that look like worm tracks? So these little tracks are actually from weevils that tunnel underground and eat the decaying roots of these plants, and then the tunnel’s collapse when the sand dries during the day. The issue is, the dunes are important for several reasons. Certainly there’s the environmental factor, right? The animals that live out here, and the native plants that live and thrive out in this open sand. It’s hard to believe that anything would live out here, but it can. And then they’re also important economically for the rural communities here on our coast because they bring a lot of tourism into the area. So it’s not always just OHV [Off Highway Vehicle] riding. Our OHV areas are pretty clear because the OHVs keep the grass down but they also keep the native plants down. So it’s not an ideal habitat for plants and animals. But there are other people that use the dunes. There’s photographers, there’s hikers, there’s people who camp there, there’s a myriad of uses for this resource, and we’re losing that. People didn’t think about that back then. You depended on how much wood can I cut and how much food can I grow, and they tried to plant oat grass out here to bring geese in for hunting. They tried to plant trees out here to harvest, and of course nothing like that would grow in this environment. Now I know you see trees today, but these trees are here because we’ve changed the environment. And so what’s happened is, the sand behind those tall foredunes has continued to blow in, and we’ve hit the water table there. Underneath all of the Oregon dunes are aquifers where many of our cities get water. And so we’ve hit the water table there, and we also have very little sand movement. So now we have an ideal place for plants to grow. And so first what happens is you get a wetland. And then you start to get a shrubland, and then from the shrubland you begin to get a forest, which is what you’re seeing now. Like I said, when I moved here 30 years ago, this was all shrubs, there were very few trees out here. And now if you look, it’s looking like a forest.
Miller: If you came now, instead of 30 years ago, if you went to the Fred Meyer parking lot, saw a dune and your brother said, ‘Oh, if you want to really see it, I’ll take you somewhere.’ And he took you here today for the first time, would you change your life? I mean you moved here?
Pavlis: I moved here because of the dunes.
Miller: Yeah. Would this vista be enough to make you move here?
Pavlis: I have to say, I don’t know the answer to that. Part of it I think is right. I was a lot younger. 30 years younger. And we were out here on a stormy day. There are dunes that I hike on still today that are fairly pristine. And if my brother took me to those, the answer would be yes. If he took me here, I don’t know what the answer would be, honestly.
Miller: What was going on in your life 30 years ago, that you saw a dune landscape and moved. Where have you been living before that?
Pavlis: So we had been living in the Seattle area, Woodinville, which is northeast of Seattle. And our daughter was at an age where she was about five years away from graduating. And my commute to my job in Seattle had gone from about 25 minutes to about an hour and a half, if I did it during rush hour. And I knew that this was a soul killer. I didn’t want to spend my life there. I also had an illness, partly probably because the stress of my job and I was in a wheelchair for a while. And I thought, ‘okay, I don’t know if I’m going to be in a wheelchair again when I’m 50 or 60. And this is not where I want to spend my life’. After coming out here, I just said to my husband, ‘what do you think about moving to Florence? Because I want to walk on those dunes every day.’ And he’s like, ‘let’s do it’. And we just put a five-year plan in place. Our daughter, we knew she was going to graduate, so she’s still up and in Port Townsend now.
Miller: As soon as you had an empty nest?
Pavlis: As soon as we had an empty nest, we were gone. Our house actually sold a little bit before that. And we just moved in. My first day here, I drove down to Reedsport, and went to the Forest Service office and said, ‘I want to volunteer on the dunes. Give me all the info that you have.’ And they said, ‘well, we don’t really have anything. We have this pamphlet and we have, there’s like a little scientific paper we can give you. And there’s this book about plants that has a little of the geology in it.’ And so I took that scientific paper and I got my computer out because I didn’t understand half the words on it, and began to just write an outline for my own knowledge of like, what is this? What am I going to tell people? How am I going to tell people about this? Right? And once I did that, I thought, well this kind of looks like good training materials. So I asked the Forest Service if they wanted to use it. And they did, they were using it. I don’t know if they still are, they’ve been using it for their training materials now. I think they used the book for the training, and then I said ‘okay, you can use it but I want to own it’, because I wasn’t getting money for it. I’m like I want to own it, because I want to make a book. And so I wrote a book. And because I thought somebody has to tell this story. We’re losing an important treasure. And we’re at the point where I don’t think we will ever get this back to what it was.
There’s a group, I don’t know if you saw the shirt I’m wearing, there’s a group called the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative that formed, oh, I don’t know, I want to say about eight or nine years ago, maybe longer. Covid’s kind of made everything a blur now. And they got together and it was great. It was the Forest Service and it was the ATV riders, and it was the hikers, and it was Oregon Wild, and it was everybody from all sides of the table, who often don’t agree. We don’t always agree on how to use the resource as the Forest Service calls this. I don’t like the word ‘resource’ but you know we don’t always agree on how to use it right or how to appreciate it or what it’s there for. But we all knew that we wanted to save it. And so that common bond brought everybody together and we actually put together a three-pronged plan. Save the best. Like I told you there’s some pristine dunes that I do walk on. So what’s here that’s still good? Let’s save that. Let’s not let it get bad. And are there areas where it makes sense to restore, because of the Siuslaw tiger beetle. or the snowy plover? That’s another animal that has been threatened because they’re losing their habitat. They require open sand on the foredunes. And then also where can we do large scale restoration, where can we come out here and knock down these foredunes and maybe even fill in some of the wetlands, and some of this what we call the deflation plane, that’s the area where the forest is now. Can we fill that in and get sand moving back in and do it in areas where it won’t impact infrastructure? And so we actually had a plan, it was approved, which was a lot of work, because when you’re filling in wetlands, that’s not an easy thing because we’ve changed this habitat now. And that was moving forward. And then the coastal martin was listed. And the coastal martin is a whole other story. They used to live on the east side of 101, because the new Siuslaw National Forest used to be mostly shrubland. There had been fires, it was not tall forest like you see today when you drive through here. And so that’s why the Siuslaw National Forest is so large, because nobody wanted that land. It was not good timber. And the martins have to live in shrubland, and not in a tall dense forest, because the forest, the tree canopy, everything below it kind of clears out so they don’t have enough cover. And so when that started being managed into a forest, the east side of 101, the martins gravitated to the new shrubland, which is the deflation plane on the Oregon dunes. So now this threatened species, this listed species lives out here. They have brought in scent-detecting dogs to locate them. And they’ve done work to try to identify where they are. But once an animal is listed, anything that’s potential habitat becomes somewhat protected.
Miller: And this is sort of human created, inadvertently human created habitat for now an endangered species. And so now you can’t get rid of the habitat which is preventing the dune.
Pavlis: So we can’t do that. So that got halted. And what I think we have to do is really we have to look at this as this is a disturbed habitat. This is no longer a pristine habitat. And so how do we manage a disturbed habitat? Can we manage this that we can at least keep the open sand that we have for the plants and the animals? Can we keep the grass at bay? Because if you look at how dense … this is a native plant here. This is seashore lupin that you’re looking at here, and it grows these beautiful purple flowers. But you can see that it can’t grow in that.
Miller: There is a two foot square patch of this native plant surrounded by the European sand grass.
Pavlis: Yeah, the European beach grass.
Miller: How would you ever get rid of it then?
Pavlis: So how do you get rid of European beach grass, is such a great question. I always ask that when I give a talk, how would people do it? And you could come out here and try to bulldoze it, which is what they do where the snowy plover areas are, but you still are going to have the grass coming back. And you could burn it, but it will come back denser. It loves to be burned actually, it comes back stronger and denser.
Miller: What about a wooden stake in its heart?
Pavlis: So what about goats? Someone is, what if you turn a bunch of goats loose? One thing that does kill it is, well, there’s two things that kill it. Salt water, which is why you don’t see it on the beach. But it would need probably more than an ocean of salt water for just this stretch, which is about 50 miles or so between Florence and Coos Bay. Then you’ve got all the other dunes, but herbicide. Herbicide will kill it. But here’s the thing: in areas where I’ve seen beach grass sprayed, it kills it. But it’s still there. Even the areas that I saw that were sprayed last year, I’ve already seen new grass coming up.
Miller: How often do you come to dunes to walk?
Pavlis: I walk on the dunes I would say fall to spring. So fall, winter and spring, 6 to 7 days a week.
Miller: Every day you come?
Pavlis: Because every day it’s different. Every day you come out here, you’re going to see something different.
Miller: You were right. You had this idea that this place was significant for you, and you want to change your life, move here and improve your life, and it seems like it worked.
Pavlis: It did.
Miller: Well, thank you for showing us your dunes.
Pavlis: Thank you for coming out.
Miller: Dina Pavlis is the author of the book Secrets of the Oregon Dunes.
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