$70 million campaign will fund 20 special sitesLike a giant sponge, Gearhart Fen's thick layer of peat absorbs rainwater to reduce flooding, then releases it slowly through drier months.

The fen, an ecologically accurate name for the bog northeast of Gearhart, also supports plants such as sweet gale heath, sphagnum moss, sedge, native wild cranberry and the carnivorous sundew.

Thanks to a new $70 million campaign by the Oregon chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Gearhart Fen and 19 other sites in the state will be preserved, researched and restored.

The silent portion of "The Heart of Oregon" campaign raised $57 million since it began two years ago, said Nature Conservancy spokesman Stephen Anderson.

Major givers include the founders of the technology company WebTrends, the Paul G. Allen Foundation and Willamette Industries.

Willamette granted perpetual conservation easements to the Nature Conservancy in spring 2001, expanding the Gearhart Fen to 516 acres. The land, valued at $1.5 million, is owned by Weyerhaeuser, which took over Willamette. The conservancy manages the site.

"There are a lot of benefits that wetlands like this provide that people don't realize," said Debbie Pickering, the conservancy's Oregon Coast stewardship ecologist. A wetland of the size and type of the Gearhart Fen helps moderate waterflow through a watershed and is important habitat for wetland birds, elk and other wildlife.

Some projects that will use funds from the campaign include studies of water flows and chemistry.

By sinking observation wells to different depths in the layers of peat (decaying plant material) Nature Conservancy scientists discovered that the wetland was in fact a fen, rather than a bog. It's a subtle distinction.

Pickering said a bog is fed primarily by rainfall and is isolated from groundwater. Not so for a fen.

"We have documented that there's a significant amount of groundwater that's seeding the wetland system," she said.

This dependence on groundwater makes the system more vulnerable to damage from nutrients. Both bogs and fens are sensitive to high nutrient and mineral levels. Pickering said the conservancy plans to do water chemistry tests to determine if any surrounding land uses are threatening Gearhart Fen by creating artificially high nutrient inputs.

The public can't visit the fen alone because it is both sensitive and hazardous to get around. Ditches from the 1920s and 30s are hidden by floating layers of vegetation. Visitors unfamiliar with the area could find themselves submerged after one misstep.

Occasionally, the conservancy sets up special hikes to visit the fen, Pickering said. A boardwalk system to provide better public access is something she would like to see.

Other sites preserved by the conservancy campaign include a coastal prairie on top of Cascade Head, home to the endangered Oregon silverspot butterfly. In addition, one of few remaining native prairies in the highly-developed Willamette Valley; an area favored by birds of prey in Northeast Oregon; and a rare spring-fed, high-elevation wetland in the central Coast Range will be saved.

Conservancy spokesman Anderson said sources for the $13 million yet to be raised include federal wetlands programs and other public sources.

"We're also looking to contributors and supporters large and small to help us fill that remaining gap," he said. "We've had more than 1,000 supporters who have given money or other resources to the campaign so far."

The conservancy is aiming to reach its goal by the end of next year.

"Sometimes the last few dollars are the hardest to raise," Anderson said, "but that's our challenge and we'll be working hard at it."

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