Before the 1990s, west Eugene's wetlands were known as the "scablands," said Steve Gordon, a retired land use planner with the Lane Council of Governments.

Most of the area that's now home to hundreds of plant, insect and animal species was unsightly industrial land, Gordon said.

"Nobody knew or cared about these lands out here," Gordon told a group of government and nonprofit officials during a Saturday event on the Fern Ridge Bike Path to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of a governmental partnership to preserve and protect Eugene's wetlands. The 3,000 acres of wetlands span from Seneca Road off West 11th Avenue to Greenhill Road, and from just north of Royal Avenue to Gimpl Hill Road off of Bailey Hill Road.

Gordon said the area was prone to flooding, so instead of building an expensive dam, government agencies in the late 1980s decided to buy the land and restore the wetlands, which serve as a natural sponge to soak up excess water.

The area is now "one of the most unspoiled wetlands in the Willamette Valley," Gordon said.

The city of Eugene, federal Bureau of Land Management, and nonprofit national organization The Nature Conservancy created a partnership in 1994 to preserve the wetlands.

That partnership now has grown to include 15 local, federal and state governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations. It is referred to as the "Rivers to Ridges" partnership.

Wetlands often are referred to as the "kidneys" of the landscape because they remove excess nutrients, toxic substances and sediment from water that flows through them, helping improve water quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The area is home to four threatened and endangered species, including the Fender's blue butterfly and the Willamette daisy.

Saturday also marked the eighth annual "Walkin' & Rollin'" event organized by the Willamette Resources & Educational Network -- or WREN -- a nonprofit agency that teaches community members about west Eugene's wetlands. The event is held every May to celebrate American Wetlands Month.

Susanna Hamilton, WREN's volunteer coordinator and environmental educator, said Eugene's wetlands are unique because they are so close to urban development.

"Target is right there, and then we have these amazing wetlands," Hamilton said. She said she organizes wetland tours and field trips for students.

"People are amazed," Hamilton said when they discover all the different types of insects and plants in the area.

The city of Eugene is working to restore 80 acres of wetlands by reintroducing native species and cleaning up garbage.

"We teach the kids that there's always something more we can do," Hamilton said of protecting the wetlands.

Follow Josephine on Twitter @j_woolington . Email josephine.woolington@registerguard.com .

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