The Owl Ridge Trails Project:

Location and Documentation of Primary Travel, Trade, and Resource Use Trails of the Santiam Molalla
in the South Santiam River and Blue River, Oregon Headwaters, from 1750 to 1850


Executive Summary

Owl Ridge is a key feature of an ancient 250,000-acre or larger camas prairie, berry patch, beargrass meadow, old-growth conifer, summer home, hunting grounds, campground, wetland, beaver marsh, fishing hole, and ridgeline trail complex that dates back millennia before white discovery and occupation. The well-defined patterns of land use, management, and occupation were likely maintained by Santiam Molalla, Santiam Kalapuya, Calapooia Kalapuya, Klamath, Wasco, Paiute, and Cayuse families and communities and their predecessors, ancestors, friends and neighbors for perhaps 2,000 to 3,500 years, or even longer.

In the past, these beautiful and highly productive lands attracted travelers, hunters, traders, basketweavers, cooks and food gatherers since time immemorial, for extended periods of time in the same places, often with the same families, year after year. Today the land is publicly owned and primarily managed by the US Forest Service, from the Sweet Home, Sisters, and Blue River Ranger Districts. These lands were once owned and occupied by ancestors of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. Tribal members today, and their generations in the future, bear a special relationship to their ancestral lands.

Project Purpose. The primary purpose of this project is to learn more about the geography, ecology, and life-ways of the Santiam Molalla families who lived and worked in the South Santiam River and Blue River headwaters during late precontact and early historical time (1750-1850). The principal method used to achieve this result was to locate and document relict evidence of plant and trail use by these people during the critical 1750-1850 time period. Products created by this project are intended to have educational, recreational, and cultural value, and be used for purposes of resource preservation and restoration.

Project Funding. This project was made possible by a generous contract agreement provided by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (“the Tribe”) to Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, Inc. (“ORWW”). Additional project resources have been provided by NW Maps Co., USFS Sweet Home Ranger District, Cascade Timber Consulting, Inc., Phoenix Reforestation, Inc., and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Project Background and Description. This report is the final product of this project, which began with the coincidence of a planned ORWW September 8-10, 2006 conference on historical Kalapuyan resource management in the Willamette Valley, and an August 3, 2006 Albany newspaper picture of Gordon Meadows in full bloom with camas (Paul 2006). Camas was needed for the conference, and public land seemed a good place to get it. A trip to the meadow and a brief automobile exploration of the surrounding landscape helped us to realize that Gordon Meadows was only one portion of a landscape-scale pattern of relict prairies, berry patches, and old-growth groves hundreds of years old, and strongly reflecting past cultures -- of which very little is known.

Shortly thereafter I contacted Pat Allen, a Tribal elder, who arranged a meeting with the Grand Ronde Tribal Council. A committee was formed led by David Lewis. ORWW was represented by Wayne Giesy. Over the course of the next several months, a contractual agreement was developed between the Tribe and ORWW to complete this work. Field work was started by members of Phoenix Reforestation, Inc. (see Table 2) on August 4, and completed September 20, 2007. Subsequent GIS work and digital archiving of photographs and maps on Tribal computers was completed by Volker Mell, GIS technician for the Tribe.

The project study area includes the headwaters of the South Santiam River and Blue River, a 120 square mile rectangle (see Map 1) including more than 130,000 acres of forestland. We documented native trails, berry fields, camas meadows and other land uses at nearly 500 GPS points and with more than 1500 photographs. Select local historical information, photographs, and QTVR files detailing native plants and wildlife found in the South Santiam River basin have been placed online at the ORWW educational website.

General Findings. The following list of research findings is based on information acquired through archival and field survey methods used on this project, and on subsequent analyses of documentation acquired through those means:

1) The theoretical ridgeline trail network model used to produce the Santiam Molalla trails predictive map proved to be highly accurate, and vital to the success of this project.

2) All locations in the study area are less than 25 miles distance by trail from one another; meaning that, in the absence of snow, all locations that were used historically were within a day’s foot-travel or less from each other.

3) Much of the study area is high elevation and inaccessible due to snow for much of the year. However, the South Santiam River corridor of prairies and meadows are below 1500’ elevation, and remain snow-free most of the year.

4) There are a widespread variety of edible berries, seeds, nuts, and bulbs in the study area that ripen across diverse aspects and elevations all summer long.

5) Most areas of historical human food production, including grasslands, berry fields, and meadows, have become noticeably smaller in the past 50 years, and appear to have been diminishing in size for several centuries.

6) The evidence of greater human land use levels in the past may have encouraged much larger populations of deer and elk in those times.

7) Local and anadromous fish were probably not sufficiently abundant in numbers to form a regular staple of Santiam Molalla diets.

8) Large amounts of commercial-grade weaving materials could be found at all elevations, but prized beargrass could only be obtained above the 3,000’ level.

9) Woody fuels can be readily found within several minutes walk in almost every part of the study area.

10) Freshwater can be found easily in almost all parts of the study area, during all seasons, at most elevations.

11) The mainstem South Santiam River and McKenzie River corridors, leading from the Willamette Valley to the Santiam Pass and eastern Oregon, were strategic trade corridors controlled by Santiam Molalla people.

Research Questions. This data is intended to be used for educational and resource management purposes. The following questions are examples of the types of hypotheses, using this material, that can be addressed in academic settings for educational or research purposes. Answers to these types of questions will provide good information for better managing these resources in the future.

Who developed the berry fields, camas and beargrass meadows, and open ridgeline trail system before early historical Santiam Molalla? How long ago? Were they ancestral Molallans, or an entirely different culture?

To what extent has conifer invasion and stand density increased within the study area over the past 50-500 years? How many people, approximately, lived in the study area most of the year in 1750? 1650? 1500? 1200?

Huckleberry fields, old-growth trees, ridgeline grasslands, brakes, and wildflower meadows have all been reduced in size and numbers during the past 50-250 years. Should efforts be made to restore these trees and lands to past conditions? How and why?

1) Santiam Molalla lived in the study area nearly year-round from 1750 to 1850 (Winkler 1984);

2) They were the dominant culture in the study area during that time (Zenk and Rigsby 1998); and

3) Their population was likely much greater in 1750 and in 1800 than in 1850 (Boyd 1999a).

Recommendations. The value of these findings and questions is directly related to the uses to which they are put. The primary purpose for gathering this information is to provide information of cultural, educational, and resource management value to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

1. Trails Research. Continue and expand this type of ancestral land use research and documentation on the public lands of western Oregon. Attempt to partner with BLM, the US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and/or USDI National Park Service for purposes of funding, information sharing, and collaborative resource management opportunities.

2. GIS Mapping. Field data from this project, including nearly 1500 digital photographs tied to nearly 500 GPS coordinates, have already been gathered and transformed into discrete GIS layers by the Grand Ronde Mapping Department. This data can be used immediately for a number of useful GIS mapping products, including recreational trails, road maps, educational maps, and archaeological inventory and predictive maps.

3. Gordon Meadows Restoration. Gordon Meadows is a beautiful camas prairie surrounded by huge 350-year old conifer trees and fields of blue mountain huckleberries and wild strawberries. It is contained in a subbasin of about 1,000-acres that can serve for demonstration and experimental purposes. Information resulting from experimental findings and demonstration projects such as this would be very helpful for future cultural and natural resource management, restoration, interpretation, and protection purposes. (See:

4. Public Education. Information discovered and documented during the course of this research can be put to excellent use for purposes of public education regarding Oregon history and geography, Santiam Molalla life-ways, Cascades wildflowers and wildlife, cultural resources protection, meadow restoration, and a wide range of related topics.


©2009 Oregon Websites & Watersheds Project, Inc.