Thoughts from our President: Protecting the Amazon Headwaters Keystone

From 30th Avenue near Hilyard, south and upstream to West Amazon and Martin Street, the main channel of Amazon Creek runs through our neighborhood, in a protected greenway of varying width.

Cross Martin Street, still heading south, and while Amazon Creek continues uphill, with the gravel extension of West Amazon providing a well-used, ridgeline-connected path beside it, the greenway protection is interrupted.

In fact, the public right-of-way of that path, the West Amazon Headwaters Trail, is surrounded as one continues uphill by private property, widely recognized as a crucial natural asset, yet still zoned for residential development.

For at least 18 years, through several chapters, our neighborhood has worked with others across Eugene and the region to complete the protected greenway for Amazon Creek, through this area we call the Amazon Headwaters Keystone.

Now, as the landowners, including Leslie and Martin Beverly, prepare to submit yet another development application to the City of Eugene — this time to put 76 separate house lots into the Headwaters Keystone area — the situation of Eugene’s primary urban watershed is once again critically at stake.

The Amazon Headwaters Keystone is a key connecting link in the Amazon Creek system, critical to the public interest of the citizens and City of Eugene for several reasons.

Protecting the headwaters of Amazon Creek is vital to the water quality and environmental health of the whole watershed.

From a watershed view of the Amazon Creek ecosystem, which is the defining geographic province for about 60% of the area of Eugene, it is critical to preserve the remaining fraction of ecologically intact headwaters.  The remaining natural headwaters of our primary local watershed are a core community asset.  We have a responsibility to preserve this core asset for future generations.

We have protected substantial portions of the wetlands in west Eugene.  We have protected the Amazon Greenway to the west and to the south of the downtown area.  Protecting and connecting the headwaters is critical to realizing the environmental value of these other community investments.

These remaining headwaters areas include mature conifer and oak savannah habitats which are some of highest quality wildlife habitat in  the metropolitan area — according a whole raft of government reports. The Amazon Headwaters Keystone is also home to several rare and sensitive species.

This is the last chance to create a public green corridor for the main channel of Amazon Creek to connect from the ridgeline to the greenway.

The unique, irreplaceable hydrological and ecological significance of the Amazon Headwaters Keystone is the primary reason that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has found this specific area to be a priority for permanent conservation and restoration, as vital link in the Amazon Creek system.  The Army Corps findings are published as part of their detailed multi-year Metro Waterways study (

Major earthflows overrun and threaten the Beverly properties.

LIDAR earth scanning by Sky Research out of Ashland, Oregon documents  huge active earthflows that originate high on the north side of Spencer Butte itself. Historically, these have flowed down the valley to overlay much of the Beverly property. This complicates and threatens development in the Amazon Headwaters Keystone area.

These earthflows are moving constantly at a slow but significant rate. A large subduction earthquake, predicted for our region in the relatively near future, is one example of an event that could trigger rapid and catastrophic movement.

At the least, adequate engineering to accommodate development of these steep, wet, unstable sites would be unusually expensive, while still resulting in increased risk for dwellings due to geological instability and hazard. At the worst, the City could have significant liability for allowing dwellings to be constructed in these known geological hazard areas.

Independent testing of soil and runoff samples has shown that Amazon Headwaters Keystone soils contain substantial excess arsenic which could be released into Amazon Creek by development processes.

Given that Amazon Creek already has too much arsenic by EPA standards, causing significant new releases could trigger Federal violations, as well as harm life downstream, from fish, river otters, and other wildlife, to community pets and children.

The properties have already been demonstrated to be not-developable according to the wishes of the current owners.

The owners of the Amazon Headwaters Keystone have had a fair chance to develop under the City code, but have twice submitted excessive development plans that were denied through extensive and expensive public processes.

The Beverlys’ most recent application, called the Deerbrook PUD, was little-changed from the previously denied plans, and after city staff again recommended against approval of the application, the application was withdrawn in April, 2007.

Reasonable attempts have been made for willing-seller acquisition.

The city has made repeated good faith offers to buy some or all of the Amazon Headwaters Keystone area for storm water and natural resources protection on a willing seller basis, but the developers declined to substantively negotiate.

The Amazon Headwaters Keystone properties are vacant, and were purchased by the current owners simply as financial opportunities.  There is no current occupancy which would prevent the owners from being made whole by a public buy-out at fair market value.

Southeast Neighbors, Friends of Eugene, and other local conservation interests wholly support public purchase of the Amazon Headwaters Keystone at a fair market price.

Preservation of critical elements of our open space system and natural ecological infrastructure is consistent with established City of Eugene plans and policies.

In particular, Growth Management Policy 17 says, “Protect and improve air and water quality and protect natural areas of good habitat value through a variety of means…”.

The Metro Plan Diagram has for years shown a habitat corridor to be preserved connecting the Ridgeline park and the Amazon Greenway.  The headwaters keystone is bisected by Goal 5 waterways which would be damaged by development.

The impact of a conservation acquisition on the local inventory of residential buildable land within the Eugene Urban Growth Boundary will be minimal.

Although the total area of Amazon Headwaters Keystone parcels is about 27 acres, once the patently non-buildable area of these properties — Goal 5 stream corridors, active earthflows, BPA, EWEB, and other public utility easements, excessively steep slopes, rare plant and pre-European tree communities — is accounted for, relatively few acres of actually-buildable land remain.  Discussion of a loss of 27 acres of buildable land, a small amount in itself, would simply be an exaggeration, not based on fact.

From a larger perspective, this year marks the 24th since professional fieldwork was started for Eugene’s basic state-mandated natural resources inventory — which in effect still remains unfinished, to this day — while residential land inventories have been done and done again in the same time period.

Considering that the 27 acres of Amazon Creek Headwaters in question are part of the highest-rated habitat in the metropolitan area, it’s reasonable to consider that the already-existing natural resource allowances in the inventory would apply to them most properly, rather than significant vacant residential capacity.

Over time, comprehensive integrated land use, transportation, and environmental planning is required to provide for the public interest in our overall landscape and infrastructure.  Such planning needs a foundation of well-established facts, and the Envision Eugene process underway — like the initial natural resource inventory, missing in action — needs to be  completed appropriately.

Meanwhile, the timely protection of a dozen of so potentially buildable acres of critical watershed ecology is essential to the long-term public interest.

Funding for a public buy-out can be available.

Anchor funding for public buy-out, expected to cost $1 million or less for the  Amazon Headwaters Keystone (to be combined with other city funds and outside grants and matches for a likely total of less than $2 million), was provided for in the $7.75 million Ridgeline area allocation in the 2006 Parks Bond Measure.

Stormwater funds have already been allocated by the City Council for stream corridor acquisitions in the Keystone, which can reduce any amount of parks bond or other anchor funding required.  Grants from other state, federal, and private sources are also likely to be available to supplement or  replace parks bond funding.

The time to take action is now.

At least three generations of local community members have worked tirelessly for more than fifteen years, at great personal and neighborhood expense, toward the protection of this fragile area.  The unique headwaters landscape is much more valuable to the community as it is now, for safety, open space, habitat, and water quality reasons, than it would be if developed with new roads and some 75 houses that could be better sited elsewhere.

Virtually any other legal building site in the metropolitan area would be less costly, less dangerous, and less sensitive than the last available watershed corridor connecting link, within the irreplaceable last remnants of the Amazon Creek Headwaters. However, despite their sensitivity, importance, and high public value as natural open space, the Beverly properties are under imminent threat of development.

A current opportunity with real willing sellers would allow the City of Eugene to take these properties out of jeopardy, and save them once and for all.  While as recently as April 9, 2007, the Eugene City Council considered use of eminent domain for critical park land acquisition, with willing sellers at a true fair market value, there would no reason to wait.  That would represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity for critical preservation of one of our most endangered natural resource sites.

At a pre-application meeting on January 10, 2012, development consultants for the Beverlys told Southeast Neighbors that they expect to file a new land use application with the City of Eugene in the next few weeks, for intensive development of the Amazon Headwaters Keystone with 76 house lots and a web of public and private roads.

Given all the facts, the only public interest alternative to a conservation purchase is to fight development approval with every appropriate tool at the community’s disposal.

Just as previous generations in Eugene are honored today for their foresight in preserving Hendricks Park and the upper parts of the two buttes, so as time goes by, our children and theirs will only value and honor the decision to save the Amazon Headwaters Keystone more and more.

Kevin Matthews with Southeast Neighbors and Friends of Eugene