A local nature group is acquiring an environmentally valuable piece of Willamette River water property that has given Lane County managers headaches due to trespassing by nude sunbathers and other problems.

The Lane County Board of Commissioners earlier this week agreed to sell the 63-acre Turtle Flats property off Seavey Loop Road to the nonprofit Friends of Buford Park and Mount Pisgah, a group that helps care for the county-owned Buford park.

The purchase money will be provided by the Bonneville Power Administration, under a program aimed at offsetting environmental harm done by federal dams. The BPA will provide $354,000 for the purchase, with $40,000 of the proceeds going to the county and the rest going to a fund, to be managed by the Oregon Community Foundation, to pay for restoration and upkeep of the 63 acres, said BPA spokesman Kevin Wingert.

The nonprofit Friends group's goal is to launch a broad waterfront restoration project on about 300 acres in cooperation with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department and The Nature Conservancy, which own adjacent riverfront land, said Chris Orsinger, executive director of Friends of Buford Park.

Orsinger said the groups hope for restoration-work funding from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and from private and government grants. The watershed board receives Oregon Lottery revenue.

Dotted with gravel pits

The targeted acreage is dotted with old gravel pits, plus gravel haul roads and fortified embankments; riverfront and wildlife advocates want to dig a series of channels to connect the old water-filled pits to the Willamette River, to improve habitat for fish and other wildlife. Plus, they want to grade steep banks, clear away invasive weeds and plant native species.

The work could cost $1 million or more, Orsinger said, but first the groups must come up with a comprehensive plan.

Eventually, he said, the aim is to open up parts of the acreage to "carefully planned pedestrian or water-based recreation."

"After restoration, we plan to create public access for compatible recreation, with the particulars dependent on funding and future planning," he said. "We want to create a place where people can enjoy nature, and that is a haven for salmon, turtles (and) river otters."

Corps proposes restoration

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a massive $45 million floodplain restoration project that would encompass the 63 county acres plus more than another 500 nearby acres.

Much of that money would need Congressional approval, and some officals say the likelihood of winning that is slim, given the federal government's funding woes.

That plan is still being evaluated by Corps staff.

"We're not counting on the Corps' money," Orsinger said.

Instead, Friends of Buford Park will seek other sources, plus will use volunteers for a lot of on-the-ground work such as removal of invasive species, Orsinger said. Orsinger said his agency is working on ongoing weed and brush removal on the Oregon parks department land.

Lease will cost $8.30 a month

Orsinger said he, the state and The Nature Conservancy are developing a restoration plan that would cover the 100-plus-acre Glass Bar Island state park immediately west of the 63 acres, and about 130 acres of Nature Conservancy land immediately east.

The BPA expects to provide the funding for the purchase this fall, Wingert said. In the meantime, Friends of Buford Park will be leasing the 63 acres from the county for a token sum, $8.30 per month, under the deal.

Under a 2010 agreement with the state, the BPA is funding acquisition of more than 19,000 acres of Willamette Valley land to offset harm caused by federal dams in the Willamette River drainage.

The BPA is allocating tens of millions of dollars for the purchases, with up to $2.5 million a year in the early years of the agreement, rising to $8 million a year through 2025, Wingert said. The money comes from electricity ratepayers who use BPA power.

County had no interest

The Turtle Flats deal resolves a troublesome property problem for the county.

The county says it has no interest in or money for doing the restoration work or maintaining the property long-term.

For years, county residents have walked across the Turtle Flats property to get to the state-owned Glass Bar Island, which has been a gathering point for nude sunbathers.

Anticipating eventual disposal of the Turtle Flats site, the county last year erected fencing to seal off the property from those trespassers, sparking protests by many residents who liked the easily accessible nude sunbathing spot.

Follow Christian on Twitter @ChristianWihtol. Email christian.wihtol@registerguard.com.

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