Invasive beach grass has edged out a native plant, sand dune phacelia, on acres of Oregon dunes. (Photo by Rebecca Kennison/Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

A coastal plant that’s been hammered by invasive species and recreational vehicles has won federal protection after years of pressure from environmental groups.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that it declared sand dune phacelia a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The agency also designated 180 acres as protected critical habitat for the plant in 13 areas in Coos and Curry counties in southern Oregon and Del Norte County in California. 

That designation will raise awareness of the plants, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it means that, with a few exceptions, the plants cannot be removed, cut, collected or damaged without consultation and a permit. It marks a step toward restoration of coastal dunes. 

About 90% of their natural state in Oregon has been altered, with the phacelia damaged by off-road vehicles and edged out by invasive species such as European beach grass and gorse. Restoring the ecosystem will involve removing invasive plants which artificially stabilize dunes, allowing them to naturally move and shift, according to Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has been pushing for federal protection for the plants. 

He said in an email the dunes provide a buffer against extreme high tides and help protect against sea level rise and coastal storms. Critical habitat of sand dune phacelia in Oregon and California. (Center for Biological Diversity)

“These beautiful and rugged plants are emblematic of our native coastal sand dune habitats, and I’m thrilled they’ll get the protection they deserve,” Miller said. “Endangered Species Act protections will help sand dune phacelia and our dwindling intact dune habitats recover and thrive.”

Critical habitat of sand dune phacelia in Oregon and California. (Graphic by Center for Biological Diversity)

Silvery phacelia –  known botanically as Phacelia argentea – is part of the Forget-Me-Not family of plants and can grow as tall as 18 inches. Its fleshy leaves are coated with long, straight silvery hairs, and it produces small white or cream-colored flowers that bloom from spring through summer. Bee magnets, plants are laden with nectar and pollen. Studies show that the number and species of bees increase in areas where they grow.

The plant requires areas relatively free of competing vegetation and is adapted to surviving in nutrient-poor sand dune areas with high winds, blowing sand and salt spray. Its silvery hairs, an adaptation to the harsh coastal environment, keep salt off its leaves, decrease water loss and reflect excess light. 

Once relatively widespread across miles of coastal dunes in southern Oregon and northern California, the plant has dwindled to 25 populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said 17 of the populations are in poor condition and that 12 of the sites contain fewer than 25 individual plants, including at such well-known sites as Cape Blanco in Oregon.  Sand dune phacelia are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. (Courtesy of Oregon Wild)

Sand dune phacelia are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. (Photo provided by Oregon Wild)

“Small populations are likely to disappear in the future without implementation of conservation measures,” the wildlife service said. 

To survive, the plant will require continuous removal of gorse and European beachgrass, which was introduced to stabilize the dunes. Rising sea levels caused by climate change are expected to exacerbate the spread of invasive plants, resulting in additional habitat loss, the wildlife service said.

The designation comes nine years after the center – along with Oregon Wild, Friends of Del Norte, Oregon Coast Alliance, the Native Plant Society of Oregon, the California Native Plant Society, the Environmental Protection Information Center and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center – petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the plants. 

“It shouldn’t have taken nine years for Fish and Wildlife to take action, but hopefully it’s not too late,” Miller said.

In 2020, the center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calling for protection for 241 species. Miller said about half of the cases are now resolved. It takes the agency about 10 years on average to make a designation, and in some cases it doesn’t act for decades, he said.

And sometimes protection comes too late. 

“At least 47 plants and animals have gone extinct while awaiting protection,” Miller said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.