Bandon’s Gorse Then and Now

After Bandon, Ireland native Lord George Bennett founded Bandon, Oregon in 1873, he must have been feeling homesick when he imported gorse, the Scotch broom relative from Ireland, and planted it as an ornamental shrub.  Little did he know it would spread for miles around, cover the beaches at the future Bullards Beach State Park, cause a fire that nearly destroyed the town, and would become a literal thorn in the side of many property owners.

Bandon, with its sandy soil, was prime land for gorse, and nearly 80 years ago gave the gorse the opportunity to burn and regenerate as it is designed to do.  On September 26, 1936, a small forest fire outside of town started with a couple of slash burns from logging operations, and before long had spread to the edge of town.  There it met the oily plant which burned hot and big and, like a kitchen grease fire, was largely unaffected by the water used to fight it.  Despite the efforts of the fire department and fueled by the gorse, the fire quickly destroyed all but a handful of buildings in Bandon and claimed the lives of 10 residents.

Besides its super-flammability and deadly, fiery history, gorse creates dense thickets that are virtually impassable; its thorns are stiff and sharp and can grow to a couple of inches in length.  It is no fun to neither walk in nor contend with.  A Bleacher Report article that is otherwise very complimentary of the Bandon Dunes golf resort reported that the shrub “sucks up golf balls like a magnet,” and a story circulates among the caddies of a golfer who went into a thicket after a ball, got turned around, and emerged hours later, scratched and bleeding with his clothes in tatters.

Gorse is still making headlines today.  It was one of the key negotiating points in a major land deal between Bandon Dunes golf resort developer Mike Kaiser and Oregon State Parks.  Kaiser wanted to buy 280 acres of Oregon State Park land south of Bandon for a municipal golf course, and to sweeten the deal offered $300,000 to help combat gorse in the area.

Ironically, the clearing that Kaiser planned to do for the golf course (as well as the clearing done in all logging operations and housing developments) is exactly what gorse needs to spread and will necessitate more effort and resources to control it.  It grows poorly under dense forest canopy when sunlight cannot reach it, but when an area is cleared of trees, it has an opportunity to do what it does best.

Although it can be managed, it has proven difficult to eradicate the prickly shrub from Bandon, and it is impossible to extricate it from the town’s history.  It seems logical to conclude, then, that gorse will be with us for a long time in the future.

This coming February, Bandon will hold its first annual Gorse Blossom Festival.  A bit tongue-in-cheek, the festival will primarily celebrate the local food and libations of the coast, but there will be an educational component, teaching locals and tourists about gorse and efforts to fight it.

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