Restoring nature’s handiwork: Walama Restoration Project’s volunteers seek a more natural habitat

Billy Hughes teaches an urban ecology class through Network Charter School, and involves his students (left) in projects that involve plant restoration. Here, they were planting camas at the Butterfly Meadow, part of the Whila-mut Natural Area in Alton Baker Park. Courtesy photo

Lane County’s landscape didn’t always look like it does today. In fact, Alton Baker Park once was a homestead and area for raising cattle.

And while volunteers with Walama Restoration Project don’t expect the park to return to its roots, they are doing what they can to restore some of the landscape.

In late September, Krystal Abrams led a work party of about 20 volunteers at the Whilamut Passage, a former landfill capped in the late 1950s.

It was also where construction was staged when the bridge was built, leading to soil compaction and the loss of native plants. If large trees grow in this spot, it could disturb the landfill cap.

Krystal Abrams, volunteer coordinator, hosts any-one of any ability who wants to show up to public work parties.

“Volunteers might collect native seed in the fall or use mallets and stakes to hold down tarps that will kill weeds,” Nicole Smedegaard says. “They may be planting or broadcasting seed or even working in the nursery up-potting starts. The more hands we have on a site the more difference we can make. Three volunteers can cut back some blackberries but 20 volunteers can remove every single blackberry and you can really see a differ-ence.”

Currently, there are openings on Walama’s board of directors. Knowledge of plant identification is help-ful but not required.

Volunteer work mainly takes place in the Whilamut Passage area of Alton Baker Park near Knicker-bocker Bridge. They also work in the Butterfly Meadow near the park host house, and in Maurie Jacobs Park in Eugene’s River Road area.

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So volunteers were yanking out giant thistles and blackberries by their roots, then spreading water-permeable tarps across the cleared landscape, meant to block sunlight – and growing non-native species. Later, the area will be reseeded with desirable native grasses and flowers.

“Yeah, there’s a cool thing about looking around and seeing what we’ve done,” says Patrick Breslin, 18, of Port-land, a first-year student volunteering through the University of Oregon’s Holden Leader-ship Center, which supports volunteerism and service. “There’s a lot more to do and I guess that’s a contradiction, that we’ve done so much, but there’s so much more to do; but it’s inspiring also.”

With the blackberry and thistles removed, Abrams hopes to see only fields of wildflowers remaining.

Engaged in the work

Much of the Willamette Valley used to be wet prairie —essentially a wet meadow of wildflowers and native grasses, with a few oak trees — until the mid-1800s. Over the next 150 years, homes, farms and industry claimed most of the land, and the prairie now is just a tiny fraction of what it once was.

Today in Oregon, only 0.5 percent of the native wet prairie remains; nationally, 90 percent has been lost. Of the millions of acres of prairie and wetlands that once was the territory of the Kalapuya tribe, the southern Willamette Valley has the largest percentage of what remains.

The nonprofit group Walama Restoration Project is leading work parties — like the one at Whilamut — of both volunteers and highly trained technicians to increase those numbers.

Crews remove anything that becomes a monoculture like English ivy, Armenian black-berry (the new nomenclature for what was formerly called Himalayan blackberry), weedy non-native species like Queen Anne’s lace, teasel or reed canary grass.

Founded in 2001, Walama has a three-fold mission: edu-cation, restoration and out-reach.

Education

“We have an education de-partment, to provide kids with hands-on learning experiences where they can go outside and get their hands dirty,” says Nicole Smedegaard, education coordinator. “They interact with the plant lifecycle and habitats of those plants and learn how those plants support the larger ecosystem.”

That portion of Walama’s work is grant-funded and sup-ports a supplementary science program in as many Lane County schools as they can afford.

Billy Hughes teaches an urban ecology class through Network Charter School in Eugene. For 12 years he has part-nered with Walama Restoration Project to give his students a scientific understanding of healthy ecosystems and the importance of native plants.

“One of our focuses is on organic gardening,” Hughes says. “The other (focus) I teach is permaculture and whole systems theory and we work with Walama on plant restoration so they can understand native and invasive plants. The students definitely get an understanding of native plants and native pollinators, especially now at such a crucial time when we have so many pollinators just disappearing. When they get to see a native flower in bloom, it’s pretty awesome.”

Hughes says Walama is special because it doesn’t spray chemicals like a lot of organizations that work to remove invasive plants.

“It’s something I feel comfortable with the kids being around,” he says. “It’s definitely a lot more work, like digging out blackberry roots by hand. But, I’m also trying to give the kids a work ethic, a physical work ethic, of doing things with their hands. To be able to learn what it means to start a work task with your hands outside and to complete it.”

Restoration

Walama also has a restora-tion crew for hire. It never uses pesticides, so all restoration work to remove invasive species is done by hand. That means physically pulling up weeds and planting the cleared soil with the desired plants. The program works with gov-ernment entities such as the city of Eugene and Army Corps of Engineers as well as private landowners.

Outreach

Finally, there’s outreach. “Volunteer work parties restore plots of lands that are adopted by us,” Smedegaard says. “These are public places that have been designated as a natural area.”

Rather than a park that the city would have to mow and irrigate, the plot could become dedicated for wildlife habitat.”

She’s not talking about restoring acreage to a pre-park landscape but a pre-European landscape.

“So we’re looking at the kind of species that were here historically in the Willamette Valley before cattle grazing and urbanization really came in,” she says.

Many of those native species are in decline, because the land that people think is perfect for agriculture also hap-pens to be flat and perfect for parking lots.

The Kalapuyas regularly burned the valley to grow food crops and keep the trees down. The burning helped replenish the soil for the great quantities of native wildflowers, such as camas, that they harvested as a food source.

“Fire suppression in the last 200 years has converted a lot of the land that could have been prairie habitat into mixed conifer forests instead of oak savannah, instead of prairie,” Smedegaard says.

Walama focuses on prairie restoration because, for one thing, it’s an effective pollinator habitat. Butterflies and bees thrive on wildflower meadows. With the threat of declining pollinator populations in the news lately, their restoration efforts are making an important difference.

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