Elementary kids help restore banks of Ashland Creek

Kneeling along a patch of Ashland Creek bank that hasn't seen the sun since the Reagan administration, Helman Elementary School students Kendall Chappell and Aimee Poole were poised Thursday to reclaim their city's stream for salmon.

Filling a freshly augered hole where an impenetrable thicket of Himalayan blackberries stood just a week ago, 10-year-old Kendall held a young snowberry shrub grown at their school while Aimee, 5, cupped her hands to push dirt around the root-ball.

"We need to pack the dirt in so it doesn't fall out," Kendall said. "It'll be good to watch it grow and see how fast it grows."

The little snowberry bush is just one new weapon in the fight to restore a large part of lower Ashland Creek's riparian zone to its native self, thereby improving habitat for wildlife ranging from local birds to wild salmon.

The Helman students helped kick off an eight-day effort to plant more than 2,000 native trees and bushes over a nearly 12-acre patch of city-owned land along the Bear Creek Greenway that has held little beyond non-native blackberries for the past 27 years.

City crews and the Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project mashed and chain-sawed through the thickets and hauled most of the offending vines away, paving the way for hundreds of school kids to plant everything from ponderosa pines and Oregon ash to dogwoods, incense cedar and Oregon grape.

The ecological objective was to re-create the natural streamside riparian zone that cools the creek's water, curbs erosion, stabilizes banks and fosters the kind of habitat preferred by the wild chinook salmon, coho salmon and wild steelhead that call the creek home.

"It's an amazing outdoor classroom we've opened up here," Lomakatsi Director Marko Bey said. "People will have access to parts of the creek they didn't have and come see fish spawning.

"And the kids become stewards of their watershed," Bey said. "It's real. Not a lesson in the classroom."

Two years in the making, the effort is a collaboration of the Bear Creek Watershed Council, the City of Ashland's Parks and Recreation Department, Lomakatsi and others.

It was funded by a $43,000 grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, another $25,000 in matching funds from the city, the Ashland School District, the BCWC and others as well as several in-kind donations.

The project began when local school students helped Lomakatsi staff plant thousands of native seedlings at nurseries Lomakatsi operates at local schools.

Another batch of Helman kids planted more trees Friday, then hundreds of others will follow throughout this week during Lomakatsi's third annual Streamside Forest Recovery Week.

The effort will culminate Saturday, Nov. 13, with a day of tree planting in which the general public will be invited to help out.

Though their vines create great bird habitat and their berries help make a good cobbler, Himalayan blackberries are the scourge of streams throughout Western Oregon. They tend to place a death-grip on native plants, choking out desired foliage and becoming so dense that nothing else can live there.

Blackberries also soak large amounts of water that could remain in the streams and do not provide the cover and in-stream shade that natural riparian areas do.

The group of kindergarten and fifth-grade Helman students got a firsthand look at the evil side of blackberries Thursday.

"The kids know all about native and invasive species," kindergarten teacher Mia Driscoll said. "And these kids are so enthusiastic."

Ashland parks officials also have planned to add a trail here in the future.

Finding money and volunteer help for tree plantings like this can be easier than rounding up cash and muscle to maintain them, said Nicole Del Pizzo, Lomakatsi's education program director.

Del Pizzo said she is looking for people to help pull weeds and take care of the site over time, as well as raise money for maintenance.

"There are a lot of people motivated to maintain this site," Del Pizzo said.

Mark Freeman is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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