Students lend a hand in restoration

Braving rain, sleet, snow and mud, 100 5th-grade students from Medford elementary schools helped restore wetland habitat on private land in the mountains east of Ashland this week.

The students spent Tuesday and Thursday at Willow-Witt Ranch on Grizzly Peak, where 3,500 willow cuttings were carefully placed in the ground.

"Wetlands don't just have water," said Suzanne Willow, co-owner of the ranch which raises pack goats on Grizzly Peak. "They have water holding plants, too."

Freshwater springs collect at Willow-Witt Ranch to form an unnamed tributary of Frog Creek, one of the headwaters of the Bear Creek Watershed. This tributary and others to Bear Creek are salmon streams.

In 1985, Willow and Lanita Witt purchased the 440-acre parcel of land encompassing nearly 100 acres of wetland meadow and 350 acres of steeper gradient, mixed conifer forest.

Until 2006 the land was leased for grazing for 50 pairs of cattle each year. However, more than twice as many cattle were known to trespass, entering from adjacent lands to graze on the lush meadows. This unrestricted grazing eliminated much of the riparian vegetation and prevented natural regeneration of willow communities. Wetland habitat has been severely impacted or lost due to past grazing practices.

In 2005-2006 the landowners established a perimeter fence around the property and eliminated the grazing lease.

"Last summer was the first time [the wetland] has been without cows in 100 years," Willow said. "The early settlers brought cows up here."

In 2006, they entered into a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program contract that fenced 76 acres of the wet meadows to exclude their approximately 20 goats from sensitive areas. The willow plantings are part of an effort to revitalize the native headwater streams and wetland meadows and improve habitat and water quality.

The students planted willow shoots harvested earlier from existing willows on the land. The willow cuttings were stored in the barns and kept dormant until the planting week. Students first prepared the willows by soaking the ends to encourage root growth. They then scalped out multiple planting sites along the stream bank. Using rebar to create holes in groups of five, willow shoots were placed a foot deep in the mud.

Students also took part in bird monitoring on the ranch with Klamath Bird Observatory, a local non-profit working on the science and education aspects of the restoration project. The students assessed the offerings of the conifer forest and wetland habitat for birds and then conducted a bird survey. Mountain Chickadees establishing a nest in a hole in a snag were watched closely through many pairs of binoculars. Signs of an active Red-breasted Sapsucker were noted on a sap-dripping tree trunk.

Equipment, supplies, and staff time were additionally provided by Oregon State University Extension-Jackson County and Bear Creek Watershed Education Partners. Many pairs of rubber boots and rain ponchos outfitted the students, allowing them to withstand the elements.

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