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Nov. 30, 2022

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Clark College program looking to past to grow future

Students participate in effort to restore native plants in Columbia River Gorge

By , Columbian Features Editor
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8 Photos
Sandy Haigh of the Center for Ecodynamic Restoration directs a group of Clark College students planting wildflowers to restore pollinator habitat at Sams Walker Day Use Area near Skamania last week.
Sandy Haigh of the Center for Ecodynamic Restoration directs a group of Clark College students planting wildflowers to restore pollinator habitat at Sams Walker Day Use Area near Skamania last week. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

SKAMANIA — Kathleen Perillo founded the Clark College Native Plant Center in 2014 to offer students a small way to counter all the environmental devastation they were learning about in her science classes.

Students propagate native plants in a greenhouse on the main Vancouver campus, and then take field trips to plant them in natural areas undergoing restoration. The center also sells the plants to the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources, as well as the general public at sales three times a year.

Perillo’s inspiration for the Native Plant Center came by way of a student’s outburst in 2010.

In her classroom one day, a student banged his fist on his desk and said, “I can’t stand it!”

At first, she was puzzled. She asked him, “Can’t stand what?”

He replied, “We’re killing the planet!”

“My heart broke because that’s all I had been sharing,” Perillo recalled.

So she starting profiling an environmental hero each week in her class. But even that didn’t seem like enough.

She thought, “I want to make my students the heroes.”

She took them on a field trip to dig in the dirt and plant native starts. The next “hero of the week” presentation included a photo of them.

Now native plant restoration work is a regular part of the curriculum.

“There’s so much doom and gloom — climate change, loss of biodiversity,” Perillo said. “That’s not very motivating. How are we going to create the next leaders if we don’t teach solutions-based education?”

On Nov. 15, Perillo loaded one of her classes into a Clark College van to head to Sams Walker Day Use Area near Skamania in the Columbia River Gorge.

There, the Washougal-based Center for Ecodynamic Restoration is working with the U.S. Forest Service, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Skamania County on restoring what used to be a hay field into a meadow of native wildflowers.

Earlier in November, the Center for Ecodynamic Restoration (which goes by CEDR, pronounced “cedar”) seeded wildflowers and bunch grasses that will take about four years to mature, said Sandy Haigh, board president of the nonprofit.

Last week, groups of students hunched over the ground to plant yarrow, Douglas aster, goldenrod and self-heal herb, starts that Clark students had propagated.

As he tucked yarrow in the dirt, student Liam Schryvers, 18, said he plans to pursue environmental engineering. “I want to help reverse what humans have done,” he said.

Not only are the Clark students and CEDR working to restore the ecosystem, but their collaboration represents an interesting ecosystem itself. Perillo’s husband, retired Forest Service ecologist Robin Dobson, founded the Center for Ecodynamic Restoration, which formally incorporated as a nonprofit in 2007. He now serves as its treasurer; Perillo is its executive director.

CEDR has worked on several sites in the Gorge where blackberry brambles and invasive grasses crowded out the native plants that sustain pollinators and other wildlife.

“Pollinator population depends more on plant and flower diversity than anything else,” Dobson said.

With a grant from the National Forest Foundation, CEDR planted native aspens and shrubs at St. Cloud to shade and stabilize a small salmon-bearing stream. CEDR is also restoring native prairie at a nearby pond that’s home to Northwestern pond turtles, a state endangered species. Lately, CEDR has focused efforts at Sams Walker.

Perillo started her faculty career at Clark College in 1999 and plans to retire at the end of the academic year. She hopes one of her colleagues will continue the work she started with the Native Plant Center, which funds two part-time staff with its plant sales.

Perillo will turn her attention to a 1,000-acre wildlife reserve she and her husband established outside of Yreka, Calif. Haigh will helm the Gorge restoration projects.

“Somehow we have to figure out how to get people back in tune with nature,” Dobson said. “We’re running out of time fast.”

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