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News / Clark County News

Naturespace volunteers celebrate Vancouver’s literal roots

Goal of city's pilot program is to restore understory's native ecosystem

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 4, 2023, 8:45pm
5 Photos
Naturespaces volunteers walk along Countryside Park's lightly worn dirt trail Saturday morning. Those living nearby have worked to cultivate the park's understory, the layer of vegetation existing under a tree canopy.
Naturespaces volunteers walk along Countryside Park's lightly worn dirt trail Saturday morning. Those living nearby have worked to cultivate the park's understory, the layer of vegetation existing under a tree canopy. (Lauren Ellenbecker/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Countryside Park’s tree line serves as a portal between two distinct realms coexisting within 2 acres.

One exists as a traditional park fitted with a teal play set and a handful of picnic tables; the other is a dedicated natural area swarming with life.

On Saturday morning, a collection of volunteers shuffled past the park amenities and into the world of towering Douglas firs to tend to its understory.

The effort, led by the city of Vancouver’s pilot Naturespaces program, is intended to restore the understory’s ecosystem while shifting mentalities surrounding what public spaces look like, event lead Jade Jones-Hawk said.

Upcoming Events

  • Ivy removal at Behrens Woods, 3005 S.E. Bella Vista Place Ave., at 9 a.m. Feb. 11
  • Native planting at Downs Neighborhood Park, 3217 N.E. 62nd Ave., at 1 p.m. Feb. 18
  • To RSVP and learn more about the Naturespaces program, visit cityofvancouver.us/cmo/page/naturespaces.

The ground hugged pairs of boots as they walked along the lightly worn path. Each heavy step sank slightly into the damp and dark soil, releasing a rich earthy scent with each impression. Fat raindrops managed to dart through the tree cover and smacked onto hoods and knit hats.

Volunteers carried small plastic cartons containing ferns and small bulbs of yarrow, camas and trillium, all of which are strong and versatile species native to the area. Some containers didn’t appear to hold anything more than plain dirt, but with a quick flip and pat on the bottom, an entire root system would emerge.

Some volunteers got creative, like Zena Bartusch of Vancouver, who made stakes from fallen branches to indicate where the bulbs had been placed.

As they worked, participants asked questions about how to properly remove invasive species and replace them with native plants, many with the intention to funnel the knowledge to their backyards. Other smiled as they knelt in the soil and investigated the understory closely.

“Nature makes my endorphins get going. It just makes me so happy,” said Lorraine Chure, who moved from her home in Utah to Vancouver last autumn. Sitting in the temperate forest among other environmentalists was a new, enjoyable experience, she said.

Altogether, it was a quaint and rhythmic operation: Dig. Flip. Pat. Place. Repeat.

Among the juvenile plants, there are twigs, branches and imported leaves that will serve as nutritious food to aid their growth.

Although Countryside Park currently looks inconspicuous with its endless shades of green, brown and gold, it will explode with a deluge of color as plants bloom in the spring and summer. Clusters of flowers will add highlights around tree trunks, and shrubs will stand taller.

A forest’s understory is critical for smaller critters that dwell among its trees, Jones-Hawk said. Little birds and squirrels can hide from raptors in bushes or mounds of fallen tree limbs. Pollinators like ants and wasps munch away at the undergrowth, while caterpillars tuck their eggs under leaves.

Plant diversity will attract an inconspicuous bunch of pollinators, which may otherwise get outshined by colorfully patterned butterflies, she said. Broadening the number of native plant species will also be beneficial in the event of disease spreading through Southwest Washington.

A healthy understory also requires the removal of invasive species, such as ivy and Himalayan blackberry.

A decadelong effort

Saturday’s gathering contributed to a decadelong effort to preserve Countryside Park’s habitat led by the neighborhood’s Adopt-a-Park group.

Steve Wille of Vancouver, a leading voice for the group, has witnessed the understory’s evolution from personal involvement — estimated to be about 1,400 hours — and from his back porch, which sits directly along the park’s boundary.

Wille, a retired biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, recollected when common burdock consumed the park and caused chaos. The plant’s pokey bulbs would effortlessly become knotted into the hair of whoever passed by — no animal or human was spared the annoyance of untangling themselves from the plant.

With the introduction of more native species, Wille also saw the return of leafcutting bees, an important pollinator in the region, and lichen.

Historically, native biodiversity has been disrupted by the introduction of non-native species, particularly those brought by European colonizers, Wille said. Reestablishing native plants will restore the habitat, particularly for the unassuming invertebrates that live within the understory’s dense vegetation.

Naturespaces staff will monitor Countryside Park’s understory to follow the young plants’ survival and, eventually, bring in additional plant species. To date, the Bagley-Downs, Bella Vista, Countryside and Hearthwood neighborhoods have been the program’s focus areas.

Volunteers don’t need previous knowledge to participate, only a sense of curiosity and a willingness to learn something new.

“Part of helping maintain balance is doing things like planting (and) removing invasive plants that threaten our systems’ biodiversity,” Jones-Hawk said. “It takes time to understand it, but we benefit greatly from the fact that our forests are like this.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer