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March 1, 2024

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Volunteer restoration project celebrates 1 million trees in Southwest Washington watersheds

By , Columbian staff writer
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Student environmental grounds helper Trey Hebert loads western red cedar saplings into a trailer at the Clark Public Utilities Operation Center early in the morning on Oct. 19.  At top, a sapling grows in the nursery at Clark Public Utilities Operation Center.
Student environmental grounds helper Trey Hebert loads western red cedar saplings into a trailer at the Clark Public Utilities Operation Center early in the morning on Oct. 19. At top, a sapling grows in the nursery at Clark Public Utilities Operation Center. (Photos by Elayna Yussen for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The idea of planting a million trees can be hard to comprehend.

However, it’s a feat that StreamTeam, Clark Public Utilities’ volunteer restoration program, has accomplished in its 30 years spent throughout the Salmon Creek and East Fork Lewis River watersheds.

“Shading streams, stabilizing banks, filtering silt, attracting insects and birds. It’s difficult to do without trees,” said Steve Gordon, a self-described “tree fanatic” and yearslong StreamTeam volunteer. “Now we can say we have a million.”

A core staff and thousands of volunteers reestablished floodplains historically shaped by agricultural and urban development. They sludge through mud or bear intense summer heat to plant trees and return natural processes to streams. To ensure young trees survive, volunteers return to water the new additions, mow and remove reed canary grass, ivy or whatever invasive species sneaks into the field. StreamTeam’s tree survivability hovers around 85 percent, a significantly low mortality rate, said Michael O’Loughlin, Clark Public Utilities’ environmental sustainability manager.

Work like this has propelled StreamTeam forward in its conservation goals, he said, enabling the planting of 50,000 trees annually to the watershed.

“We’re, hopefully, doing something that’s going to benefit the environment long after we’re gone. It’s not just a transient thing,” Gordon said. “If we do our jobs right, it’s going to outlive us.”

Early days by the (dirty) creek

Clark Public Utilities created StreamTeam in 1992 to advance local riparian recovery at a time when salmon and steelhead were significantly affected by poor water quality, said Jeff Wittler, a former utility employee who managed the program for 22 years.

“If we’re the purveyor of water resources, that means we’re in a good position to protect those resources,” he said.

Salmon Creek originates at the foothills of the Cascades, weaving past homes, pastures and urban patchworks northeast of Vancouver before eventually flowing into the Columbia River. Its basin, encompassing roughly 85 square miles in Clark County, plays a key role in salmon and steelhead recovery, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

However important, the ecosystem has struggled.

Throughout the 1990s, the Washington Department of Ecology reported that Salmon Creek was riddled with poor water quality issues: high fecal coliform levels, temperatures and dissolved oxygen. It was among hundreds of polluted waterways across the state.

Locals who lived along Salmon Creek recounted tales from their youth to Wittler, where they described seeing salmon swim in droves up its tributaries, such as Mill Creek. Soon their flashy, weaving bodies began to vanish.

Fecal coliform, likely the mixed result of failing septic systems and farm waste, dirtied the creek, according to Ecology. So did runoff from uncontained construction sites and other urban washouts. A lack of shade-bearing trees prevented waters from cooling, a crucial component for dissolving oxygen and sustaining aquatic life.

This type of pollution is something Ecology defined as “non-point,” contamination without a source point — say, a pipe discharging waste into a creek. Instead, Salmon Creek’s pollution was tagged as being an accumulation of human activity. Simultaneously, salmon and steelhead species were in danger because of these conditions, a state further solidified by their listing under the Endangered Species Act years prior.

Local agencies were urged to take steps to ease habitat degradation, Wittler said.

StreamTeam tapped into various community partnerships, one of which previously connected Larch Corrections Center inmates to doing riparian work. However, StreamTeam’s “bread and butter” was working with private landowners, as these properties covered most of the watershed. Doors were seldom slammed in Wittler’s face, he chuckled, but recruitment flourished via word of mouth.

“You do what you say you’re going to do,” he said. “That creates a foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship.”

After years of work, Wittler saw Mill Creek’s streamflow, once seemingly nonexistent during summer months, return – providing cool, fluid water needed to host fish. Water tests indicated plunging fecal coliform levels. Pollinators buzzed among emerging native trees and shrubs.

Clark County’s population growth, particularly in Vancouver, Orchards, Salmon Creek, Battle Ground and Ridgefield, was a primary concern for groups focused on watershed health. And it still is. The conversion of natural landscapes continues to pose impacts on habitat, with watershed segmentation offsetting some of StreamTeam’s work, Wittler said.

But that doesn’t mean the program is insignificant.

“If we hadn’t done the work we’ve done, the stream would be in a lot worse shape.”

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.

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Columbian staff writer