Newly hired REI employees didn't speak to one customer on their first day on the job.

Newly hired REI employees didn't speak to one customer on their first day on the job.

Counting bugs, pulling out blackberry bushes, and making sure native plants had enough water were the order of business as 50 REI workers joined forces with the Lomakatsi Restoration Project to clean up a 1,700-foot long stretch of Bear Creek in Medford.

"I think it's a lot different than most companies' approach to the community," said Phil Kavanagh, a 57-year-old Ashland resident who will be part of REI's sales team. "It has been an eye-opening experience."

Lomakatsi officials taught REI employees about native and non-native plants, allowing them to pull out as many pernicious blackberry bushes as possible to encourage growth of new plantings.

REI, an outdoor store, donated $10,000 to Lomakatsi for habitat restoration and another $10,000 to the Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association for trail restoration.

James Hetland, outreach coordinator at REI, said his company wants its employees to get a better understanding of the community in which they work.

"All of our new employees — this is their first day of work," he said.

On Sept. 22, employees will take on restoration work along another stretch of the creek. REI opens on Oct. 5.

Store Manager Cindy Biles said employees spent a lot of time ripping out blackberries but also learned about the habitat along Bear Creek. "We're happy to have an opportunity to have our team out here," she said.

Restoration includes removal of invasive blackberries, teasel and hemlock. Nearly 600 native trees and shrubs already have been planted along the streamside, so the effort Sunday helped maintain the work volunteers previously undertook.

Since the fall of 2011, Lomakatsi has held more than 26 public events along the creek, and about 800 students and community members have contributed more than 2,200 volunteer hours.

Last year, Lomakatsi Restoration Project started the effort along with the Rogue Valley Audubon Society.

Another $35,000 TogetherGreen Innovation Grant was funded by the National Audubon Society and Toyota. The Carpenter Foundation also has provided a grant toward the project.

Matt Cocking, a restoration ecologist with Lomakatsi, showed REI workers native and non-native plants, describing how willow shoots sprout quickly.

"They're a really fast, awesome method of doing stream restoration," he said.

Many of the plants have medicinal purposes, including willow, which is where aspirin was derived, he said.

Other plants such as the giant sequoia look native when they're young. However, he said the sequoia is native to the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. While not a native, he said it doesn't pose much of a threat since it is slow growing and likely won't propagate.

Niki Del Pizzo, education director with Lomakatsi, showed areas along the creek that were thick with 10-foot-tall blackberries, but now were thriving with native sedges and snowberry.

"They were just waiting for the light and space and water," she said, noting that blackberry bushes suck up lots of moisture.

Student also checked the health of Bear Creek itself.

Leah Schrodt, outreach and community manager with Lomakatsi, showed students that they don't need to check the water directly for pollutants.

Instead, she showed them to look for bugs that grow in certain kinds of water.

Students found blue-winged olives, a type of mayfly, and other species that thrive in water that is medium to poor quality.

Schrodt said pollution can flow into the river from many sources, including washing a car in a driveway instead of on a lawn, where it can be absorbed.

Pollutants that end up in the river can come from a variety of sources, some of which can be controlled by local residents, Schrodt said.

"Each of us can make little choices along the way," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.