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Blackberries and beavers: restoration in progress

Isaac Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I can tell you from experience that this holds true in the natural world, where there are definite consequences to every action we take as humans.

At Lomakatsi, we’re constantly faced with decisions on how to best restore ecosystems that have been degraded by years of mismanagement and neglect. Often, a good strategy is to use historic conditions as a reference point as we work to restore landscapes to health.

It’s sort of an “if you build it, they will come” approach — when we start to reverse some of the negative impacts humans have introduced, nature has an impressive ability to heal itself.

Take, for example, Willow Wind Community Learning Center. This 40-acre Ashland School District property extends from East Main Street to Bear Creek, and occupies some of the opposite banks southwest of Interstate 5. It’s a special place for the many area teachers and students who use it for experiential outdoor learning, and for the diverse wildlife that call it home. Lomakatsi has been working there for over 20 years.

Before European settlers diverted creeks for agriculture and cut down trees for grazing livestock, most of our local waterways, including the banks of Bear Creek at Willow Wind, were lined with tall trees of various species and ages. The trees created habitat and provided shade that kept water cool during the hot summer months, supporting ideal spawning conditions for coho salmon and other fish.

Now, many of our waterways are lined with something different, the invasive Himalayan blackberry.

While I enjoy munching sun-warmed blackberries as much as the next person, I also know that if left unchecked, the plants can quickly take over drainages and stream banks. Dense blackberry thickets literally carpet the ground and can reach up to 15 feet tall, blocking anything else from growing. Many animals can’t even make it through them to the creek.

In the blackberry’s defense, it does provide habitat and forage for birds. That’s why we leave some patches intact.

Over the past year, Lomakatsi’s Riparian Restoration Manager, Niki Del Pizzo, has led a new phase of blackberry removal along Bear Creek at Willow Wind. In place of the blackberries, she’s led students in planting over 300 white alder, big leaf maple, Ponderosa pine and various other native trees, shrubs and pollinator-friendly plants to create diverse habitat and restore vital shade for fish.

We’re making progress, thanks in large part to the efforts of Kaiya Spain and Harbor Engle of Ashland, who Lomakatsi hired to support riparian restoration this summer. Both have a history with Willow Wind.

Kaiya and Harbor first visited the site as Ashland High School students through Lomakatsi’s restoration ecology education program, which supports classroom learning with hands-on field experiences at our local restoration sites. They also both completed our Ashland Watershed Youth Training & Employment Program — Harbor during its inaugural year in 2013, and Kaiya the following summer.

This summer, Kaiya and Harbor are spending 30 hours per week removing invasive species, watering newly planted natives, and serving as watchful stewards of Willow Wind and several other Lomakatsi streamside restoration sites throughout Jackson County.

Thanks to Niki, Kaiya, Harbor and many other community members who have been working to keep blackberries at bay, we’re already seeing positive ecological results at Willow Wind, including an increase in beaver activity.

“I started seeing signs of beaver here a year ago, when we first cleared out dense blackberry along Bear Creek,” said Niki. Kaiya and Harbor have been able to experience it firsthand too.

“It’s pretty cool that we now have beaver at the Willow Wind site,” said Harbor. “We noticed it right after the Lomakatsi youth crew cleared a bunch of blackberry here earlier this summer.”

While we are excited about the return of beaver — it shows our restoration efforts are working — sometimes the return of wildlife can set other processes into motion and create challenges in our urban watersheds. So we have to get creative.

Ironically, left to their own devices, these beaver might actually gnaw through many of the shade-providing trees we’ve spent so long cultivating. Fortunately, we can mitigate this by wrapping the bases of surrounding trees with coverings to prevent the beavers from chewing them, as we have done successfully at other sites, including the confluence of Ashland Creek and Bear Creek.

The takeaway here is that our work is never done. Whenever we change something in the landscape, there will be consequences. Nature is constantly shifting, and as its stewards we must be constantly observing, learning and adapting our methods to make sure we are making a positive impact.

Marko Bey is executive director of Lomakatsi Restoration Project (lomakatsi.org).

Recent beaver activity at the Willow Wind restoration site. Courtesy photo