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Community Builder: Clean water, and students learning

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Jim Hutchins, founder of Oregon Stewardship.

Q: How did your nonprofit, Oregon Stewardship, get started?

Jim: Oregon Stewardship teaches the values we have of this region, to both adults and students. It started in 1990 when I was at a meeting in Cave Junction. It was a night meeting about environmental issues. It became so heated that somebody threw a book across the room and bonked somebody on the head. I said, “I’m done. Tomorrow I’m going to go to the high school. I’m working with kids.” The next day I met with the principal at Illinois Valley High School. “I’d like a chance to work with high school kids to plant some trees and do something positive, because it’s not working out with the adults.” She said, “go for it” and that’s how we started.

Q: Where did it go from there?

Jim: I had two meetings with the young men and women at Illinois Valley High in 1990. They said “Hutch, we don’t want more meetings. We want to do something; we want to plant trees.” So we immediately started planting trees along both forks of the Illinois River. We planted a 40-acre plot along Crooks Creek in Josephine County over a period of six or seven years. We named ourselves “Fish Watch,” because we were monitoring and counting fish in the Illinois River. It caught on at IV High School, then we started a similar program at South Medford High, and now it has spread to Curry and Coos counties. We work in five high schools and four elementary schools.

Q: Have you worked with younger students?

Jim: We started teaching second-graders and fourth-graders about ecology in the early ’90s. We’d take them on field trips to teach about fish, bugs, riparian areas and water quality. High school students come on the field trips to help teach the elementary students.

Q: Weren’t you involved in the early days of the Bear Creek cleanups?

Jim: I pointed out the trash along Bear Creek to Mayor Gary Wheeler. “Look at all this junk. Why don’t we have an annual fall cleanup?” Gary said, “I’ll get the dumpsters.” High school kids cleaned up the mess for a couple years. Pretty soon, SOLVE started a community-wide cleanup along Bear Creek twice a year. Mark Wilson, my partner, and I clean up a three-mile stretch of Bear Creek every Friday; picking up trash, cleaning up camps, and sprucing things up.

Q: What are a couple current projects you’re working on with schools?

Jim: We’ve been replanting native plants along Bear Creek. This is a forever project. We’ve got a 95% survival rate because we bark mulch and hand water plants for two years. Students and I have planted hundreds of native plants from Barnett Road clear past Bear Creek Park. South Medford, RCC and SOU students plant, water and take care of the gardens along the trail. At the coast, Oregon Stewardship has developed and maintains hiking trails. All projects and trails that students started are maintained year after year by new students.

Q: What kinds of scholarship does Oregon Stewardship provide?

Jim: We were able to give out nine scholarships for $800 each for college, career or trade school for the South Medford kids. I’ll be giving the coastal students their scholarships soon. I’ll give the students a little talk, encouraging them to continue their education. They probably won’t have a graduation ceremony, so I’m planning to hand out the scholarships early.

Q: What do you like about working with kids?

Jim: When you plan a project, there’s all kinds of questions from the adults, “Have you got permission? How do we get the plants?” and on and on. Here’s the only question that kids ask. “Mr. Hutchins, when do we start?” No kidding. When do we start? “Let’s go. We’re ready.” I just love it.

Q: How does Oregon Stewardship get support for their projects?

Jim: I was fortunate to have really good kids to get it going, and then I had help from ODFW, BLM and the Forest Service. It was tough in the beginning, but I didn’t do this alone. Now we have a loyal membership and a great board of directors. We have grants from Dubs Foundation and Jacksonville Garden Club for scholarships. Middle Rogue Steelheaders, ISH Properties and Medford parks pay us for streamside habitat work. The first contribution was Lou Krauss at Rough and Ready Lumber Company in 1991, he wrote a personal check every month to pay for my gas. We became good friends, really good friends.

Q: How are salmon and steelhead doing in Bear Creek?

Jim: We do an annual fish count on Bear Creek for salmon. Those salmon runs are now sustainable. We had 200 or 300 salmon two years ago and 150 this past year. But that’s 150 that you count in October; you can double or triple that for a more realistic number. We’ve got sustainable runs, and the fish are way up into the Ashland area now, which is awesome.

Q: Is Bear Creek a healthier creek now than it was when you started working on it?

Jim: Oh, I believe it is. We started out building bio swales for collecting and filtering water that runs off the freeway. And then a kid says, “why don’t we plant native plants in between the bio swales?” And that’s how our planting project with the city of Medford started. I took a South Medford High School senior to the City Council meeting, and I started to speak. Mayor Wheeler says, “we don’t want to hear you, we want to hear her.” And she gave this incredible compelling pitch. When we walked out, Gary Wheeler says, “How can you say no to these kids?” We were asking for part of the irrigation cost for Hawthorne Park’s new trees. They paid half, we paid half, $600 each. That was the beginning of the partnership with the city.

Q: Who inspires you?

Jim: The kids inspire me. It’s neat to see clean water and kids learning. Seeing the kids grow, that’s what it’s about. I’m having the kids write thank-you notes. The best one was a note from a Butte Falls first-grader, “Thank you dad for repairing our car. I love you, Jake.” It’s the little things. I like to work with kids, I just love their attitude. Today I worked weeding and watering along Bear Creek with a couple of students. I work right with them. It’s just poetry in motion. One student is going to RCC and the other one’s heading to college in Portland. We just talked and worked, always six feet apart, along a half mile of Bear Creek.

I am also inspired by good leaders and good people like Mayor Gary Wheeler, City Manager Brian Sjothun, and Parks Director Rich Rosenthal.

Q: How did you end up Southern Oregon?

Jim: Oh, the country, the countryside. We found this house in 1988. We just fell in love with it. I went to the barn and said, “we’re buying this place.” My wife said, “You haven’t even been in the house.” I didn’t need to. This was the place. I had friends and relatives in Southern Oregon. We miss Washington state a little bit, but Washington has changed a lot. When I was in sales, I could park in downtown Seattle and walk to my accounts. Now, you wouldn’t even find a parking place.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand to improve the region, what would you like to see improved?

Jim: Well, more of an awareness of this beautiful place we live. Just look around here and appreciate what we have. I’m a positive person and try to instill that in the students. We carry on because we are spirited human beings with a heart.

I don’t let the kids know whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t matter. We care about the land. That’s the main thing. They’ve asked me, and I just don’t go there. We’re all getting our hands dirty. We’re planting trees. They come back in two or three or 10 years and see what they have accomplished.

Q: What are you most proud of?

Jim: We celebrate the return of the salmon to Bear Creek. We raise hundreds of native plants for Bear Creek on our farm. This summer we’re hand watering 1,000 plants. There are still beavers in Bear Creek. The water in Bear Creek is still not potable, but it is considered the most improved stream in the state of Oregon and it will continue to improve. I’ve seen steelhead in Bear Creek this year going upstream. We see otters in Butte Creek and Bear Creek. That’s what I’m most proud of.

Q: What’s clearer to you now?

Jim: The more I know, the more I don’t know. There are always things we can learn: a new bird, new kinds of fish, new ideas for the habitat. There is always more to learn.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Bio: Jim Hutchins

Jim Hutchins, his wife, Carla, and son J.P. moved to Medford in 1989. Carla serves on the Oregon Stewardship board and writes their newsletter. Jim has spent his lifetime exploring the ecology of rivers and forests in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1992 he founded Oregon Stewardship, which teaches hands-on resource management throughout southwest Oregon. He emphasizes a balanced, positive approach to resource management. Art and writing are also worked into his curriculum, when appropriate.

Prior to the founding of Oregon Stewardship, Jim served eight years on the City Council in Lynnwood, Washington, and worked in sales and landscape gardening. In the last nine years, Jim, with the support of the city of Medford and South Medford High School students, has worked on the restoration of Bear Creek from Barnett Road to Jackson Street. Blackberries have been removed and replaced by native vegetation.

When not working with kids, Jim propagates native plants, explores forests and rivers, and enjoys fishing. A love for this world and a love for its inhabitants is the main focus of his life, and the concept behind Oregon Stewardship, oregonstewardship.org.

Jim Hutchins, founder of Oregon Stewardship, works with Rogue Community College student Taylor Montgomery, left, and Sierrah Kelly, of Ashland High School, along Bear Creek.{ } Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch