By Erin Middlewood
On a rainy Saturday nine stewardship volunteers crouched along the edge of the Angel's Rest Trail, closed since the 2017 Eagle Creek fire. They uprooted herb Robert, an invasive weed that crowds out native plants in the forest understory. As the volunteers shoved handfuls of weeds into giant lawn bags to ensure the seeds wouldn't spread, they chatted about what motivated them to spend their day off weeding the Columbia Gorge.
The discussion kept circling back to heartbreak over the Eagle Creek fire, a human-caused blaze that spread across 48,000 acres in the Gorge.
"I felt I should do something productive to help the area recover," said Diana Tesh of Portland.
Friends program created from public interest and an ecological imperative
After the Eagle Creek fire, outrage and sorrow inspired thousands of people to contact Friends of the Columbia Gorge to ask how they could help restore the scorched landscape. Friends responded by creating a new program
expanding upon the sort of stewardship work the group already was doing on its land trust properties. Given that the U.S. Forest Service identified invasive plants as one of the most serious ecological threats to the burned area, Friends formed a partnership with the federal agency and Oregon State Parks to marshal the public’s energy.
By April 2018, Friends began leading work parties to mitigate the spread of invasive plants in the Gorge. In the first six months of the program, over 300 volunteers removed enough weeds to fill 11,000 gallon-sized buckets.
"Our land managers don't have enough resources to keep up with all the invasive plant infestations throughout the Gorge, so we help fill that gap. But it's about more than pulling weeds," said Mika Barrett, Friends' stewardship volunteer coordinator. "It's part of our mission to preserve and protect the Columbia Gorge. One way to do that is to connect people to the landscape."
Longtime volunteers find new way to contribute to Gorge protection
Friends has many longtime, devoted volunteers who first connected with the group through an interest in hiking, as Ralph Thomas Rogers did. Rogers moved to Portland in 1978 and began exploring the Gorge soon after.
"My first hike was Nesmith Point. It was so magical up there," said Rogers, who now lives in Goldendale, WA.
He began volunteering for Friends in 2010. A retired wetlands biologist, Rogers helps take inventory of plants and wildlife at Dancing Rock, control teasel at Mosier Plateau, remove fences at the Lyle Cherry Orchard, and develop and teach education programs at the Mosier Charter Middle School.
He also enjoys leading what he calls "ecology walks."
"It's all in the pace," he said, "mine typically are slow with many stops."
Another long time volunteer, Larry Richardson, started helping Friends eight years ago after being a contributing member since 1996. A retired union construction worker who lives in Milwaukie, Oregon, Richardson began by hiking and then helping build and maintain the trails at Cape Horn and Mosier.
He linked up with the Washington Trails Association in 2011 when they were building new trails and rerouting old ones at Cape Horn, which the Friends founder, Nancy Russell, had previously purchased to prevent a housing subdivision from being built there.
Richardson’s favorite spot in the Gorge is the Mosier Plateau, where he helped pull invasive weeds like teasel, spread native wildflower seeds like balsamroot, and help build trails.
“You get a good feeling of having done something of accomplishment”, Richardson said.
New volunteers: Eager to pitch in
The Eagle Creek fire sparked others to volunteer for Friends for the first time.
"After the Eagle Creek fire, I knew that I needed to be seriously involved — as much as I can working full-time," said Kate Swabey, a Portland resident. "I really enjoy hiking and gardening and those interests combine nicely with stewardship."
Alice Weaver, a retired physician who has lived in Portland for 34 years, loves to hike but doesn't consider herself a joiner. In fact, she said she joined Friends by accident.
"When the fire happened, I was distressed and angry. I thought, 'This doesn't feel good. Do something.' I decided to donate money to Friends. I didn't realize that my donation made me a member," Weaver said.
Not that she regrets it. She's helped at almost a dozen stewardship work parties, sometimes as often as once a week, to battle Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, herb Robert, groundsel and shiny geranium.
"I didn't expect it to be as much fun as it has been," Weaver said.
Audrey Slover, a retired educator who lives in Portland, appreciated the glimpse into the closed burn area offered by volunteering for Friends. She pulled herb Robert in an area near Benson Bridge above Multnomah Falls.
"It was a hard-hat, safety-glasses day. I was exposed to what happened with the fire, the landslides and rock tumble, the trees that had to be cut down because they posed a hazard. I felt very privileged to be in there," Slover said.
"Like you're...with a bunch of friends doing something rewarding"
Kendra Ritchie has a master's degree in ecology, but has yet to find work in her field since moving to Portland from Oakland, California, in April. She has a part-time job at a grocery store, which leaves her with spare time, so she decided to volunteer for Friends.
"I wanted to get outside and meet people and do some good for our natural areas," Ritchie said. "It feels good to get out there. Everyone I have met is really nice. They have great suggestions about where to hike. It's a little community. I've seen a lot of people over and over again. It doesn't feel like a day of work with a bunch of strangers. It feels like you're out there with a bunch of friends doing something rewarding."
She has participated in five work parties with Friends' stewardship program, most at Sams Walker Nature Trail, in the Washington Gorge where she helped rip out Himalayan blackberry that took over a wildflower meadow. She sees progress each time.
"I've been watching the blackberry recede," Ritchie said. "I just love it. I get into a groove and I just want to keep going."
Slover echoed that sentiment.
"None of it is very glamorous, but it makes you feel good when you see an area cleared," Slover said. "Plus you're with a team of great people. Every time I go out, I meet new people and see some of the same people. I have really found it to be rewarding on many levels."
Several volunteers said they appreciate the way Barrett connects with each of them.
"I have done stewardship with other local conservation groups but Friends is the best organized and I have felt the most acknowledged and appreciated for my work," Swabey said. "I feel that all who are out hiking should contribute to maintaining this spectacular area."
Erin Middlewood is a writer from Vancouver, WA. She enjoys exploring the Columbia Gorge with her husband and two sons. She's especially fond of the Nancy Russell Overlook at Cape Horn. Follow her at erinmiddlewood.com or @emiddlewood on Twitter.
Public Land Stewardship volunteer working at Angel’s Rest, OR.(Photographer: Mika Barrett)
Public Land Stewardship volunteers working at St. Cloud, WA .(Photographer: Mika Barrett)
Public Land Stewardship volunteer working at Friends’ land trust property, Lyle Cherry Orchard, OR.(Photographer: Mika Barrett)