Behind the Willow Wind School on East Main Street in Ashland, life on the land and along the waterways are a signature of community-based restoration.
The willows bend toward Paradise Creek, a fresh patch of soon-to-be-flowering pollinator-friendly plants are growing as rest stops for monarch butterflies. White alders, black cottonwoods, ponderosa pine and incense cedars now shade the creek and cool the water as it moves downstream to join Bear Creek, where native steelhead and coho salmon make their way to the Rogue River.
It’s the happy middle in a process involving generations of children and ecological restoration experts, workers and volunteers. We work shovel to shovel here planting and tending.
This place and I are old friends. We first got to know each other 23 years ago when Lomakatsi Restoration Project was invited along with our many partners and collaborators to help plot out the future of this 40-acre natural area.
Everything we do on one piece of land affects the surrounding lands.
I pass the 70-foot-tall cottonwood trees I planted in 1996. These water-loving trees were seedlings, less than a foot tall back then, back when we began the work of restoring this streamside forest habitat.
It’s not accidental that several species of birds have made a comeback, according to the careful monitoring of the Klamath Bird Observatory, which began looking at Willow Wind in 2002. I see the graph shows a steady incline: purple finch, Oregon junco, black-capped chickadee, ruby-crowned kinglet, hermit thrush and spotted towhee. And through the names of these birds and their rising lines on a chart, I see hope that these restoration efforts are having a positive effect, and so does Jamie Stevens, science director with the Klamath Bird Observatory. “Connectivity is really important. Can we restore small-scale riparian habitats and connect smaller pieces? That’s why this project is really important: it demonstrates restoration at a relatively small scale benefitting overwintering birds in urban areas.”
If we act as thoughtful ecological caretakers, nature works with us.
The shaded pathway by Bear Creek is teeming with bug life as a result of several thousand trees and shrubs planted year after year, bringing bird life.
This work never ends — not any part of it — and that’s a good thing. Experiencing connection to our natural world has no expiration date. It’s endlessly hopeful. We are establishing ecological restoration islands, one acre at a time. From smaller projects, like Willow Wind, to thousands of acres in the upland forest of the Ashland Watershed.
We are humans back in the ecosystem acting as partners. Lomakatsi staff planted here with elementary school children who are now standing tall like the trees they planted, grown adults who still connect with this land as their own. When we restore habitats, we restore our relationship with the land rooted to a sense of place.
Lomakatsi adopted this site for long-term restoration as one of our first projects. We’re still here. It is emblematic of what can be achieved if we work together and don’t give up on our natural world or each other.
Observing all the life here now it’s hard to imagine a time when Paradise Creek was nearly barren and Bear Creek was void of native vegetation, covered in a sea of 15-foot-tall invasive blackberries. It took teams of skilled “green collar” workers to lend their expertise.
And it took the visionaries who partnered with us and still do. Co-investment in ecological health and community well-being with all hands touching the land leads to success stories like Willow Wind restoration.
Should I ever find myself questioning the impact of restoring ecosystems and sustaining communities, I will remember how this all works together and how it is a never-ending partnership with nature and people, fulfilling our role as stewards and caretakers.
If you’d like to become a member or learn more about Lomakatsi, see www.lomakatsi.org.
Marko Bey is the executive director of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project. Its mission is to restore ecosystems and the sustainability of communities, cultures and economies.