Juli Armstrong
Envs. 120

Tri-State Steelheaders Final Internship Report

My semester long internship with the Tri-State Steelheaders (TSS) has proved to be a successful and educational experience, culminating in the achievement of our goals and a crew of happy volunteers. Working with John Geidel and Steve Gwinn of TSS, my partner, Aimee, and I helped to plan and coordinate two days of riparian restoration planting on the South Fork of Coppei Creek and Mill Creek. There were some difficulties and frustrations to be overcome, but we met our goals for both days, planting well over a thousand trees and shrubs that will grow into permanent riparian buffers for the steelhead salmon that live in these creeks.

The first day of planting took place on Sunday, November 4th on the banks of Coppei Creek. The property we were working on is a permanent conservation easement donated by the Hanson family, and the erosive effects of cattle were still clearly visible. The Hansons are farmers, but also feel strongly about conservation, and they have agreed to put permanent conservation easements on five parcels of land on their property. This is a legal, binding, easement that should last forever, and it involves the permanent removal of cattle from these areas and protection of the forests from logging.

Aimee and I spent a lot of time preparing for this planting, with the most difficult part being finding enough volunteers and making sure they would show up. We sent out e-mails to the entire Whitman campus as well as to the Environmental Studies class and made sign-up sheets for people to physically guarantee their time on. In addition to this, we reserved two vans from Whitman and rented a third, to transport the 35 volunteers who signed up. A week in advance of the planting John and Steve drove us out to the planting site so that we would be able to find it and learn about the logistics of the planting, such as where all of the trees would be going. The morning of the planting we were a little nervous to see what the turnout would be, because no matter how much you remind people, college students do not like to get up early on the weekend. Out of the 35 people signed up, 18 actually came. Basically, we learned to sign up as many people as possible without placing any limits and only expect about half of them to show up.

Luckily the weather was great, and we were still able to divide our volunteers into enough groups for all of the various tasks. About six people used heavy planting bars to drive through the rocky ground on the riverbank and plant willow cuttings along its edge. A few others used knives to cut holes six feet apart in the long, narrow strips of water-permeable, biodegradable material that the trees were to be planted through for weed control. Everyone else grabbed bags of assorted baby trees, mostly types of native pines and conifers, and began planting. About halfway through, a group of people broke off to plant and stake a grove of aspens in a swampy area by the creek.

Everyone worked well together and the planting went efficiently. In four hours we were able to plant about 830 trees, and everyone went home in a great mood with a sense of accomplishment for having actually made a tangible difference. With our work we added a long strip of riparian buffer to an area that now stretches almost unbroken for several miles down the creek. This is critical for the steelhead that spawn in these waters and spend 18-20 months of their lives there before traveling to the ocean. The trees will halt erosion, clean sediment from the water, provide food for the fish with the bugs they attract and drop on the water, and they will keep the creek cool with their shade. All of these factors are very important for the survival of the steelhead. Aimee and I felt great about the day, even though we were initially frustrated with the number of volunteers who had kept their commitment.

The second day of planting took place on Sunday, December 2nd on a stretch of Mill Creek just west of Walla Walla, and it involved the same planning logistics as the first time, including another trio to look over the site before we took our volunteers there. This time Aimee and I ended up with 22 volunteers out of about 35 who had said they would come, but this was a perfect number as we did not have as many trees to plant at Mill Creek. The land we planted on was a recently torn out vineyard and part of a 17-acre stretch put in conservation easements by three different owners. This time we just planted alternating groups of native trees and shrubs in strips, with the added work of pinning “sleeves” around the baby plants to keep out weeds. The National Wildlife and Fish Foundation provided funds for planting to provide habitat for steelhead, as we were planting in a critical zone for the fish, similar to Coppei Creek. We worked for three hours, once again in great weather, and finished the site laid out for us, planting about 450 trees and shrubs. It was one of the best days I have had all semester, and everyone’s energy was very good. We live on a campus where everybody talks big and has high ideals, but we went out and actually acted on our beliefs, helping the steelhead in their struggle to survive.

This internship has taught me many useful things in areas that I am interested in, as restoration is an area of protecting the environment that I would like to be active in. I learned logistics of riparian restoration that would apply to many areas of restoration work. Researching the site and learning about the native plants are an important first step in the process, as well as when the planting should be done. I learned that for here in Walla Walla where it can be very dry, the plantings need to be done sometime in the late fall or early winter when there is enough moisture for the plants to survive the trauma of being planted and take root. Planting through the strips of water-permeable, biodegradable plastic is a good technique to keep weeds and maintenance to a minimum.

Another aspect of working for environmental agencies that I learned a lot about is the amount of effort and communication necessary to organize volunteers and activities. TSS is a non-profit organization run primarily by grants and some government funding, so it depends a lot on volunteers. Working with them helped give me a better understanding of non-profit environmental organizations.

One of the main frustrations that Aimee and I experienced with this internship was trying to establish communication with our key contacts, John and Steve. Both Aimee and I called and e-mailed repeatedly, but it took us almost three weeks to make contact with them. All I can suggest for this is to make a point of calling at least once a day and being extremely persistent. Another difficult aspect of the internship was trying to plan the planting dates around everyone’s busy schedules and the class field trips for environmental studies. I would recommend trying to set those dates as soon as possible so that they can be planned around. The time commitment for the internship came in shorter, heavier bursts concentrated around the two planting days, rather than spread evenly throughout the internship, but it worked out to about the right amount of time. I felt like Aimee and I put a lot of effort into reaching our goals and making everything run smoothly on the planting days.

I cannot think of an internship that I would have enjoyed more or felt more satisfied about. We accomplished our goals, and seeing the finished product was very exciting with the knowledge that our plantings will continue to grow and flourish, sustaining important parts of the environment for as long as the conservation easement lasts. The tangible results of this project in the form of the natural, wildlife habitat we created, represents a real benefit to the steelhead salmon, environment, and the community that lives in it. John and Steve were great to work with, and I am planning on staying in contact with them and participating in as many more restoration plantings as possible while I am at Whitman. I would even be willing to act as a coordinator for some projects, though this part of the job can be stressful. This is definitely an internship that I would recommend to anyone who likes to be active and outside, with a real product to admire when you are done working.