For the last three years a group of students has been volunteering to make a small corner of campus more attractive. Theyre a student chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration, and their mission is to clear out invasive plants and replace them with native ones.
The group has been working in a small wooded area across from McCarty Hall, where a path leads from the residence halls to the tennis courts and ivy and blackberries grow rampant.
“We have a work party about once a quarter,” said Lloyd Nackley, a graduate student and the societys president. “We pull out the invasive plants, then mulch with wood chips that the UW grounds crew leaves for us. We put in native plants to replace what were taking out, and the grounds crew hauls away the debris.”
The society is affiliated with the Society for Ecological Restoration International, a large organization that supports the scientific and applied practices of ecological restoration. The UW chapter is one of only two student chapters and was started by graduate student Lauren Urgenson.
“At UW we have this excellent program called the Restoration Ecology Network, and they do projects throughout the Puget Sound area,” Nackley said. “REN is a capstone project; we wanted to create a group that would attract people who just wanted to volunteer.”
Once formed, the group decided to tackle a project on campus in order to attract students who werent in related fields. They consulted with University Landscape Architect Kristine Kenney and then-head of the grounds crew Rod White, who helped them select a site. The group, which also sponsors talks and social events, has a membership of about 50, but Nackley said they advertise widely and attract a much larger range of students for their work parties.
The aim of all their work is to “reestablish the site to a characteristic assemblage of native plants,” according to Nackley. That means plants that were common in the area prior to European colonization. Theyve planted trees, such as grand fir, western hemlock and Douglas fir, and smaller plants like flowered gooseberry, rhododendron, ninebark, snowberry, huckleberry and strawberry. Nackley estimates theyve planted 20 different species — about 300 to 400 plants in all — most of them donated by Storm Lake Nursery in Snohomish.
“The grand fir is a really big tree, so it was kind of fun dealing with people who have never planted anything and telling them, ‘Okay, youre planting something that can grow 300 feet tall,” Nackley said. “Who knows if it will—it takes 600 years—but its fun to see their eyes light up as they think wow, Im putting in a big tree.”
Nackley said the group is interested in collaborating with the Student Farm in an effort to create an ethnobotanical garden of native food plants.
Of course, restoration work has its frustrations, such as that not everything you plant is going to survive. Irrigation is a problem, Nackley said, and of course, since the site is a public one, it can easily be damaged by passers-by. So some of the things the group has planted have survived and some havent. But he doesnt worry about that. When a plant dies, the group plants something else in its place. And over the three-year time period that theyve been working in the area, Nackley can definitely see progress.
“I dont know what motivates all of us, but for me part of the fun is seeing the change that happens from year to year,” he said. “Ivy and blackberry always come back, but less than in the beginning. So we do feel successful, and as long as we keep returning… Thats what we negotiated with Kristine [Kenney]. We werent going to clear out, plant and move to another site. We were going to stay with it long-term. If you keep doing that, you do see success. Ivy and blackberry roots go very deep, but over time their resources get used up and slowly you start seeing the natives recolonize.”
Nackley plans to finish his doctorate within a year and move on — he hopes to a job as a natural resource manager — but work on the site wont end.
“We have a good set of graduate students involved right now and a smaller group of undergraduates,” he said. “Theyre a great group, and I have full confidence this will continue after Im gone.”