The muscle behind a movement: Meet the Willamette Basin’s restoration army

A thick carpet of decaying Himalayan blackberry vines crunched under Meichen Plumhoff’s muddy boots as she trudged through the forest at Willamette Mission State Park.

Not long ago, the invasive shrubs covered the understory in a head-high thicket so dense, other plants struggled to find the sunlight and space to thrive.

Workers from Ash Creek Forestry replant a forest at Willamette Mission State Park.

But on this winter morning earlier this year, armed with a shovel and a hip sack containing dozens of native saplings, Plumhoff was part of a nine-person crew working to reclaim the forest, one newly-planted alder or cottonwood at a time.

Dig-two-three … plant-two-three … stomp-two-three …

Daylight was in short supply this time of year, and the crew from Ash Creek Reforestation aimed to put 10,000 saplings in the ground before sunset. So, when she had nearly emptied her hip sack, Plumhoff called for backup without breaking her rhythm.

“I could use more ash!” … dig-two-three…plant-two-three…

The Ash Creek crew is one platoon in a small army of restoration workers who battled snow, rain, floods and brambles to plant more than 2.25 million native trees and shrubs this winter throughout Oregon’s sprawling Willamette Basin.

These workers are the muscle behind a massive effort to restore the basin’s waterways and the land that touches them, in turn benefiting federally-protected salmon, steelhead, and other native Willamette species. Together with the scientists, landowners, nonprofit workers and others who make up this movement, the planting crews play a key role improving our river’s health.

The work is also good for humans.The Willamette and its tributaries provide drinking water for more than 300,000 Oregonians, a number expected to double in the coming decade as more communities turn to the river to quench the thirst of a growing population. Streamside forests act as a natural purifier, filtering pollutants from the water before it ever reaches municipal treatment plants.

Scaling up

Plucking native saplings from a hip sack.

The job, with its early mornings, calloused hands, soiled clothes and sweaty brows, is not glamorous. But it’s crucial to the effort to improve the health of our river system.

Scientists have long recognized streamside habitat restoration as essential to promoting clean water and protecting native biodiversity. Riverside forests cool the water to shield fish from the sun’s heat, stabilize riverbanks to reduce erosion, filter toxins from our drinking water and provide habitat for birds, beavers, fish and other native wildlife.

In recent years, funding from the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and the Bonneville Power Administration has equipped Willamette Basin restoration groups with financial resources to dramatically scale up this work.

With strength in numbers and years of experience, the planting crews made the restoration surge physically possible.

Three companies conduct the bulk of the basin’s floodplain restoration. There’s Tigard-based Ash Creek, which George Krall operates in conjunction with his Forest Grove native plant nursery. Diego Franco runs D. Franco Contracting out of Salem. And his brother, Rosario Franco, owns the Aumsville-based R. Franco Restoration.

“The crews are a constant presence on the land,” said Joe Deardorff, a project technician for the North and South Santiam watershed councils. Over years nurturing the same site, they develop a deep familiarity that leads to more successful projects. Without their expertise, Deardorff said, “this restoration effort wouldn’t be what it is today.”

Together, they have replanted thousands of acres in the Willamette Basin.

A dedicated workforce

A worker pauses while planting native trees and shrubs along a Santiam River tributary.

Each spring, crews fan out in teams of five or ten or twenty to convert weed-choked thickets of English ivy, red canary grass and blackberry into forests of alder, willow and Oregon grape. They sprinkle red currant along the trails, treating hikers to clumps of pink flowers each spring.

But the work isn’t done when the last plant enters the ground. These crews serve as tireless year-round stewards of our basin’s riverine forests, weeding and tending the vulnerable saplings until they are ready to grow unaided.

For many, it’s a labor of devotion.

Passion for the work inspired Juan Franco, a crew leader for his brother Diego’s business, to start an online photo field guide promoting public awareness about the region’s wild plants.

“A lot of times, people see a project that’s been finished and they don’t know what they’re seeing,” he said. “I wanted to show them what’s happening out here, and what we’re saving.”

Rosario Franco acquired his work ethic from family members who worked as reforesters in the Oregon Cascades. Now a business owner, he instills a sense of responsibility in his employees through annual trainings designed to teach both the technical and ethical aspects of the job.

“We go over every plant, what it is, what’s the best place to plant it, and the benefits it brings,” Franco said. “My guys learn how and why we do this work.”

That sense of purpose serves as a motivator for crews during long days spent in the wet, wind and dark of a Willamette Basin winter.

This year, with its record rainfall and repeated snow-and-ice storms, proved particularly difficult. Several times, planting crews were forced to delay their work when floodwaters covered planting sites in feet of water.

No complaints from the crews. You come to appreciate the benefits of a good winter flood in this business--even if it scuttles work plans for the day. Floods enrich soils by depositing fertile sediment across the landscape. They create fish habitat by scouring new river channels and open wetlands. And they fill underground aquifers with cool water that seeps into rivers and streams year-round, providing relief for fish when summer water temperatures spike.

“That’s what rivers are supposed to do,” Juan Franco said. “We don’t really fight against it.”

A day on the ground

A month after the Ash Creek crew tackled Willamette Mission State Park, the R. Franco Restoration crew encountered a rare sunny morning as they worked on a 24-acre farm site along Dieckman Creek in the Santiam River drainage.

They’ve been caring for this site since 2015, first removing brambles and prepping the land for planting, then putting 48,000 plants into the ground last year. This year, they revisited the property to fill in bald spots with trees and shrubs carefully selected to thrive in the conditions on this property.

Today, it’s a landscape in transition.

“It’s hard to see these small twigs going into the ground and imagine a forest,” said crewmember George Rocha, 24. Plants take time to grow, and for now, this site is still more field than forest.

But with some stewardship over the next few years, the new saplings will transform this rocky, marginal farmland into a wooded home for fish and wildlife.

“It’s baby steps,” Rocha said. “Once the root system’s established, it all just takes off on its own."