Bolivian encounter spurs watershed recovery in Oregon
Shirley Stageberg was a bit confused after her first visit to Bolivia as a chaperone to Oregon youth traveling south for a conference on water in Latin America. Or, so she thought.
When she got back on the plane to come home, there was no clear direction, no identified project, no request for money. Just a suggestion that went something like this: Figure out what the water issues are near your community. And then get to work.
It’s a small hemisphere after all. And we drink the same water.
That was three years past, plus 3.5 acres of brush, roughly 200 oak saplings, thousands of community hours and a couple of still-to-be-completed salmon runs ago.
“We’ve just been working away,” she says now of her small community of Milwaukie in Oregon’s polluted Willamette Valley, whose river feeds the winding Columbia River about 10 miles downstream. “We have years to go …. But when people work down in the watershed, they say it feels like a spiritual place, that they feel closer to God there.
“Some say it is much more spiritual than sitting in a church.”
That kind of talk may explain why a couple of the Army Corp of Engineers, Boy Scouts, kids from the local Waldorf School, environmental classes at the high school and church members – who’ve racked up more than 700 hours alone – keep coming back to the acreage that abuts the Milwaukie Presbyterian Church, some of whose longtime members recall swimming in the dammed up lake that fed Kellogg Creek, a once healthy stream where salmon used to run.
This work prompted a new identification with one of the few undeveloped woodlands in Milwaukie, which sits on the outskirts of Portland.
“The boundaries just started disappearing. It is hard to tell now where the community ends and the church begins,” says Stageberg, a retired special education teacher, who is modest about the energy this reclamation generated in Milwaukie. “It doesn’t mean that all of these folks will become church members. But we all have a commitment to the common good of the region.
“And now we’ve all gotten to know one another: People in the environmental community, people in government.”
When folks began tromping down the hill on the backside of the church, the watershed was a mess.
A “No Trespassing” sign hung on a tiny fence. Big chunks of crumbling asphalt jutted out of the weeds, an ugly souvenir of when the church parking lot was paved. The native White Oaks were dying of strangulation, choked by ivy and clematis. Poison ivy clogged old pathways, now overgrown, as well as non-indigenous holly and laurel. The property is home to two of the area’s remaining urban streams, but heavy metal contamination seeped long ago into the stream beds and got trapped in the stagnant mud below. Every two-feet of water was clogged by eight-feet of muck.
In short, it was a sorry sight.
The Bolivians ask us: ‘What are you doing? And we had to ask ourselves: ‘What are we doing?’
Now, there are trails, with native growth re-emerging now that the underbrush is gone. No one has to bushwhack for hours to get down to the shore of Kellogg Creek Lake, which was dammed up in the 1800’s to propel flour and saw mills built along the shoreline. Rumor has it that a few Mallard ducks have moved back onto the premises. Roughly 200 oak trees have been planted by dozens of volunteers.
More than 30,000 salmon ran in the streams in the good old days, but no more. The fish disappeared when the lake was dammed and when contractors began filling local streams with silt to accommodate new developments. The run-off from toxic sprays used by homeowners didn’t help the stream’s health.
With talk in the public sector about breaching the dam to drain the lake, locals are imagining restoring salmon runs in the streams and creating a nurturing native environment for the more than 42 species of birds who inhabit the acreage, as well as wildlife.
“This was all started by the Bolivia experience,” says Jon Cottrell, a member of Milwaukie Presbyterian and a retired biology teacher who has logged thousands of hours in the woods himself. “We recognized the fact that we’re all talking about our water source and about keeping it clean.
“The Bolivians ask us: ‘What are you doing?’ And we had to ask ourselves: ‘What are we doing?’”
As it turned out, they only had to look over the hill at the edge of the church’s parking lot.
The Rev. Katie Pate, the church’s pastor, says that the rehabbed woodland is really an “outdoor sanctuary” for some, where busy people can find solitude and where there is space for small retreat groups who cluster together on benches. It has also rehabbed the image of the church to un-churched folks who had inaccurate preconceptions about Christian values. “I really love the way Shirley has brought us all together … the Boy Scouts, city and county planning groups, church-goers and Bolivians, all around this outdoor sanctuary.”
Pate says the church’s theologically diverse congregation truly is committed to care of the creation. It is a unifying ministry within the church and the community.
“This forest is hundreds of years old,” says Stageberg. “Our goal is to restore it to what it was 200 years ago – before people started messing around. It was a White Oak forest and we’ve been planting White Oaks, likely around 200.
“By the time I die, they will still be very small trees. But, we plant on faith.”
Stageberg says that the church is already on board with reducing energy for its operations and many members have made a commitment to do so at home, as a form of stewardship.
Earth care is the just the same, she says now. “We’ve been very blessed. The watershed was a mess and the attitude about it was bad …
“Now, people are coming together to do this; we believe we have a calling to take better care of the earth.”