Monday, September 17, 2012

A Morning of Fun and Alien Invaders at Little Squalicum Park

Last Saturday, about 35 people gathered for a work party to care for new riparian plantings along the newly restored creek channel at Little Squalicum Creek Park, in Bellingham Washington. Part of a former EPA cleanup site, the park’s soils contained high levels of industrial chemicals from a nearby wood treating businesses, and other sources.  Much of the contamination has been removed, clean soil caps the ground, and the creek has been re-routed into its historic channel.  Last year, several acres of new seedlings were planted along the creek, including pacific ninebark, Indian plum, Nootka rose, big leaf maple, and snowberry.

Wendy Steffensen, Lead Scientist for the North Sound Baykeeper team, gave us a quick rundown of the role RE Sources plays during contaminated site cleanup processes such as this.  Then Rae Edwards, Bellingham Parks Volunteer Coordinator, began to explain how to weed, thin, and mulch the seedlings when about 20 girls from Explorers’ Club showed up.  These girls aged between 6 and 10, most were wearing shirts that said “Get Dirty – Volunteer.”  But best of all, these girls were exploding with energy.

Rae’s message was clear: identify the “keeper seedlings,” remove competing plants from the roots, and then place a heavy band of mulch around the seedlings.  She effortlessly yanked up an alder seedling that was crowding a pacific ninebark, displaying the roots of the alder: attached to the alder roots were clumps of little yellow nitrogen fixing nodules, which increase soil fertility.  Alders are great forest trees, she explained, but they will out compete the new plants, so we were instructed to remove them from overcrowded areas.  We also learned to be vigilant in searching and removing three alien invaders – Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba, Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii).  The almost five year old boy started to jump up and down with excitement at the mention of alien invaders, with his sword at the ready.

 Rae corralled the girls for a similar talk - they quickly surrounded her, listening intently.  After the talk they sprung into action, spreading out in small groups.  What I didn’t know was that these enthusiastic girls have helped at all kinds of work parties, they know how to work hard, and most of them already know how to identify the alien invaders.
This park is on my regular walking circuit. I’ve watched it transform from a tall cottonwood forest to what it is today, and the thing that fascinates me most is that almost all the water in the creek comes from stormwater in the Birchwood neighborhood, which is in the Little Squalicum watershed.  There are a few small springs, but most of the stream’s water comes from yards, streets, parking lots, which runs off our streets into storm drains and ditches, and then into large pipes, which flow into several larger pipes and empty out  just below the lower parking lot at the Bellingham Technical College.  The park has been cleaned up, so now it is up to us to keep the stormwater in our neighborhoods as clean as possible, so the creek is safe for wildlife, and our kids and dogs.

Back to weeds.  According to Laurel Baldwin, Noxious Weed Coordinator for Whatcom County, the worst of the alien invaders is Old Man’s Beard, about which she says “it is one of the more quietly insidious plants around the Northwest. I've seen it cover and choke the life out of many mature trees, both evergreen and deciduous, and the seed travels on wind currents. It can grow up to 15 feet per year and produce 100,000 seeds, so recognizing it early and getting those seedlings is a priority. Don't let this one grow!"  Above is a photo of Old Man’s Beard in bloom, competing with Himalayan Blackberry, in another local park.  More information about noxious weeds in Whatcom County is available here:

We worked for about three hours, which flew by.  The girls discovered large patches of morning glory, which they unwound from young seedlings, and then dug up the roots.  We worked in small groups, and met new friends.  Sometimes we took breaks to drink water and eat sugary treats.  A few of us concentrated on removing small patches of clematis – which was everywhere, some loaded and hauled mulch on kid sleds, and others weeded or pulled or cut.  And then we heard it was time to finish up.  The area that we covered looked much better than when we started, and the seedlings have room to flourish.  I wish weeding my own yard was so much fun!

Special thanks to Bellingham Parks Department staffer Rae Edwards for her expertise, as well as the tools needed for this work.  We plan to organize these cleanups four times per year.  It’s going to take a lot of work to get a healthy riparian ecosystem established at our park, so please lend a hand.  


  1. It's good, fun, and a great way to meet new friends. Get ready for the next work party here - in early spring!