Creating open sand in the dunes

Seventh-grade Stream Team students work with volunteers to clear large patches of invasive Scotch broom at Honeyman State Park on Nov. 6.

How generations are working to restore the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Nov. 9, 2019 - “What’s important for the dunes is that the sand needs to move,” said retired U.S. Forest Service ranger Bill Blackwell. “The Scotch broom, being invasive and spreading like it does, keeps the sand from moving. That’s why we’re out here today — to restore the sand dunes.”

He spoke to Amy Tregoning’s Siuslaw Middle School seventh-grade Stream Team class, which was gathered Wednesday at Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park to help clear the dunes of invasive Scotch broom.

Longtime restoration volunteer Jim Grano started the morning with high hopes. 

“We’re going to take a picture on our way in, because we’re going to wipe this section out,” he said. “That doesn’t always happen; we take it in chunks. But I think we can get this today.

The 20 students and handful of adult volunteers gathered into pairs, armed with shovels, saws and protective gear, and got ready to take on a patch of the plants causing the biggest change to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

“Scotch broom changes the ecosystem,” Blackwell said. “You know, the birds probably like the seeds, but what we’ve found is that when we take areas like this out, then the native vegetation can grow in. In the open sand, it allows the sand to move, which is really what we want. If it stops moving, then it gets vegetated. The animals that depend on the open sand will have nowhere to go.”

Blackwell held up an example of Scotch broom to show the students the bright green shrub.

“This is what it is,” Grano said. “You want to try to get the root.”

“As much root as you can,” Blackwell agreed.

Some of the Scotch broom targeted Wednesday still sported black seed pods and the iconic yellow flowers more evident in the spring and summer. 

“It’s making more broom,” Blackwell said.

He and Grano instructed the students on the best practice for pulling up the broom and demonstrated how to use the “Puller Bear” brand weed pullers.

“The idea of teaming up is the shovel person will dig the sand away from the root so the saw person can come in and saw it down,” Blackwell said. “The idea is to get the shovel person digging down around the plant, getting as much root as you can.”

People can also cut the plant at the woody, brown part of the stem, which can kill the Scotch broom below the surface of the sand. 

Grano insisted that the safety gear is required.

 “When you pull (Scotch broom) up, sand goes flying, or your partner will pull it out and wipe your face with it — not on purpose. But I’ve seen all that happen,” he said. “We used to have it optional to wear the gloves and glasses, but one time we ran out of bandages.”

For the next two hours, the students and volunteers dug, pulled, chopped and sawed their way through two large patches of Scotch broom near the H Loop of Honeyman, ultimately piling plants higher than their heads in large piles.

“It was hard pulling out the roots,” said Jazzlynn, one of the students.

“They started off in separate pairs, but these kids are so kindhearted that they grouped into teams to tackle large sections of the broom together,” Tregoning said. “They just knew it takes more than two. Nobody had to tell them.”

Student Claire said, “It was fun until we got to a really tough root that we couldn’t get out. It took eight of us to finally get it.”

Grano has worked with Stream Team for many years. Some of the students had previously visited the Oregon dunes in a fourth-grade field trip.

“I felt like we didn’t do as much when we were here in fourth grade,” said Ty. “We were just too little. We got a lot more done this time. We did a lot of fun stuff and helped the environment a lot.”

While the group achieved their goal of razing the patch of Scotch broom near H Loop, Blackwell said volunteers will need to come back to remove any new growth.

“We come through every couple years to comb through an area and make sure it is completely cleared of invasives. At Heceta Dunes, we’ve been working there for five years, and in some of the areas we’ve gone back two or three times,” he said. “That’s why we try to get the young people involved, since it’s a generational thing.”

Grano agreed. “It’s our generation trying to pass it on.”

After working with the group to pull Scotch broom, Honeyman Park Ranger Katie Pollut led the students on a hike to learn about the dunes. She started near the single tree on the large dune by Cleawox Lake.

“The dunes are always changing, and since they’re always changing, their impact on the lakes is always changing,” Pollut said as she went through the process of erosion and how the dunes formed and led to the creation of the 32 lakes in the dunes.

She also spoke further about the vegetative process of the dunes, and how Honeyman’s forested paths are part of an 8,000-year-old dune. 

“Ultimately, dunes become forests. This is exactly what has happened here,” she said. “This dune was a dune about 8,000 years ago and was fully stabilized by the coastal forest coming in.” She gestured to the large dune by the lake. “On most sand dunes that are young and moving a lot, they should look a lot more like the one behind you. There shouldn’t be this many plants because the sand needs to move around. … By planting Scotch broom and dune grass, we actually accelerated the process. We’re seeing dunes turn into forests in less than 50 years. That’s quite the change.”

After a hard morning’s work pulling the broom and hiking around the recreation area, the students were rewarded with the option for a bit more recreation, this time in the form of sledding down the dunes.

For Tregoning, “I want to take the kids on a restoration project each quarter, so every 10 weeks,” she said. 

Besides working with the dunes, her class also picked up pieces of microplastic Carl G. “until our hands were too tired to do it,” she said. “Then, I just showed them the film ‘Plastic Ocean,’ and they watched the bird being dissected and all the plastic falling out. They said, ‘Is that why we picked up all that plastic?’ Absolutely. … It’s an important lesson, and I’m hoping it sticks with them.”

Despite being retired, both Blackwell and Grano are part of the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative (ODRC), which has worked to bring awareness to the fragile dune ecosystem. The group’s website, www.saveoregondunes.org, includes information about the dunes as well as volunteer activities. 

The group gathers at least once a month to remove invasive species in the dunes.

“If people are really interested, this Saturday we’re going to be out at Joshua Lane off Heceta Beach Road killing more broom,” Blackwell said. “It will be from 10 a.m. to noon — just two hours, so it’s not too lengthy. We’re going to be working on Portuguese broom, which is different than Scotch broom. The seeds are white instead of dark, and they’re generally taller. Saws will be a good tool to have on Saturday.”

An average number of participants is 10, but “it’s whenever people can get together,” Blackwell said.

He added that ODRC is trying to get restoration projects started in Coos Bay and North Bend, up Horsfall Road.

While the group is planning to take time off for the winter holidays ahead, gorse starts flowering in January and February, so volunteers will begin working as weather permits. 

In addition to planning volunteer workdays, ODRC published the large photobook “Saving Oregon’s Dunes: The Bid to Save a National Treasure” in 2018, which was honored with the Publication of the Year Award from the Public Lands Alliance. 

According to Blackwell, saving the dunes should be important to not just the ODRC but to all who live on the coast. He described the fragile state of some native flora and fauna that have a hard time competing with the invasive species. One, a groundcover called kinnikinnick, or bearberry, provides berries for bears and other animals and is one of the few plants the seaside hoary elfin butterfly feeds on.

In addition, the dunes are home to isolated populations of the coastal Humboldt marten, whose protected status will be determined next year after changes are made to the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Thank you for coming and helping us out,” Blackwell said to Wednesday’s group. “It’s great having these young kids out here, because it’s going to take a long time. Jim and I are going to be long gone, but you guys will still be working on removing Scotch broom.”

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