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Opal Creek program connects students and ecosystem

PORTLAND, Ore. - Jawbone Flats is the place: a degraded mining site three
miles down the trail into the heart of the 35,000-acre Opal Creek
Wilderness area where a world-class stand of old-growth Douglas fir and
Western hemlock forest graces the earth. Chemawa Indian School students,
under the direction of Dennis Martinez, Tohono O'odham, an expert in tribal
fire ecology on the Pacific Northwest ecosystem, ventured in twice in 2005
- once last fall to plant red alder trees, and again this spring to check
on how the new tree people were doing.

Part of the goal of the indigenous leadership program sponsored by
Portland's Ecotrust is "connecting with indigenous leaders in the region
and on-the-ground projects," explained Craig Jacobson, president of Native
programs. "Of all the people I know in the broader region who would know
about how to restore forests to their prior condition - providing for
indigenous basketry material, traditional medicines, healthy biodiversity,
forest structure, age composition," said Jacobson, "Dennis is the one."

So while part of the goal of the restoration project was to connect tribal
youths with Jacobson calls "a magical place," the larger reasoning was to
give students a chance to work with a committed indigenous environmental
leader like Martinez.

Ecotrust partnered with the National Forest Foundation, which provided most
of the funding. Chemawa Indian School sent two science teachers along on
the weekends; and the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center, a grassroots group
dedicated to ensuring the future of this choice space fringing the
Willamette Valley, worked with planners in coordinating the work.

"The soil at the abandoned mining site was mostly fill and not in good
shape. Twenty-three students planted between 150 and 175 red alder in just
absolute solid rock," Jacobson said. "It took teams of two students upwards
of a half hour per tree to get them into the ground, basically busting
through a rock substrate. And when we came back in the spring, we found
every single one of them were alive which, in the drought we had last
winter, is pretty amazing."

Jacobson credited the success to Martinez's exceedingly careful approach.
"He laid out a white drawing board and went through the steps in planting a
tree the right way: size of the hole, slope of the land, the way to loosen
the root ball, the first soil in the bottom of the hole, filling around the
edges. He also had the students gather two types of soil and leaf litters
from the forest where healthy red alders were growing," Jacobson detailed.
"And it completely paid off because every single one of the trees
survived."

Poet, creative writer and director of Ecotrust's indigenous leadership
program, Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs/Navajo, was also on board for the
excursions to help students make connections between the activity and the
literary world. "Oftentimes, beginning writers don't realize their
experiences are worth writing about, so we worked in teams of two students
each. Half the group put blindfolds on and their partners led them to one
of the red alders, allowing them to taste, touch, and generally sense their
tree in non-visual ways.

"After returning to their starting place, they took their blindfolds off
and traced their way back to their trees, relying on how the ground was
under their feet, air currents, sounds and so on. At the end, I have them
write about the experience - how they felt about their tree."

Woody continued: "It's important that they become aware of another living
being besides themselves or their friends. The tree becomes a collaborator
in the environment, and they begin to feel connected to it. Then they are
not the ones imposing, but instead are participating. The tree is no longer
some abstract thing, but instead becomes what it truly is: a living being
with whom we share this place."

Where Woody and Jacobson will take Ecotrust's indigenous leadership program
from Opal Creek is not certain. "We will be working on a similar project
this fall, although we haven't picked the site yet," said Jacobson. "It
might be a wetland or more forest restoration elsewhere. One thing we'd
enjoy is finding a location within tribal lands - the Grand Ronde, Siletz
or Warm Springs, since they are all relatively close to, Portland. Then
again, we might do some work with Chemawa Indian School on their land and
perhaps get involved with some GIS mapping as part of their science
curriculum."

Whatever they decide, Ecotrust's goal of helping support indigenous leaders
throughout the Northwest - the region referred to as "Salmon Nation" - will
move forward slowly but surely. In the process, traditional knowledge and
wisdom will infuse on-the-ground projects such as the one at Opal Creek
that restored some of the displaced tree people. In so doing, a
long-overdue indigenous perspective will increasingly inform Salmon
Nation's discussion, debate and action.