About 15 volunteers met on Oct. 27 at Helen McCabe State Park South of Ellensburg to participate in the Kittitas Environmental Education Network’s Fall Planting Party.
The event, co-sponsored by Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, is part of restoration work going on at KEEN’s Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center. Volunteers planted about 300 native plants, including Elderberry, Red Currant, Nootka Rose, Aspens and Ponderosa Pine.
KEEN Board Chairperson Jill Scheffer said the turnout this year was good, most likely because of the near-perfect weather. She said the planting party event happens in the fall because the conditions are perfect for planting.
“They get to overwinter,” she said. “They get nice moist soil. They don’t get heat stressed or anything. They have all winter to settle in, and then in the springtime they can thrive, and then they can survive the summer hopefully.”
Scheffer said KEEN has been stewarding the park for almost 15 years, and that the planting party has been a yearly component of the stewardship since the beginning. She said Washington State Parks has owned the 64-acre property since the 1970s, but never made many improvements to it until KEEN took over stewardship duties.
“It’s a little too small for their normal footprint,” she said. “There’s no infrastructure. There’s no camping or anything like that.”
Sheffer said when KEEN learned of the property, they felt like it would be a perfect location for an interpretive center. The property was attractive because it was close to town and the interstate system and happened to be at the mouth of the Yakima River Canyon.
“All of these things sort of lent this to be a great location,” she said.
Since KEEN signed a lease with Washington State Parks in 2004, Scheffer said the organization has put close to $1 million into park investments. When volunteer hours are factored in, the number grows to over $4 million. Trails and fishing platforms have been built in partnership with Kittitas County Field and Stream Club. KEEN has also worked with the Kittitas Conservation District and Yakama Nation on projects over the years. Scheffer said a large planting project on the backside of the property completed years ago has been successfully establishing itself.
“It’s doing fabulously well,” she said.
Scheffer said one of the biggest challenges the property faces are with noxious weeds. She said weed control is very cost prohibitive and is a constant battle.
“This park was one of the worst offenders in the county according to the county weed board,” she said. “We also have a nice partnership with them and they come down and spray for us throughout the year.”
Beginning in the 1950s the park was originally a gravel pit, the products being used to build the local highway system. The pond on the property is a result of that activity. Because of the prior use, Scheffer said large parts of the front area of the property where the planting party was taking place consists extremely compacted soil. She said by planting the native species, they hope to help amend the soil and fight the weed problem.
“It’s really hard to dig in here,” she said. “That’s why invasive species do so well, because they can be shallow-rooted. Native species here are deep-rooted.”
Scheffer said KEEN has developed a master plan for the park. She said they currently are envisioning the park as the interpretive center, as opposed to having a physical building on the property.
“You don’t necessarily need a building to interpret nature,” she said. “We do want to have a central place that is highly visible to the million or so people that go past here every year and a place for folks to gather in a natural setting.”
Scheffer said that although they do plan on building a structure in the future, short-term goals are focused on planting, restoration and trail building. She said they also plan on building a natural play area for children. She said although some parents are comfortable with letting their kids wander in the park, some prefer a more structured environment where the kids can still interact with nature.
“We want to have a mix of both of those things happening down here,” she said. “We’re looking at this front part of the park having some water features maybe or some climbing structures based on basalt or trees. Natural kinds of things that kids can play on safely and still be visible to their parents.”
Scheffer said since the improvements such as trails and fishing platforms have been put in, recreation and use of the property has grown exponentially.
“It’s a markedly different park from even just 10 years ago,” she said. “There was maybe one or two people fishing here on a sunny summer afternoon. Now it’s packed.”
Scheffer said all the improvements done at the interpretive center reflect KEEN’s mission to educate county residents about the natural environment that surrounds them, and that the planting party is a hands-on approach to that mission.
“You don’t get much closer to connecting with nature by putting your hands in the ground and getting dirty on a nice day and planting things,” she said. “That’s about as close as you can get.”