COVID-19 upends summer 2020 stewardship

June 22, 2020

NCLC staff busting broom in late June, wearing masks and staying at leat 10 feet apart

The 2020 field season at NCLC was going to be huge. We had more volunteer stewardship days scheduled than ever before. We had youth crews lined up. We planned to hire two summer stewardship interns plus a nine-month intern to get us through the fall-spring planting seasons.

Then on March 23, stewardship came to a screeching halt.

The entire state went on lockdown, and the NCLC staff began working remotely, from home: they still do, and will for the foreseeable future. All fieldwork stopped. Summer events were cancelled. Internships went unposted.

The critical questions: what fieldwork absolutely needed to be done this year, who would do it, when, and what could wait?

The first priority was property monitoring. Each of the 52 properties we either own or steward under conservation easements must be visited and monitored at least once every calendar year, according to our own policies and national accreditation requirements.

Secondly, properties where we have been aggressively tackling certain invasive species, such as Scotch broom and policeman’s helmet, would definitely need weeding, or we’d risk erasing the hard-won gains staff and volunteers have made in recent years. We also had restoration work that needed to be completed by deadlines set by grant funders. And we had seedlings growing in native plant nurseries—seedlings timed to be ready for planting in the next 12 months.

On May 11—after a seven-week pause in stewardship—staff took their first steps back onto the land, working alone. They and a handful of volunteer site stewards began making site visits. Concerned about the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall, Stewardship Director Melissa Reich set a goal of monitoring all of our properties by the end of August, four months ahead of deadline. “We are well on our way to accomplishing that,” she reports.

But that seven-week pause at the start of the growing season had already created challenges. Late winter and early spring—before ground-nesting birds start breeding and native wildflowers blooming—is when we usually mow the coastal prairie, to keep Scotch broom seedlings from blooming. Instead, we mowed late—after surveying to confirm that there were no nests where we planned to mow—and mowed around the densest patches of blooming wildflowers. “It’s an unusual-looking pattern,” Melissa said. But it got the job done. Staff are following up with lopping and hand-pulling larger plants.

Pink flagging helped the mower navigate around important native plants at Surf Pines Prairie Habitat Reserve. The elk have been enjoying the mowed areas. Photo: Neal Maine/PacificLight Images

Next on the priority list: pulling up policeman’s helmet at Circle Creek in July and purple loosestrife along the Columbia in August. A sudden infestation of an aquatic weed called parrot’s feather at Clear Lake in Warrenton last summer also needs to be nipped in the bud this season: “If we don’t do anything this year, we’ll have to learn to live with it,” Melissa says. Not on the list of urgent tasks: eradicating invasive holly and English ivy, which are slow-growing and can be tackled again later.

Meanwhile this fall NCLC expects to receive thousands of plants grown specifically for planting in the coastal prairie, most of them wildflowers whose nectar adult butterflies sip. And thousands of western redcedar and big leaf maple seedlings are also being grown right now, destined for planting on Tillamook Head’s Boneyard Ridge as part of a large forest restoration project. That work will now be done mostly by staff, including staffers who normally work indoors on computers, not out in the field.

NCLC is beginning to welcome small groups of experienced volunteers back to the land—following strict protocols including maintaining at least 10 feet of distance from others—to help meet NCLC’s most urgent summer 2020 needs. Melissa looks forward to the day when she can again welcome brand-new and less-experienced volunteers to our lands to help with this essential work.

“There are a lot of unknowns with COVID,” Melissa said. “We just need to be flexible.”

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