O ne Maple Valley teenager is so committed to cleaning up streams and helping wildlife that she enlisted dozens of volunteers and even found some federal money to rip out blackberries — starting in her own backyard.
Himalayan blackberries are invasive, pushing out the more beneficial plants that belong in Western Washington, said Tahoma High School graduate Sarra Tekola, 19.
“When it starts growing, there’s nothing to stop it from growing over everything,” Tekola said.
Tekola and a couple dozen volunteers worked all day Saturday to dig up the blackberries and replant native species in the back of her parents’ property along an unnamed tributary of Taylor Creek, which itself is a tributary of the Cedar River.
Salmon fisherman Dan Noll and Krysten Cook came from the Cherokee Bay neighborhood on the other side of Maple Valley after hearing about the opportunity through Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, where they often volunteer to do restoration work on public property. This was their first time to plant native species on private land.
“We hate blackberries,” Noll said. “This stuff is the scourge of the earth.”
Tekola was able to persuade a local coalition, Stewardship in Action, to give her a tiny portion of its U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant so that she could buy native plants to replace the blackberries. Among the fresh plantings are vine maple and hemlock trees and gooseberry and salmonberry bushes.
Though it’s unusual for volunteers to work on private land, funding the project was a “no brainer” because it brings together two of the missions of the Stewardship in Action grant: public education and private-land restoration, said Judy Blanco, a project manager at Forterra, formerly Cascade Land Conservancy. Stewardship in Action includes Forterra, Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, King County Noxious Weeds and Seattle Public Utilities.
The babies are very sensitive
Through the Stewardship in Action grant, which has been primarily focused on removing knotweed rather than blackberries, Blanco often works with private landowners to remove invasive species and also hosts public volunteer events along the Cedar River for educational purposes.
Tekola “reached out to all of her neighbors … so it’s exactly what we are hoping to achieve with this program, which is spreading the word,” Blanco said.
Tekola has been getting her hands dirty since she was little. The second of four girls, Tekola lived in SeaTac and was homeschooled until fifth grade. She says even though the family lived in a more urban setting near the airport back then, she would ask her parents to drive her to stormwater retention ponds so that she could collect bugs and tadpoles, then use field guides to identify them.
“She was always curious, and that was one of the reasons we moved here with all of the creeks and ponds. That’s where she spent most of her time,” said her father, Fasil Tekola. Tekola’s two younger sisters attend Tahoma Junior High.
Tekola will graduate in June from Green River Community College and hopes to transfer to the University of Washington in the fall. Her major is environmental science with a focus on wildlife restoration.
Shortly after the family moved to Maple Valley eight years ago, the Washington Conservation Corps began restoration work on nearby Taylor Creek to protect the chinook salmon that spawn there. Tekola helped out, met some people from the corps, and has been volunteering in environmental restoration and wildlife care ever since.
“I feel very almost possessive over Taylor Creek” from that early restoration work, she said. “To think that the stream that runs through my backyard could be polluting Taylor Creek that I’ve worked so hard on, I really had to do something about it.”
Blackberries don’t just choke out other plants, she explained, but they also create a monoculture that keeps out diverse wildlife, their shallow roots contribute to erosion along creeks, and they fail to filter out toxins as effectively as native plants do — and all of these issues can affect spawning salmon.
“Especially the babies are very sensitive, so it’s important to keep their water clean,” Tekola said.
To replace the blackberries, volunteers cut the vines down to ground level with power tools, then dug up the roots with shovels. They planted the native species, then placed burlap sacks and mulch on the ground to prevent the blackberries from returning.
Blanco said private landowners typically welcome Stewardship in Action’s offers to remove knotweed, blackberries and other invasive plants that can overwhelm the landscape, especially along creeks.
“People don’t have the capacity to restore it on their own,” she said. “They don’t have the money for the native plants because they’re really expensive, and they don’t know what the plants are that they should be planting.”
Tekola said she has offered to help her neighbors remove blackberries on their properties in the future.
Rebecca Sayre, outreach manager for Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, noted that the stream Sarra Tekola is working so hard to protect doesn’t even have a name.
“We want to call it Sarra’s Creek,” Sayre said. “I don’t think we can really name it, but as far as I’m concerned, it really is.”
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