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Pitching in to protect Rock Creek's environment

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by Chris MoorePatty Williams in her office.On a hot August afternoon, the Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus is quiet. With classes still weeks away, the parking lots are largely empty. The only noise comes from the road grader carving a new bed for the main driveway into the campus.But out back, a half mile beyond the complex of campus buildings, exciting things are happening. A dozen or so volunteers from Intel are attacking a patch of Japanese knotweed that has taken root on the bank of Rock Creek. "Alex has become one with his machine," laughs volunteer Matt Kmiecik, as Intel team leader Alex Ragan wields his brush cutter, sweat rolling down his face. The jokes continue as the knotweed, whose tough, bamboo-like stems sometimes grow 15 feet tall, gives way. Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism (SOLV) representative Steve Kennett holds strands of barbed wire apart so Intel volunteer Margie Antico can crawl through to join the attack. As Ragan hacks his way through the tangled stems, others pull cut brush off to the side, where it will be picked up and hauled away to the campus compost piles.Why have these high-tech workers abandoned their computers and air-conditioned cubicles to spend a hot afternoon wrestling with alien plant life? Their reasons vary."I’m here because I want to give something back to the community," says Glen Weinberg, who works in Intel’s Systems Management Group. "It also feels good to get out of the office."Sue Karstad, from the E-Business Group, puts it this way. "I’ve lived in the area a long time and I’ve seen it change from farmland to housing developments," she says. "Urban refuges like this are worth preserving for the future.""All of us work in finance with various groups at Intel," Ragan says. "We like getting involved in the community and we have a great working relationship with SOLV. When SOLV suggested this as a project, it seemed like a good fit."As the amount of open space in Washington County dwindles, it is becoming more important to protect and restore natural habitat. Part of the PCC Rock Creek Environmental Studies Center (ESC), this site is one of many that have become infested with non-native plants. Eradicating these plants and reintroducing native species will help preserve plant and animal diversity in Oregon.The effort is part of a management plan that will take years to implement, according to biology instructor Cathie Pake, one of four PCC faculty members who manage the site. Dick Hollenbeck, ESC coordinator and Landscape Technology department chair; Tom Robertson, environmental studies instructor; and Kevin Lien, biology instructor and department chair, also manage the space."We have a long-term vision for restoring the natural habitat here," Pake says. "It begins with removing the non-native, invasive plants like Japanese Knotweed. Native trees such as oaks, aspens, cottonwoods and willows will be grown by PCC’s landscape technology students and planted in newly cleared areas. After the trees are well-established, we will plant smaller shade-tolerant plants."The restoration plan has lots of community support. Grants have come from the Tualatin Valley Water Quality Endowment Fund, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Oregon Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the Unified Sewerage Agency, and others.The ESC occupies 110 acres on the north side of the Rock Creek campus, extending from the north-facing slopes behind campus buildings to the level floodplain of Rock Creek below. Plant communities range from a mature stand of Douglas fir, to acres of open grassland, to plant life along the banks of Rock Creek. In addition to serving as a refuge for plants and animals, the center is an important part of PCC’s science curriculum. Students in geography, environmental studies, biology, and landscape technology use the ESC as a living laboratory. Students from other schools use the center as well, according to Robertson. "Westview High School students regularly visit the site to study local flora and fauna, and several local elementary schools bring classes out to view wetlands each year," he says."We are excited about partnering with PCC to restore this watershed," says Steve Kennett, coordinator of Team Up for Watershed Health at SOLV. "PCC has a detailed management plan with specifics and timelines. We know that what we do there will have a positive, long-term impact."PCC forged a partnership with SOLV and Intel earlier this year, when the college asked for SOLV’s help raising money and recruiting volunteers. After a site visit, SOLV made a three-year commitment to provide funding and volunteers. Intel is a sponsor of Team Up for Watershed Health, and employee volunteer groups check in regularly with SOLV for project ideas. "Our goal is to establish a long-term stewardship relationship with natural areas," Kennett says. "This partnership does exactly that."The ESC is just one part of a corridor of open land that extends from Portland’s Forest Park to the Coast Range. Pake, Hollenbeck, Robertson, and Lien hope the area will remain protected from development. "It would be a wonderful resource for recreation and wildlife viewing," Lien says.Metro, the regional agency that oversees land use in the area, has already designated the Rock Creek Greenway, including the ESC, as one of 14 regional natural areas within Metro Greenspaces Master Plan. But the decision to extend protection as far as the Coast Range will, by necessity, take into account the needs of local property owners and farmers.In the meantime, restoration of the ESC continues. Long-term plans call for construction of an interpretive center and laboratory to provide a hands-on learning environment that can be used by students of all ages as well as professionals and community volunteers. "It’s important to emphasize that the center belongs to the entire community," Hollenbeck says. "It’s a resource we can all enjoy."The Rock Creek Environmental Studies Center is open to the public every day except Sunday. To visit it, park in the lot for building 7 and walk northwest into the forested area. No pets, please.

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »