With 2023 closing out, and the all-new 2024 peeking its head around the corner, the time to reflect on our experiences and accomplishments is here again. Around this same time last year, we published a blog post thanking our volunteers for all they helped us accomplish and summarized all we had done together. The Snoqualmie Tribe’s ENR Department just hosted their last restoration event of 2023, the numbers are in, and it feels like a perfect time to renew that appreciation and celebrate in writing.
Process of Projects Before Volunteers Arrive, When Do Volunteers Come In?
Of the 15 active restoration sites ENR’s Habitat Restoration Team kept up with in 2023, volunteers helped to keep pace on 9 different sites across many different stages of restoration at locations from Lake Sammamish to North Bend and throughout the Snoqualmie Valley. Not all of ENR’s Restoration Sites are a welcoming place for volunteers (either too long of a hike in, wading across deep water, or perhaps too many bees), but getting the public plugged into these projects when the opportunity arrives is an important part of both tying personal communities into ecosystems and continuing to hold course on the ecological restoration happening under the Snoqualmie Tribe’s care. If you’ve been to one of our events, I hope you’ve been thanked for the role you take in stewarding these sites. At each introduction, the restoration team “zooms out” to talk about the context of landscape, the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Lands Movement and the Tribe having been stewards since time immemorial. We also “zoom in” on the specific day to communicate how our efforts in a 3-hour volunteer events build on and continue that stewardship effort. If you are a supporter of the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Lands Movement, you may have heard the Tribe advocating for redefining recreation as activities which focus on building reciprocity with the land (by giving back to it), rather than only consuming landscapes for personal enjoyment. Volunteer restoration work is a great way to build reciprocity, which is a foundational Tribal value. The importance of reciprocity to the Snoqualmie Tribe is explained in more depth in our Finding Reciprocity in Restoration Storymap. In an effort to express more of the “medium-zoom” point of view, it’s important to recognize our team working behind the scenes as well.
Last year, our end-of-year blog post outlined what to expect for our volunteer events once you make it to the site, and this year we want to introduce the basic journey a site takes before volunteers are invited to collaborate with the Tribe and the landscapes we work in. In many cases this process can be a decade long and is a topic we could go into great detail about. In an effort to skim the surface and share basic awareness of this process, here’s a very brief summary of the journey to restoring a landscape:
First, a problem is recognized. Pick one, there are plenty. In our region, the problem usually relates to salmon as a keystone species, a group of fish that were much more present historically. In the Snohomish River Basin (including the Snoqualmie River), Coho salmon are listed as a species of concern and Chinook, Steelhead and Bull Trout are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Current populations are at about 10% of their historic run. Once an issue is recognized, sites are identified for improvement where large impacts can be made. Sometimes these places are easy to find (failing levees & roads being consumed by the river near Fall City) and sometimes there’s more resistance or complexity to locating a site. Volunteers sometimes get involved in this stage of projects, but usually as concerned citizens or organizing forces.
Once sites are chosen, there are a variety of discussions about feasibility, how to restore a place, for what species and at what stage of life, as well as at what scale. For example, a project creating juvenile Coho salmon rearing habitat can be approached much differently than a project seeking to increase Chinook salmon spawning potential. This is also the time at which Cultural Resource Surveys might be done. In the words of the Snoqualmie Tribe’s own Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, “DAHP staff are the stewards of the Snoqualmie people’s history and curators of their future. The Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation identifies, evaluates, and protects cultural, historic, and archaeological resources, including artifacts, documents or oral traditions associated with the Snoqualmie People. Staff collaborates with Tribal, local, state, and federal organizations on projects that may affect cultural or historic properties important to the Snoqualmie People.” Before bulldozers start reshaping the land, or hundreds of shovels start digging holes, it’s important to understand what might be disturbed and whose history these disturbances affect. This is not usually a part of the project where volunteers are involved.
After design, reviews, and comments are done, the Snoqualmie Tribe’s Restoration Team starts applying for grants to get restoration moving on the ground. This involves more planning, discussion about the impacts we can have, and what capacity our team has to complete the work. In another year or two, assuming we receive the grant applied for, the actual implementation can start. Unless they are the property owners we are working with, this is another part in which volunteers are usually not involved.
At this point, a couple to several years into the process, assuming no major stalls and many successes during the previous process, the restoration on the ground can begin. But since many of the restoration sites the Snoqualmie Tribe works on start completely claimed by noxious weeds, we’re still at least a year away from the point where volunteers can join us. On the ground, the first year is usually spent clearing paths, understanding the landscape and habitat patches more deeply, and treating noxious weeds on site. Once the wall of blackberry is gone, once we can walk into a site, we start considering how to include the community in the restoration process. Volunteers can finally start being plugged into our restoration process.
The picture above shows Carnation Marsh, one of the Restoration Team’s newer projects. We had our first volunteer event there over the summer, when REI invited 40 employees to help us prepare the site for planting. After two years of noxious weed control, and a couple years of behind the scenes prep before that, we’ll finally be welcoming our first volunteer planters to the site in 2024.
Volunteers Continue to Do A LOT
Now that the site prep has been done on the front end, we are finally able to invite our community of volunteers to pitch in on the restoration process with us. This year, we hosted 15 volunteer events with all sorts of partners including actions from trash clean up to invasive plant removal to planting and a whole new activity for us, deploying the Floating Treatment Wetlands!
About half of these events were open to the public, while the other events worked with local schools, business groups, local Boy Scout Troup 1776, and other volunteer groups (special thanks to King County’s Science Team, youth in Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust’s YESS Program, and GIVE Volunteers, who returned for a second year to help at Tolt MacDonald Park). During these events, volunteers were able to help us continue restoration on about 9.5 acres in only 35 hours of actual event time. Across all these actions, 293 individual volunteers contributed a total of 1353 hours to our projects, an equivalent amount of time as having a full-time employee working on these projects for 33 weeks or nearly 8 months! Of course, many of these volunteers were repeat attenders for our events, and a very special thank you goes to them. So while there are 293 individual volunteers who worked with us, total combined attendance all of our events was somewhere closer to 549 volunteers!
Of those 1353 hours, volunteer contributed 374 hours to planting native trees, shrubs, and forbs. In 2023, volunteers helped plant nearly 2000 plants, a substantial percentage of the 10-15 thousand our full-time crew typically plants each year. Each one of these planting events helps increase diversity and resilience in the landscape we’re working to rebuild at our sites. These plants bring food, shelter and other natural resources back to our ecosystems, and help rebuild complex layers of interactions to help feed all kinds of life. Thank you, volunteers, for helping us rebuild these systems.
Volunteers also contributed 366 hours to mulching our new plantings this year. This includes protecting plants from increasingly long and dry summers at Tibbetts Creek, Kimball Slough, Fall City Natural Area, and Confluence Park. Adding mulch also helps improve often degraded soil and suppress weedy seeds. Thank you, volunteers, for maintaining these projects with us this way.
Finally, and most significantly, volunteers contributed 432 hours to removing harmful exotic plants from our restoration sites in 2023. This one is a vital part of our restoration program. Every invasive evergreen blackberry volunteers are able to remove from a site is one less herbicide spray landing on pollinators, on native plants we just installed, and frankly, accidentally landing on our restoration team as well. It’s hard work, and the blackberries especially often fight back, but the appreciation for this work goes out with extra gratitude.
One place where blackberry removal was especially effective was at our Kimball Slough site with our partners in the Mount Si High Green Team. At our 2023 Earth Day event, our biggest event of the year, we had about 150 volunteers attend for a combination of planting, mulching and weeding. Even after the snacks, visiting educational booths, and catching up with friends, if most of those volunteers put in 2 hours of work during a 3-hour event, it’s easy to see 300 hours of restoration work getting done that afternoon – that’s more than our team does in a week!
I especially appreciate volunteers engaging in our restoration events because they are able to continue stewardship on sites where our relationship to restoration is severed because funding runs out or plans change or we just don’t have capacity. For many reasons, our projects can’t be carried indefinitely, but with a volunteer program, we can organize with our volunteer base to continue the connection to places we’ve worked in the past, and continue seeing the success of those sites through time. There’s something special about resting with your squad in the shade of a tree planted by the previous generation. I recommend it.
Looking Forward to 2024
We’re excited to keep this program going in 2024, and already have several plans in place for inviting volunteers out. We’re planning to announce our next group of events in the New Year, so keep an eye on our ENR Calendar and stayed tuned passively by signing up for our Volunteer Email List. If you have a group you’d like to volunteer with, let us know and we’ll work with you to find something that benefits us both. From the bottom of our 2023 hearts, we appreciate the support from every one of our volunteers, and are happy to share the joys of the field with you all! Thanks for another great impactful year!