1 million planted: StreamTeam celebrates environmental milestone


Clear but chilly weather provided a perfect environment for hundreds of trees and shrubs to be planted in the ground on Bells Mountain, Saturday.

Volunteers swarmed the hillside to install a variety of native plants for Clark Public Utilities’ celebration of Make a Difference Day, Oct. 28. The event was organized under the utility’s “StreamTeam” — an initiative intended to improve habitat that impacts Clark County’s waterways.

The StreamTeam is a group of volunteers, including CPU employees and the community as a whole, CPU Environmental Sustainability Manager Michael O’Loughlin said. Bells Mountain is one of many sites where the StreamTeam does its plantings, which includes county-owned and private land.

“We’re looking for sites that have either headwaters, which this one does, or streams that feed into and through the watershed back down to eventually the Columbia,” O’Loughlin said.

Prior to the planting, the StreamTeam began its efforts by clearing out invasive plants like blackberries.

“If you don’t plant anything, you’re just going to have blackberries again, and other invasive species,” O’Loughlin said.

Bells Mountain has been a planting site for the StreamTeam for several years, O’Loughlin said. The drive to where Saturday’s event took place passed hundreds of past plantings, protected with tubes to prevent opportunistic animals from snacking on the fledgling foliage.

Prior to planting, the trees and shrubs are grown in CPU’s own nursery, O’Loughlin said. On site, areas are color-coded with flags to mark what type of plant goes where.

The StreamTeam’s survival rate on its trees exceeds rates that other organizations have, O’Loughlin said, which was a result of procedures established by his predecessor, Jeff Wittler. Though he’s retired, Wittler was on site volunteering with his children, continuing some of the work he began when first hired in the mid-1990s.

He said CPU was unusual in that, unlike other utility companies that are asked for help in restoration efforts, its StreamTeam is the one getting the volunteers.

“It really told us that what we were doing was valuable, and it resonated with the public,” Wittler said.

Volunteers come from a variety of sources, and some are regulars at planting events over several years, O’Loughlin said. Some of those volunteers are trained as “stream stewards,” who have advanced knowledge of the process and the ecology involved in the SteamTeam’s efforts.

That Saturday, the StreamTeam aimed for 500 plants freshly in the ground.

“This is not so much quantity that we want when we’re bringing volunteers out. We really want them to learn how to properly do this and kind of just get them engaged with it and make sure they feel a connection with the environment,” O’Loughlin said.

CPU Communications Director Erica Erland noted the planting was a multi-generational experience for the volunteers.

“There’s grandparents, there’s small children. Everybody’s doing something together that will last for generations,” Erland said.

The 1 million trees wasn’t a specific target; rather it was a recognition of how far the StreamTeam’s efforts have come.

“It’s just nice to celebrate a really big milestone in the program of getting 1 million trees. It’s pretty monumental,” O’Loughlin said.

Although the 1 million milestone is just a number, Wittler said hitting that number was indicative of the nearly 30 years of work the StreamTeam has undertaken.

“I think it really reflects the longevity and the commitment to the program,” Wittler said.