PENINSULA PROFILE: Woman leads volunteers in revegetating Elwha Valley

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

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THE ELWHA RIVER Restoration project, with its dynamic river flow and foliage old and new, is on view during free, guided walks every Saturday afternoon through Sept. 7. Olympic National Park rangers lead these one-hour walks across the former Lake Aldwell bed beginning at 1 p.m.; no reservations are needed. The walks begin at the former boat launch located at the end of Lake Aldwell Road, which turns north off U.S. Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River bridge. For more information phone the Elwha Ranger Station at 360-452-9191.

VOLUNTEERS ARE NEEDED in the Elwha River Revegetation Project, part of the National Park Service’s ongoing Elwha River Restoration.

The minimum age is 14 for these workers, who can choose to spend an hour, a day or more seeding and transplanting young trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Volunteers work at the Matt Albright Native Plant Center nursery, 323 Pinnell Road at Robin Hill Park, as well as in the Elwha Valley.

Jill Zarzeczny, coordinator of volunteers for the revegetation project, and her crew welcome drop-in workers at the Native Plant Center between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. She can also be reached at 360-565-3047 or Jill_Zarzeczny
PORT ANGELES — Her name, Polish for “behind the river,” makes poetic sense.

Jill Zarzeczny grew up near one mighty waterway, the Mississippi. Now, she works behind and around another: the Elwha, where dozens of volunteers are part of the ecosystem.

A daughter of Belleville, Ill., Zarzeczny, 30, first moved to the Pacific Northwest as an AmeriCorps worker. Part of the Earth Corps program in Seattle, she saw how people wanted to have a positive, hands-on relationship with the natural world.

Zarzeczny decided to stay in Washington and earned a master’s degree in environmental studies at the Evergreen State College. She married Justin Zarzeczny, a Washington Conservation Corps crew supervisor, in September 2009 and moved to Port Angeles.

Right away, she began hearing about the $325 million Elwha River Restoration project. In the largest dam removal in U.S. history, the nearly century-old Elwha and Glines Canyon dams would be torn down beginning in 2011 — and the National Park Service would seek to revegetate the Elwha Valley in their wake.

Opinions about the dam deconstruction, positive and negative, swirled around Port Angeles. But for Zarzeczny and for scientists across the continent, this was a holy grail of restorations.

So it was with great excitement that Zarzeczny started a new job in spring 2010. The National Park Service hired her onto the small staff of the Elwha River Revegetation Project: As coordinator of volunteers, Zarzeczny works side by side with people who give their time and sweat to the Elwha’s future.

About 60 volunteers are active now, collecting, cleaning and sowing seeds, transplanting young trees and shrubs, and hiking into the Elwha Valley to bring them all home.

They also work together at the Matt Albright Native Plant Center, the nursery and gardens at Robin Hill County Park. Sitting at a table outside one recent afternoon, cleaning seeds with a handful of co-workers, Zarzeczny’s eyes lit up as she spoke of flowering currant, Pearly everlasting, bitter cherry — and those volunteers.

The Matt Albright center, named for the late Olympic National Park nursery manager, is a cluster of buildings mostly constructed by volunteers. Young plants surround them: coniferous and deciduous trees in pots, tray after tray of seeds, a field of lupine. Here, the flock of volunteers and a few National Park Service staffers have planted 60,000 organisms — just since late May. Come fall and winter, the volunteers will load up frame backpacks with plants, to carry them on foot to the Elwha Valley.

The revegetation project’s territory covers more than 600 acres. But Zarzeczny and her team will not, she emphasizes, be planting every square inch. Instead, they seek to cooperate with nature: with the wind, the birds and the other creatures who will help spread seeds.

“We want the forest to dominate, in the long run,” said Joshua Chenoweth, Olympic National Park’s restoration botanist.

This means controlling invasive weeds — spraying herbicide — but most important, establishing native plants that will compete with the invaders and win.

These plantings started a few months after dam removal began in late 2011, and “we’ve had great success over the first two years. That could change,” Chenoweth added.

The revegetation of a wild river valley after dam removal is not a job that’s been done elsewhere, he said. So on each seed-collection outing and through every planting season, the crew must watch and adapt to what nature is up to.

The Elwha River Revegetation Project is a seven-year journey, with work planned through 2017. And Zarzeczny’s position, Chenoweth said, came with a lot of multi-tasking. She’s technically a bioscience technician for Olympic National Park as well as the volunteer coordinator.

She is, Chenoweth said, able to handle her various roles with grace, “despite the pressures on her.”

The busy season for Zarzeczny’s crew arrives once the rain does. The native plants like “wet feet,” she says, so they need to be planted in the Elwha Valley between November and March.

Each season, the crew must hike higher — and take a long view. The plan is to establish some 400,000 plants, and sow more than 8,000 pounds of seed.

The stream of volunteers thus far has been steady, however, and Zarzeczny marvels at it.

“The amount of volunteerism here is really wild,” she says. “It’s nothing like where I came from.”

As it turns out, Zarzeczny works with a lot of fellow midwesterners.

Aaron Velasquez from Blue Springs, Mo., traveled through Port Angeles a while back and was smitten.

“So I decided to come back,” he said, and join the volunteer corps.

Velasquez is a regular who labors alongside those who come Mondays and Wednesdays, the drop-in days at the center. And they arrive from all over: travelers, retired people such as poet and Peninsula College professor emerita Alice Derry, and students like Oliver Lawrence, 16.

He joined the revegetation effort as part of a Natural Resources course at the North Olympic Peninsula Skills Center. The teen hopes to become a park ranger one day.

The Elwha River Restoration project is enormous, yes. But the revegetation facet of it is likewise huge in its own right.

Take these 60,000 plantings between May and July. Five processes go into each. There’s seed collection in the watershed, seed cleaning, seed sowing at the native plant center, transplanting of the seedling into a pot and preparation for planting in the wild.

The Washington Conservation Corps lays temporary trails for these hikers — and a day of planting can be an adventure. Zarzeczny has observed bear, otters, dippers and elk, and her fellow Park Service staffer Christina St. John once caught sight of a cougar.

“You see [the river] changing every day,” said Zarzeczny. Now and again, “you can see some of the blue, milky Elwha,” a reminder of the past and a glimpse of the future.

This fall will also be a time of change for Zarzeczny. She and Justin are expecting their first child in late September.

She hopes to keep working till close to her due date. St. John has promised to drive her back to town, Zarzeczny said with a smile, if her time comes when she’s out on the trail.

As a member of the Port Angeles community, Zarzeczny considers the Elwha River restoration a positive thing for the watershed, the city and for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, whose people have lived on the river for tens of thousands of years.

The tribe and Olympic National Park have come together in this long-term effort, Zarzeczny notes. “More and more people want to be involved. It’s not like the dams came down and people forgot about it.”

Prospective volunteers keep on phoning, emailing and dropping by the native plant center.

With the project ending in 2017, Zarzeczny’s job is relatively short-lived. Which could be why she is fully present at the seed-cleaning table.

“It’s great,” says Zarzeczny, “to be part of it now.”

Last modified: August 17. 2013 6:37PM
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