This winter marks a new milestone for the Steigerwald Reconnection Project. With most of the major earthwork completed, including the construction of the east and west setback levees, the full removal of the Gibbons Creek elevated channel and fish ladder, and the creation of new channels and graded wetlands, Steigerwald is ready for a massive bareroot planting effort. Volunteers, students, Estuary Partnership staff, and contractors with Ash Creek Forestry and R. Franco Restoration will plant over a quarter million bareroot trees and shrubs before the refuge reopens to the public in the spring – this is in addition to 83,000 live stake cottonwood and willow plants, and over 300 pounds of native seeds.
Bareroot planting season begins the this week and continues through April. The mid-winter to early spring planting window is ideal for bareroot planting in the Pacific Northwest because it allows the newly installed plants to establish and expand their root system during the typically cool and moist spring and early summer. Ensuring that the plants are well-established before the summer heat sets in is critical to the long-term success of the restoration effort at Steigerwald.
Acquiring over a quarter million bareroot plants required advanced planning. We placed plant orders with three different nurseries in the fall of 2020. With more than a year to prepare, the nurseries set out to fulfill the massive order by placing wild-collected seed in specially designed nursery beds. Depending on the species, the plants spend one to two years in the special nursery bed before being dug out in the depth of their winter dormancy at the onset of winter.
Planting over a quarter million bareroot plants at Steigerwald will take months. While the plants await their turn to revegetate Steigerwald’s newly restored wetland habitat, they will stay alive in the cool and dark environment of refrigerated storage trailers. A 53’ refrigerated trailer has joined the milieu at the Steigerwald Reconnection Project. Additional cold storage is being rented at a nursery offsite and its contents will replenish the onsite refrigerated storage trailer.
The coordination to achieve well-established plants at Steigerwald is substantial. The recently graded site, combined with heavy fall and winter rains, occasional freezes, gusty winds, and snowfall are a challenge to planting efforts. High water in the Columbia River and Gibbons Creek has inundated portions of the refuge earlier than anticipated (giving the refuge the nickname “WaterWorld”). Transporting plants and people onto the refuge in these conditions is an ever-evolving obstacle. Undeterred by the obstacles, a Morooka (a two-tracked vehicle) was rented to overcome the soggy landscape at the refuge and keep planting plans on schedule.
The bareroot planting milestone will wrap up just as the refuge reopens to the public in the spring of this year. Visitors may immediately recognize some of the planting efforts described above but others will take time. As the seeds and plants installed in 2021 and 2022 grow taller, wider, or self-propagate, each subsequent year will offer a new vantage and experience refuge visitors.