The young student from the Powell Butte Community Charter School exudes pride as he successfully plants a willow tree along Ochoco Creek east of Prineville. Along with about 30 other students from the Crook County School system in Prineville, he is participating in field day activities helping to restore a quarter-mile section of Ochoco Creek where cattle grazing has caused riparian damage. Sponsored by the Crook County Soil & Water District, Portland General Electric, Trout Unlimited, and Crook County schools, the goal is to plant hundreds of willows, alders, cottonwood, and other plants to help create shade for cooler and, ultimately, cleaner water.
Decades earlier the creek served as important spawning grounds for steelhead and salmon. Only five miles in length, the creek runs through private ranch lands from the west end of the Ochoco Reservoir through the city of Prineville before it joins the Crooked River. Native redband trout thrive in its waters, and the long-term goal is to help restore steelhead and salmon spawning grounds as part of an overall re-introduction effort in the upper Deschutes River system.
"If the creek had not been grazed at all," explains Darek Staab of Trout Unlimited, "you might see a lot more alder, willow, and cottonwood trees next to the stream's edge." Each of those trees grows leaves and feeds insects, which in turn feed fish, he explains to the students. "They provide shade, and sometimes tiny fish like to hide under the branches of a plant growing next to a stream."
Lisa Keown is a natural resources instructor at Crook County High School and she is there to help provide hands-on instruction to the students, ranging in age from fifth and sixth graders through high school. "We have a really unique program in collaboration with natural resource organizations in the Prineville area." She explains that 11th and 12th grade students can get college credit for taking the courses. "It's experiential learning for the students. They get to work with other natural resource professionals doing great projects all the time. It's really amazing," she says.
Staab tells the students that Ochoco Creek used to be an important place for steelhead to reproduce. "Adult steelhead will be coming up Ochoco Creek looking for good spawning gravels to be able to lay and fertilize their eggs," Staab says. "Ideally, young steelhead will follow the stream to the Deschutes River, to the Columbia River, and eventually to the ocean and back again several years later," he adds.
"A lot of these students really need that hands-on natural resource, outside learning experience," says Keown, "because it's really beneficial to them." She explains that the field outings in which Crook County students frequently participate enable them to get out of the classroom where they can better learn about their community and the natural environment. "Whether they want to continue on in natural resources or not, I think having that base knowledge of what's around them is really important," she says.
As the students line the creekside digging holes for the hundreds of plants they hope will grow and flourish, Keown cautions one student not to bury the plant too deeply into the soil. "Be careful, because if you get too much of the stem wet, it rots." She helps the student fill in the hole and raise the plant so the dirt doesn't cover up the stem. "Fill that in," she tells the student, "step on the soil, and then we'll water it using the bucket." As the student finishes tamping the soil firmly around the plant with his foot, she tells him, "Perfect." He then runs for the water bucket to finish his job. In all, the students planted over 300 different plant species on this Ochoco Creek restoration outing.