By Ben Wentz
WALLA WALLA — After ripping through a thicket of invasive grasses and weeds earlier in the week and then returning to the same spot on the banks of Russell Creek and planting new trees and cleaning out yet more debris earlier that day, the incoming Whitman College students were beginning to get a little loopy.
So tired were they Wednesday at the end of a week of community service that, despite the presence of a Union-Bulletin reporter and their middle-aged adviser, they couldn’t help but burst out into a halfhearted chorus of the 2011 anthem “We Are Young” by the band Fun to take their minds off their labors.
Typical college kids.
And yet in a very obvious way, they aren’t so typical.
Instead of clutching onto the last golden days of summer — their last before their semiofficial entré into the adult world — these students, about eight in all, were working to rejuvenate streams and clear trails as part of Whitman College’s Summer Community OutReach Excursion.
For incoming environmental studies major Bryce Benson, this was a chance to make up for missed community service opportunities in his hometown of Corvallis, Ore.
“So when I saw (SCORE) was a trip where we just do community service each day,” Benson said, “it was like, ‘Oh I could do that. I should do that and give back somewhere at least.’ And so far it’s been really worth it.”
SCORE involves a week of community service missions centered on four themes: environmental justice and sustainability, housing and homelessness, food and hunger, and community and identity.
Eighteen incoming students and 12 advisers took part in the program this year.
As part of the environmental justice and sustainability unit, students spent their mornings clearing trails and working with the Mill Creek rangers Aug. 22 and Aug. 23 before moving on to stream restoration with the Creating Urban Riparian Buffers program for the remainder of the week.
In the afternoon they spent their time touring such exotic Walla Walla locales as the landfill, the recycling plant and the waste water treatment facility to learn more about the community they’ll spend the next four, maybe more, years in.
Whitman senior mathematics major Halley McCormick, a student adviser for SCORE, said the community service project was part of Whitman’s effort to get learning into the real world.
“There is so much to learn outside of the classroom, and this is a really good illustration of that,” McCormick said. “You’re out there doing things and putting things into practice, seeing the ideas that you can talk about as much as you want. But until you do something about implementing them they’re just that — just ideas.”
On Wednesday the students put the finishing touches on their restoration of about 40 feet of the banks of Russell Creek, which runs east to west from its source in the Blue Mountain to its confluence with the Yellowhawk Creek just south of town.
Earlier in the week the students tore out an invasive species of grass called reed canarygrass and other associated weeds, and on Wednesday they planted new trees and shrubs.
Creating Urban Riparian Buffers adviser Judith Johnson said reed canarygrass is especially harmful for smaller streams like Russell Creek because it can grow into the creek, slowing the water and allowing sediment to gather.
“Reed canarygrass and blackberries are the worst offenders for plants,” Johnson said. “They take over everything.
“The reed canarygrass … it just takes soil with it out to the creek and narrows the creek, then literally grows through the creek,” Johnson said. “It’s really bad because it also sucks up oxygen at night, which the fish need, and slows down the flows.”
The new trees and shrubs will serve the double purpose of shading out the weeds and providing cooling shade for the stream.
Johnson said CURB, funded by grants from the Washington state Department of Ecology and the Walla Walla County Conservation District, has restored streams at 80 sites in the area over its six years of operation, encompassing about five miles of habitat. Another CURB mission is educating landowners on how to maintain streams on their property.
“We find huge amounts of trash and concrete in these streams,” Johnson said. “We’ve literally pulled out tons of trash, old tires, fence wire, concrete, building materials — a lot people think they’re places where they can throw their trash or lawn clippings.”
Johnson said it’s difficult to measure the value of CURB’s work because most U.S. Fish and Wildlife research focuses on larger waterways, but “we believe that we’ve seen a reduction in stream temperature in Yellowhawk Creek.”
Whitman College had its move-in day Thursday, so the students are now moving toward weeding through textbooks and lectures rather than streams.
But Benson said he plans to participate in SCORE again as an adviser, just like McCormick, who had previously participated as a freshman.
“I was just thinking about that last night,” he said. “I definitely want to do this again.”
Ben Wentz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8315.