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Last-Ditch Rescues
All across America, as bulldozers stand ready to turn habitat into houses, squads of volunteers are swooping in, salvaging native cacti, sedges, shrubs, and trees just in the nick of time.


Digging up plants is always a dirty, difficult job, and the work isn’t made any easier this morning by the cool mist and light rain engulfing Snoqualmie Ridge in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains near Seattle.

Reddish mud smears the volunteers’ rain gear, gloves, and rubber boots. Armed with spades and pruning loppers, they spread out into the woods, stumbling on rain-slicked slopes laced with briars. Burrowing into the forest floor like multicolored gophers, they uproot ferns, shrubs, and small trees, and pack the plants into burlap bags along with shovelfuls of soil.

Next the “ferny gurney” crews come by and load the plants onto makeshift stretchers—a practical way to transport lots of plants but perhaps an apt one, too, considering the trauma of excavation. The stretchers go down the hill to a truck that whisks the plants off to a nursery, or a holding facility, a few miles away.

There more volunteers—kids, college students, and self-professed “plant geeks”—pat the plants into plastic pots and place them in beds where the refugees will spend a year recovering from shock and growing new roots. Eventually, they’ll be transplanted around King County, including Puget Sound, in ecological restoration projects to reclaim former agriculture fields, reestablish floodplains, and create riparian buffers along wetlands and streams.

Had these plants remained on Snoqualmie Ridge, they would have been scraped away, buried by bulldozers, and replaced with the lawns, streets, and homes of subdivisions close to the Seattle metropolitan area.

Since its inception in 1992, the Native Plant Salvage Program, run by the King County Department of Water and Land Resources, has saved tens of thousands of plants in the path of commercial and residential development. To do the work, the county enlists the labor of hundreds of volunteers, many of them graduates of “naturescaping” classes held to encourage the use of native plants in home landscapes.

Several times a year volunteers and county workers gather on construction sites of new schools, subdivisions, or malls. First they dig plants for the county’s restoration projects, and then they dig for themselves. Some “salvage operations” draw up to 300 people, who literally run into the woods to stake out hard-to-find species—trilliums, sedges, and mosses, says Greg Rabourn, the program’s community stewardship specialist. “They look around and see a beautiful place that’s not going to be here much longer, and they try to save what they can.”

What’s happening in Seattle is part of a nationwide movement in which thousands of volunteers and scores of organizations—including government agencies, environmental groups, and native plant societies—are removing native species before they are annihilated by encroaching development. Often the plants are used in ecological restoration projects and demonstration gardens. Some find new homes as pieces of backyard wildlife habitat. Others are sold to nurseries and homeowners to raise funds for the permits required to collect more plants.

Yet the greatest benefit of these salvages, also known as plant rescues, may be their capacity to engage citizens in hands-on restoration work, says Mary Kay LeFevour, executive director of The Society for Ecological Restoration, which does not run any plant rescues of its own. Participants become more aware of habitat destruction, and they gain an appreciation of native plants. “It’s really beautiful and important work because it enables people to get acquainted with the land,” she says. “When you have to identify a plant, get down on your knees, and dig it up in a way that gives it a chance to survive, then you really begin to understand how precious these native plants are.”

The plants extracted from Snoqualmie Ridge are not rare; they are rather common species usually growing beneath the canopy of a young forest. Yet their destruction represents another loss of natural habitat in the fast-growing Seattle area. Despite King County’s reputation for some of the most aggressive smart-growth policies in the nation—laws that channel about 90 percent of new housing into established urban areas—development still intrudes into these foothills, about 30 miles from downtown Seattle.

Weyerhaeuser Corporation is gradually turning 1,343 acres of commercial forest into the Snoqualmie Ridge master-planned community. About 2,200 homes are planned for the first phase. Websites for buyers show children kicking soccer balls and handsome couples walking dogs in a pedestrian-friendly subdivision with sidewalks—always with the Cascades as a backdrop.

Out on a gravel road, 12-year-old Melanie Busch stands with her mother, Beth, next to a pile of burlap bags filled with western serviceberry. Melanie and her friends have dug up plants for a native plant garden at Clark Elementary School in Issaquah.

She is now waiting with her five bags of collected plants for a ferny gurney crew to come by. “It’s fun, but it’s harder than it looks,” she says, gesturing into the woods. Except for a few places where upturned soil can be seen, the forest floor doesn’t look very disturbed. In fact, the volunteers haven’t made a dent in all the plants there for the taking. “We’re saving all we can,” says Beth, “but there’s a lot we can’t.” Melanie turns to her mother and asks, “What will it look like?”

Beth, dressed in a rain hat, fleece pullover, and rubber gardening boots, points to the stack of logs and a pile of bulldozed slash as long and wide as a mobile home. “It will look like that, because there’s no way to save it all.”


Those sentiments are echoed wherever concerned citizens are trying to do what they can to salvage plants. In and around Tucson, Arizona, golf courses, restaurants, spas, and parking lots are creeping relentlessly across the Sonoran Desert. As more people—especially retirees—are seduced by Tucson’s sunny skies, development is as inevitable as a daily sunset. The only option is to save some desert plants and encourage homeowners to plant them instead of exotic, water-greedy species like turfgrass, Italian cypress, and tropical palm trees.

Since 1999 the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society has been dispatching its cactus rescuers to proposed pipelines, road projects, and commercial and residential developments. The success of the Tucson program—or any plant rescue operation, for that matter—depends upon the cooperation of land developers, builders, corporations, and even government agencies that own the land. These proprietors are under no obligation to allow access, and they may not want the publicity or the potential liability that comes with having volunteers traipsing around their property.

“It’s a double-edged opportunity for them. On one hand, it demonstrates that they are developing the property in a responsible manner. But in the process, they also are going to destroy plants,” explains Christian Monrad, chairman of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society’s cactus rescue program.

Under Arizona law, anyone who wants to clear land must remove and transplant cacti of a certain size and species, especially protected ones, like the iconic saguaro, that can be transported. Developers often trade or sell these big cacti to landscapers or to nurseries, or reuse them as specimen plantings along entranceways to their developments. The remaining cacti—perhaps thousands, depending on the size of the site—can be destroyed, or, in the parlance of the construction industry, “bladed.”

In their professional lives, Monrad and rescue coordinator Joe Frannea are engineers with ties to Tucson’s construction industry. They have worked to build personal contacts with builders and developers and to position cactus rescues as a public relations benefit to the industry.

The group carries its own liability insurance, trains its volunteers, and makes certain no one gets in the way of the projects. “Developers are bottom-line-oriented,” Monrad explains. “They don’t want this to cost them more money or have their projects delayed in any way. If we ever did delay a development, our program would be dead.”

Kit and Tony Marrs, who are building large-lot subdivisions for custom homes, have allowed volunteers to dig up cacti on future sites of houses, roads, and driveways. The rescues fit with the brothers’ goal of maintaining a desert landscape within their developments. Deed restrictions require homeowners to practice xeriscaping—landscaping that does not need supplemental watering—rather than putting in thirsty lawns. The brothers reuse many of the larger cacti around the new homes, but there are always smaller plants that simply are too costly to move.

That’s where the Cactus and Succulent Society comes in. “We want to see these plants reused as well, and this is a way to get it done,” says Kit Marrs. “Once we met these folks and saw the competency of the work they do, any concerns we might have had disappeared. They make things easy for you. And we do have similar goals.”

Teams of 20 to 60 volunteers go to work early in the morning at any time of year with welding gloves, shovels, and loppers. They snip the cacti’s long roots and ply them from the ground. Cacti are tough, and the water within the plants will sustain them for weeks before they must be replanted. Typically, the group digs out barrel, pincushion, hedgehog, and cholla cacti, and sometimes saguaro and ocotillo. “We save the plants that developers aren’t removing and reusing themselves, and some of these cacti can be quite large and valuable—as much as $50, depending on the size,” says Frannea. “There are still barrel cactus out there as big as basketballs. We’re selective. We don’t save everything. You just can’t.”

All cacti must be tagged with a state department of agriculture permit designed to prevent the illegal removal of plants. Depending on the size of the site, the club may need to get thousands of permits in advance. Today it has a $10,000 revolving fund to finance the permits, but in the beginning members reached into their own wallets.

The money is recouped at plant sales held for the general public, which gobbles up specimens to adorn their yards. In addition to financing more rescues, the profits also support educational grants and other initiatives that the club undertakes to promote the use of natives and xeriscaping.

“Our goal is to provide people with affordable native cacti, to use plant [species] that have survived here for thousands of years,” Frannea says. “We do a lot of education at these sales. Many residents have moved here from other parts of the country, like the Midwest, and they don’t know much about the desert.”

As admirable as they might seem, plant salvages are little more than a drop in the bucket—saving just a few plants—and in no way an antidote to habitat destruction. Nor do these last-ditch efforts rescue the birds and other wildlife that depend on intact habitat. It would be better, if it were possible, to leave plants in place rather than move them to new locations, says Mary Ann Showers, lead botanist in the habitat conservation branch of the California Department of Fish and Game in Sacramento.

Some environmental agencies and states consider so-called translocation an acceptable form of mitigation that developers can use to compensate for lost habitat. A translocation is not always the same as salvaging a few individual plants that tend to be easily transplanted, as the volunteers have done at Snoqualmie Ridge. Rather it can involve relocating entire plant communities—perhaps even some of the soil—and transporting them to other locations.

These types of projects are rarely successful, especially when the original site harbors rare species, which are often specialists that need an unusual combination of conditions to survive and reproduce. “The more we learn about plants and their genetic makeup, the more we realize that we don’t know very much,” Showers says. “Plant communities and ecological systems are extremely complex, nearly impossible to duplicate.”

Several factors increase the probability that plants will be lost during translocation: they are removed improperly; roots are broken or shaken loose from the soil; fungi necessary to nurture the plant are left behind; or the receiving site is unsuitable because of soils that are overly porous or too soggy. Furthermore, many plants have mutualistic relationships with other plants or pollinators, such as moths and native bees. If these aren’t present at the new site, the plants may not reproduce.

Because of all these factors, it’s tough to know how many translocated plants might survive. “Established plants and communities usually can cope with changing conditions, but recent transplants may not,” says Showers. “In California we’re requiring 10 years of follow-up monitoring on some projects.”

Glenn Matlack, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Plant Biology at Ohio University, is well aware that plant rescues may not work. (Actually he doesn’t even like the term plant rescue, which he calls “emotional terminology.”) Yet in 2006, when Ohio began cutting a new highway bypass through the Wayne National Forest in the southeastern part of the state, he saw an opportunity to use some of the doomed plants to try and increase the diversity of understory forest herbs in the nearby woods. Among the herbs collected were goldenseal, blue cohosh, bloodroot, round-lobed hepatica, American ginseng, and white trillium. Most were immediately replanted in “young successional” forest areas, while others went to a holding facility—a nursery where the plants are put in pots and kept for later restoration work. As a reward for their services, volunteers were encouraged to take some plants home.

The project’s ultimate success will be measured by the plants’ ability not just to survive transplantation but to reproduce, says Matlack, who has written a grant to do long-term monitoring. “There’s a pressing need to follow up. I have seen many dead restoration projects,” he says. “I’m not sure how good a job we did, but it was certainly worth the effort, because all this diverse plant material would have been destroyed.”


When the ecologists at King County’s Native Plant Salvage Program find new homes for the 4,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants they round up from Snoqualmie Ridge, they will focus on mimicking the natural progression of recovering forests. “We’re learning to undertake the type of a successional approach that happens in nature,” says Cindy Young, the ecologist who runs the holding facility. “It takes more time, but then we have a better chance of success.”

She is especially pleased with the thousands of red alder trees that have been collected. As a pioneering species, alder prefers full sun and does well in open areas. Growing five feet a year, it helps fix nitrogen in the soil, quickly forms a canopy, and provides shade for understory species. Along a stream lacking riparian vegetation, restoration biologists typically plant alder, wait two years, and then bring in coniferous trees like Sitka spruce, Oregon ash and other deciduous species, snowberry shrubs, and ground covers.

After the plants have been selected for the holding facility, the volunteers head into the forest to salvage for themselves. Members of the Washington Native Plant Society hunt sword ferns and salal to sell to county-sponsored projects. Patton Buchan, a graduate of the program’s naturescaping workshop, stuffs a red huckleberry bush into his Toyota 4Runner, bending branches so that he can close the windows and still have room to drive. He happily points to a decaying log in the back. The bark is broken, covered in a green sheen of moss, and rooted with little sword ferns and huckleberries; as a piece of a “nurse log” it provides a substrate and nourishment for understory plants.

In the past four years Buchan replaced 90 percent of the turfgrass on his half-acre yard in nearby Kenmore with “island beds” of natives. “I’m trying to create a native and edible landscape,” he explains. “You can’t buy huckleberry like this, and you can’t get nurse logs at a nursery. They’re perfect.”

Robert Stephens, 75, and his wife, Teris, fill the back of their small pickup with sword ferns. They will replant the ferns in a few hours on a hillside next to their Friends Meeting House, where two years earlier they stripped most of the property of invasive English ivy—the kudzu of the Northwest. “Some members thought we were crazy, but the hill is starting to look pretty good,” Teris boasts.

Ten miles away at the holding facility in Duthie Hill Park, the volunteers work assembly-line fashion under a nylon canopy, scooping plastic pots into a steaming pile of half sand and half compost, a blend formed from Seattle yard waste. Clumps of plants and soil from the burlap bags are divided into individual specimens and packed into pots. It will be evening before the volunteers’ work is done.

Some of the plant potters are from Earth Corps, a Seattle-based group and an affiliate of AmeriCorps, which trains young people to do ecological restoration. It’s a hands-on business, and the volunteers are all dirty up to their elbows and sporting a few smears on cheeks and noses where they have wiped away the rain.

Squeezed into little more than a half-acre, the holding facility is home to some 30,000 plants and 55 species. Nearly 95 percent of those salvaged today will survive to be replanted after living in the pots for one growing season, says Cindy Young, because they have been selected for their ability to be transplanted.

Over the life of the program, the salvages—undertaken from November to March during the plants’ dormancy period—have saved nearly $575,000 worth of plants, which King County buys at a reduced price. The money is used to continue running the program. Yet every year the county needs thousands more plants than it can get from the salvages, Young says.

It is an ironic business, taking plants from one site about to be turned into a manmade landscape and using them in projects to repair damage that has also been done largely by development. “There is so much restoration to do, and so much demand for these plants,” says Young. “It’s really a bittersweet thing. It’s great to have a need for all these salvaged plants, but what I’d really like to be is put out of business.”

Environment and garden writer James McCommons tends native plants at his home on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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Wherever lands are being developed there are opportunities to do plant salvages. Even small parcels, such as a lot for a single-family home, can yield a treasure trove of native flora. To organize your own plant rescue, here are some tips.

• Network with private developers, real estate agents, design professionals, and government officials, such as road commissioners and zoning board members, who are involved in land alteration, creating subdivisions, building malls and office spaces, and widening highways.
• Show that you are sincere, and sensitive to concerns, since plant rescues usually involve allowing access to private property. Offer to have volunteers sign a liability waiver.
• Give volunteers a list of equipment to bring: burlap and plastic bags, sharp shovels, pruning shears, buckets, carts, and wagons.
• Survey the site ahead of time. Draw up a plant list, and flag specimens to help volunteers work efficiently the day of the event. 
• On rescue day, supervise and pair the volunteers with experts who can help identify plants, demonstrate proper removal techniques, and provide instruction on replanting and care.
• For additional information about planning a plant salvage, go to The Tucson Succulent Society, the King County Native Plant Salvage Program, or the Wild Ones.

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