Clear vision for a cruddy creek

Bobbi Reierson points to a pipe hanging down from the Interstate 5 viaduct, black goo oozing from its mouth. The pipe is channeling waste from the freeway into Bear Creek next to Medford's Hawthorne Park.

The pipe is there to drain excess water off the freeway. But one man's ceiling is somebody else's floor, and what goes away from one site comes around to another, because there's really no "away" if you think about it.

Down here under the massive concrete structure blocking the sun, the state-installed pipe channels whatever crud comes off the freeway into the creek — including oil, gas, plastic and other litter, tire dust (which includes sulfur, zinc, nickel, chromium, cadmium, copper and other metals) and whatever.

Which is a weird thought, because businesses, municipalities and you and I can get in trouble for putting our garbage into the creek.

This is where Reierson came in.

Now a student at American University in Washington, D.C., she was taking an environmental studies class last year at South Medford High School when the class had a visit and talk from Jim Hutchins of Oregon Stewardship, a Medford-based nonprofit based on the idea of getting kids involved in taking care of the environment.

Reierson was so excited she called Hutchins after the class and asked what she could do. Soon she and a half-dozen other students from St. Mary's and South Medford High were on their knees pulling up Himalayan blackberries, one of the worst of the invasive species here.

"A community did this," Hutchins says.

"I think that's where the biggest change comes from," Reierson says.

The modern abuse of the creek began with pioneers who found it a handy place to throw their crap away. There appeared to be an "away" back then, but it actually turned out to be Grants Pass, Gold Beach and the Pacific Ocean.

Then 80,000 people came, and the stream is now a repository for shopping carts, old tires, farm runoff with its chemicals and pesticides, street runoff, lawn chemicals and the occasional mega-flush from Ashland's less-than-stellar efforts to handle its sewage.

Compare that with Ashland Creek, with families splashing around where it tumbles through Lithia Park and diners on the patios of the touristy eateries on Guanajuato Way behind the downtown Plaza. Not that it's immune from urban hazards either (too many featherless bipeds). But still.

What Hutchins and Reierson would direct your attention to is the bioswale in the path of whatever comes out of the pipe. The rocks, put there by volunteers, are placed along the grade to remove silt and pollutants from the I-5 runoff. Lower down they give way to the next phase in the system, recently planted willows and alder and other native species put there to suck up contaminants.

The blackberry thicket here was scraped off by a tractor, then Reierson and the other students came on hands and knees to put in the 30-plus hours it took to pull up the roots by hand. A crude foot path now winds through Oregon grape, snowberry, salmonberry, Oregon ash, wild currant, spirea, dogwood and more.

Hutchins says survival of the native species has been better than 90 percent, aided first by countless hours of hand watering and now by an irrigation system.

"And we've had no vandalism," Hutchins says. "I don't even find bottles here."

Putting the freeway above the creek was an inadvertent symbol for a certain view of the position of nature in urban systems. Once humans have settled in a area there's no such thing as a pristine environment or one that's 100 percent natural — a phrase best left to breakfast cereal hucksters — but that doesn't mean we can't try.

It can be depressing and infuriating to think of all the challenges in a battle being lost on many fronts. Rehabilitating even one section of Bear Creek is a big job. Blackberries still choke the banks on the west side here. But Hutchins and others have started, including Tom Cole's Kids Unlimited, who pitched in on a recent work day, and many others over the years.

The historian and author Thomas Berry once said it's our job to be "present to the earth in a mutually enhancing manner." In town that means at the least cleaning up after ourselves and giving nature a chance.

Nature is trying. An estimated 400 to 500 fall chinook came in October. Steelhead spawned just upstream in February. And salmon showed up in North Mountain Park upstream in Ashland for the first time in 33 years. Some beaver have even returned.

Picture a path running down to the creek from the park, visitors, families on foot, interpretive signs, native birds nesting in some of those native trees. Hutchins can see it. In the meantime he sees a new pipe sticking out of the earth where there's been recent work on a parking lot. He eyes it — it's pointing at the creek like a gun — and says to nobody in particular, "There's another bioswale we'll have to build."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to

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