A restoration journey

Jon Backus
Jon Backus joined Save The Bay’s restoration team in 2012. He plans to continue his career in habitat restoration as a graduate student.

On a foggy early morning in 2012, I stepped out of our big red Save The Bay truck into my first restoration site in East Palo Alto. Little did I know I was merely taking the first step on my long, rewarding journey with Save The Bay. As we set out tools, gloves and maps of the Bay, I eagerly assisted the experienced field staff in preparation to lead a large group of volunteers. But when it came to addressing the group for our introduction, I became timid of talking in front of such a large audience.

As I led more programs, my fear of public speaking diminished and as I talked to volunteers I increasingly grew so proud of Save The Bay’s grassroots beginning and the victories won to prevent irreversible damage to such a unique, but once undervalued ecosystem. The history and future of the San Francisco Bay is such an interesting and ever-changing story, and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to share this with our volunteers.

Though I often started work before the sun was up, leading programs always instilled in me hope for the state of the Bay. Public programs have volunteers ranging from students to families and friends, all waking up early on their Saturday morning to give back to the communities and the wildlife that depend on the Bay. That’s always a positive group of people to be around!

A tangible impact

There is nothing more satisfying than to finish a program with thousands of pounds of invasive species removed and hundreds of native plants installed. This is the reason why ecological restoration will always be my passion. Because it is tangible. You can see it. Seeing firsthand how the landscape can change and heal with our help is an incomparable feeling. In the face of so many environmental and world problems, habitat restoration provides an avenue away from apathy, towards real change through rewarding work.

Two years after that initial step into my first restoration site, I was promoted to the role of Restoration Program Manager. Now I was in the hot seat doing the behind the scenes work. Managing staff, coordinating our volunteer programs, designing site plans, and acting as interim nursery manager provided me with key knowledge of how a community-based restoration program all comes together.

Planting seeds for the future of restoration

My experience culminated in Save The Bay’s largest and most unique restoration project, the Oro Loma Horizontal Levee Project, in which we planted over 70,000 plants on a broad horizontal levee that combines provision of wildlife habitat, wastewater filtration and protection from sea level rise. As the Program Manager, I witnessed a true testament to our dedication and teamwork through the Oro Loma Project, and am so proud of what we accomplished.

After nearly five years of Saving the San Francisco Bay, I am now ready to take the next steps in my career as a restoration ecologist. So graduate school, here I come! Working for Save The Bay has been an invaluable experience and has given me the skills I need to continue to manage restoration projects and make a difference in our world. I am eager to apply my passion for restoration and my experience at Save the Bay to many restoration projects in the future.

Are you ready to get inspired? Sign up for a volunteer restoration program here.

100,000 plants and counting

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It’s hard to visualize what over 100,000 California native plants looks like. But it’s exciting to think of the habitat they will create when fully established at our restoration sites around the San Francisco Bay.

Save The Bay’s Habitat Restoration team is very proud of the accomplishments made this past planting season, reaching our most ambitious goals to date with a grand total of 103,770 plants installed from October 2015 to April 2016.

A bulk of these plants were propagated and planted for the Oro Loma Horizontal Levee, a project totaling 70,000 plants in itself. This innovative project is a multi-pronged approach to filtering waste water, mitigating floods due to sea level rise, and creating native habitat along the Bay’s edge. But it was no easy job installing 70,000 plants by hand. With long days in the field, rain or shine, hands and knees in the mud, the restoration team worked tirelessly to complete this project, and that we did. I’m happy to say the site is developing well and the native plants installed this winter are starting to spread over the horizontal levee’s surface.

Additionally, over 30,000 plants were also planted at our ongoing restoration sites around the Bay including the MLK Shoreline in Oakland, the Palo Alto Baylands, and Eden Landing Ecological Reserve in Hayward.

But regardless of however many native plants were propagated and planted at our sites, what’s truly inspiring is the community that joins together to make this possible. From our own staff, to 3rd grade students, to company employees, to families and college students, more than 6,000 volunteers each year help physically improve the shoreline of the San Francisco Bay, restoring vital habitat lost over time.

With the plethora of environmental problems we face, it gives me hope to see not all damage is irreversible; that with motivation, dedication, and getting your hands in the dirt, we can make real change.

Join us in the field this summer to help these native plants thrive! Sign up to volunteer.

70,000 planted at Oro Loma

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Last year when Habitat Restoration Director, Donna Ball, proposed a project for Save The Bay’s restoration team to plant 70,000 native plants on an experimental horizontal levee I thought, this sounds near impossible….let’s do it! And with that, we hit the ground running, in preparation for what would be the biggest and most ambitious project Save The Bay’s restoration team had ever attempted.

Over the past 16 years Save The Bay has engaged thousands of volunteers to plant roughly 30-50,000 plants each winter. This year the Horizontal Levee Project at the Oro Loma Sanitary District, combined with our work at various sites around the Bay, will top 100,000 native plants being installed in our restoration projects. But how could we possibly do it? That was the task I was given. To work with our nursery manager, Jessie Olson, to collect, propagate, and outplant tens of thousands of plants.

Getting creative with rhizomes

With our nurseries already at capacity for our other restoration projects, we needed to get creative in order to be able to propagate the 70,000 plants. That’s where ecologist Peter Baye’s help comes in. With his extensive knowledge of the Bay’s ecology, native flora, and restoration practices, he advised Save The Bay’s restoration team on how and where to collect certain plant species and how to propagate the plants using rhizomal divisions.

The idea was fairly simple. Instead of growing individual species in separate containers, we would grow the rhizomatous species in raised beds that we would later dig up, divide, and transplant on site. What exactly is a rhizome? If you missed my previous blog, a rhizome if a modified stem that grows horizontally underground and produces new shoots above ground. It’s almost like they clone themselves.

4 million seeds and counting

With the plan set, we started collection in the field. We had ambitious goals to collect thousands of rhizomes and over 4 million seeds. With collection permits from various parks and reserves, the restoration staff dug up rhizomes and collected ripe seed starting Fall 2014.

During this time, we also went to work building a dozen raised beds on site at Oro Loma. After collecting in the field, the rhizomes were then planted into the raised beds. Our all star volunteers and restoration fellows were of crucial help throughout the collection and transplanting process. Once the beds were planted, all there was left to do was wait for them to do their thing. And they did. Six months later, the small rhizome fragments spread out and produced new shoots, densely filling the raised beds.

Ambitious planting goals

With half of the project accomplished, we were then faced with a bigger challenge, outplanting 70,000 plants… This is where I had to develop new strategies. To aid the restoration staff, I recruited a volunteer planting crew. Lucky for us we had three amazing people join our team for three months, Kelly Franson, Paula Pieriea, and Kelly Hood. We trained them on our restoration techniques and set off with the Horizontal Levee Project Kickoff event on November 14, 2015.

With 2,300 plants installed on the first day, we were off to a good start.

Each day thereafter our staff, all-star volunteers, and planting crew worked rain or shine harvesting rhizome divisions from our raised beds and planting them in a specific planting plan outlined with color coded flags on site. Several public volunteer programs helped our efforts as well as workdays with other restoration teams from around the Bay, including The Presidio Trust and Acterra. Two and a half months later we planted the final plant on the horizontal levee.

What seemed nearly impossible was complete. From the field to the raised beds, to the horizontal levee these plants have had an amazing journey, and so has Save The Bay’s restoration team. We are all proud to have been a part of this innovative project that takes a multi-pronged approach to filter our wastewater and prepare for rising seas, all while providing crucial native habitat at the Bay’s edge.

Learn more about the Oro Loma Horizontal Levee Project:

Project overview

The science of wetlands and wastewater

Experimental habitat for a better Bay

Experimental Living Levee Could Battle Rising Bay Tides — NBC Bay Area

Meet 3 Bay All Stars

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Meet all-star volunteers Steven Russell, Steve Haas (pictured with Restoration Project Specialist Bryan Derr) and Sheldon Nelson

Save The Bay relies on our volunteers to restore marsh habitat around the Bay, and some go above and beyond in their time and effort spent. When tasked to plant 20,000 native plants at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, in sensitive habitat inaccessible to our large volunteer groups, three of our most dedicated volunteers were ready to help. Three “all-star” volunteers — Steven Russell, Steve Haas, and Sheldon Nelson — joined Save The Bay’s restoration staff in planting up to 1,500 plants a day in the field. Donating a full day of work, they not only provided physical labor, but great attitudes, humor, and camaraderie to the restoration team.

Steven Russell of Redwood City has been volunteering with Save The Bay for almost ten years! His favorite Save The Bay restoration site is Eden Landing Ecological Reserve because watching the restoration work throughout the site gives him great hope for the Bay’s future.

Steve Haas of Menlo Park has been a volunteer with Save The Bay for eight years, he enjoys returning to the many Save The Bay restoration sites to see the difference volunteers have made to establish native plants and remove invasive ones.

A San Ramon native, Sheldon Nelson has been a regular volunteer with Save The Bay for four years. His favorite site is Eden Landing Ecological Reserve because it is a beautiful place to work, and when the tide comes in he feels like he is standing in the middle of the bay.

Thank you Steven, Steve, and Sheldon for your dedication to Saving the San Francisco Bay! Visit www.savesfbay.org/volunteer to join our dedicated team of volunteers to help restore our Bay.

Planting Day at Eden

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We had a productive day of planting at Eden Ecological Preserve along the Hayward shoreline.

With just five staff and two volunteers, in two days we planted a total of 1,900 plants, all mulched and watered at Eden E!

It’s been a dream since I started with Save The Bay for a staff planting day to get 1,000 plants in the ground and yesterday that dream became a reality. We actually haven’t planted that many plants even on volunteer days with 60+ people. I am extremely proud of the restoration team for their hard work and dedication to getting this project accomplished. With the drought setting us back last winter, we still have a long way ahead of us — we need over 15,000 plants to be planted at Eden E by staff this winter — but with such a strong start I believe we’ll be able to pull it off.

Though hard to see in this picture, there are plants in every mulch pile. Now we just need a TON MORE RAIN!