TRIB TOWN: Ed Kerns' energy takes trail from trash-filled to tree-lined
by: L.E. BASKOW, Ed Kerns (second from left at top of photo) has made a 2.5-mile stretch of the Springwater Corridor that passes through the Lents neighborhood his special project by organizing planting parties of native species. AmeriCorps members join Kerns to help students from Kelly Elementary plant seedlings.

Ed Kerns says he's no longer proud to admit that he grew up in outer Southeast Portland's Lents neighborhood, because it has changed so much since his childhood.

'Back then, it was a different neighborhood,' he said. 'People here had lots of property. Everyone I knew had horses, cows, goats and chickens.'

Today, Lents is in an economic depression. Sixty-eight percent of residents earn less than the median income in Portland, according to a 2006 housing study by the Portland Development Commission. Unchecked development along Johnson Creek and construction of Interstate 205 - which split Lents in half in 1983 - are blamed for the neighborhood's depressed state.

Yet, Kerns remains in Lents.

Twelve years ago, he quit his full-time job as a social worker to devote his energy to neighborhood children and the environment.

He began working with Portland Parks and Recreation, the Bureau of Environmental Services, the PDC, various nonprofit organizations and neighborhood schools to organize planting parties along a 2.5-mile stretch of the Springwater Corridor trail that passes through Lents.

The trail, once a railroad that brought produce and passengers to Portland, is now a paved bike and pedestrian path. The city acquired the corridor in 1990 and turned it into the Southeast segment of the 40-Mile Loop, a trail that circles the city as envisioned by the 1903 Olmsted plan for Portland's park system.

All blackberries and bricks

When the city acquired the land, most of the trail was covered with overgrown Himalayan blackberry bushes, a nonnative plant that spreads rapidly and kills native plants in its path. Cutting back the blackberry bushes revealed a lot of garbage. Kerns has seen tires, transmissions, couches, concrete, and piles of bricks and tile hauled to the dump.

'Some bricklayer must've thought he could dump as much as he wanted out here back when it was a railroad,' Kerns said.

Between the months of November and March, Kerns organizes as many as six plantings each school year for fourth- and fifth-graders at Kelly Elementary and high school students at Marshall.

'They are really engaged,' said Bonnie English, a fourth-grade teacher at Kelly. 'Anything they can get their hands on is good.'

English has brought her students to Kerns' plantings for the past 10 years. A few years ago, she sought out a grant to provide her students with knee-high rain boots and gardening gloves because many of her students cannot afford to buy them. English says she ensures the children do more than just get dirty by teaching lessons on native plants and a watershed ecosystem throughout the school year.

'These kids are veteran planters who know what they're doing and why they're doing it,' Kerns said. 'I feel like I'm grooming a thousand radical environmentalists for the future.'

Bureau matches grants

Kerns seeks out federal, state and local grants to fund cleanup efforts along the trail and purchase hundreds of plants. On planting days, he manages AmeriCorps volunteers and offers advice to planters. Kerns, partially paralyzed since a car crash 29 years ago, cannot physically participate in the plantings.

'Ed Kerns is a hero,' said Robert Liberty, the Metro councilor whose district includes the Lents neighborhood.

This year, Metro regional government gave Kerns a $17,000 grant through its Nature in Neighborhoods program to remove concrete and restore an old mill site along the trail. Whenever Kerns receives a grant, the parks bureau has a policy that it will match the money and help with the project.

'Because of Ed's interest, we're doing much more than what we would be doing on our own,' said Mart Hughes, ecologist and biologist for the parks bureau.

Hughes says parks crews would probably try to control the invasive blackberries but would not have the time or money to restore the area with native plants, such as snowberry and elderberry bushes, and hawthorne and ash trees.

The restoration of Kerns' stretch of the Springwater Corridor trail - between Southeast 80th and 102nd avenues - probably will take many more years. The process is slow, and that's the way Kerns likes it. He says he could seek larger grants and have professional landscapers do the work, but that would defeat the main purpose.

'Planting trees is good, but for me it's about the kids,' Kerns said. 'I want them to take some pride in their neighborhood.'

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