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Volunteers mark 10-year annivesary of nature park by battling invasive species, noting aspirations

MARK KIRCHMEIER, FOR THE SPOTLIGHT - Nob Hill Nature Park volunteer and organizer Howard Blumenthal holding a native, chocolate lily flower. When Howard Blumenthal purchased his house on 3rd Street in St. Helens in 2000, he didn't wonder where the dirt trail at the end of the block might lead.

Then one day he sauntered down that trail and encountered a 7-acre trash-strewn, blackberry jungle. But he kept walking — on what would become a 17-year journey — to help create the Nob Hill Nature Park in a southeast nook of St. Helens above the Historic Riverfront District.

The journey crossed a benchmark Saturday — the park's 10th anniversary — that a dozen of volunteers honored by spending a muddy morning yanking out invasive plant species on the site above the old Boise Cascade veneer plant.

"We hope to restore this nature area to what it was 200 years ago," said co-organizer Caroline Skinner as she overlooked the setting near the confluence of Scappoose Bay and Multnomah Channel of the Columbia River.

The pelting rains failed to soak volunteers' spirits. They understand if they don't do this task, no one will for the taxpayers. The St. Helens Parks Department, with responsibility for 11 other parks, lacks staffing and resources to tackle the ambitious restoration project.

Fortunately, the Friends of Nob Hill Park has a strong partner in the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council that provides expertise and native plants for work parties.

MARK KIRCHMEIER, FOR THE SPOTLIGHT - Scappoose Bay Watershed Council manager Amber Kester and daughter, Kallee, 11, holding freshy dug up invasive lunaria. "Nob Hill is a diamond in the rough," yelled out Pat Birkle of St. Helens as he clamored up a 30-foot slope to shovel out lunaria weeds that infest much of the park. Lunaria is native to southern Europe and a popular American garden flower, but when it spreads beyond private gardens, it suffocates native plant species and habitat for fauna, including song birds.

Skinner said an immediate goal is eradicating lunaria and blackberries from the slope facing the waterfront and filling the area with native plants, including Oregon Grape, sword ferns, choke cherry and service berries.

But illegal dumping is thwarting that goal.

"When people dump their old garden debris here — that debris often includes seeds of non-native 'garden plants' — that makes the problem worse," said Blumenthal, a former chairman of the St. Helens Park Commission.

Another nuisance is when metal detector hobbyists searching through the park find a piece of submerged metal and burrow into the city-owned park for a rusty nail, Blumenthal said. The upturned dirt provides a perfect opening for invasive species to creep back.

Organizers are undeterred, however, and are thinking big. Skinner envisions the park becoming a model for how to restore other natural areas along the Columbia River. She senses a special history to the place, saying how local residents have found arrowheads on the site.

She suspects the park has more ancestral significance to Native Americans than just discovered artifacts.

"Just look at this park," she said. "A dramatic basalt bluff at the northern tip of Sauvie Island over where river channels merge — how could it have not been of significance to the Native Americans?"

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