Idaho Matters: Restoring the Boise River is a labor of love
Along the banks of the Boise River a scrubby, weedy landscape is being transformed back to a living, vibrant ecosystem thanks to the hard work of hundreds of volunteers from across the Treasure Valley.
It’s called the Boise River ReWild Project and it’s the brainchild of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society. The goal is to restore more than 50 acres of habitat along the river.
Idaho Matters producers Samantha Wright and Hannah Gardoski drove down to the river on a very windy day and walked along the bank and many rows of tubes of plastic webbing with tiny plant sprouts inside.
They were joined by Danae Fails with the Golden Eagle Audubon Society who is the project coordinator for the Boise River ReWild Project and Sean Finn, who volunteers as the Project Lead.
Finn says the whole idea is to increase the native biodiversity along the Boise River. He says we’ve lost that biodiversity since the very first days of the Oregon Trail.
“There were people who were on the Oregon Trail who were camping right here. It's hard to believe, but it's true. And of course, those people, they stopped here, their horses and their cattle fed up on the grass and the other plants. And when they were done and ready, they moved on,” says Finn.
He says that’s been the story of the river for decades. Each time someone used the river for its resources and then moved on, leaving an area behind that degraded over time.
“All those native plants that were out here, from time immemorial until about 1850, have slowly been lost just because we weren't paying attention. And now we want to pay attention.”
As the native plants died, weeds took over. And Finn says those weeds should not be there.
“The weeds serve no purpose to our pollinators and our other insects, very little purpose to our small mammals. They do nothing for the birds. They don't carry high energy nectar. They don't provide high energy berries,” Finn says.
So one of the goals of the project is to bring back the native biodiversity of wildflowers, native grasses, native shrubs that bear berries and other kinds of fruit. And they’re taking out the weeds and invasive species like Russian Olive trees.
Conservation is really the only way we're going to be able to do this, especially in an urban setting like this.Sean Finn, Project Lead for the Boise River ReWild Project
Jon Mathews is a volunteer with the project. As a Plot Lead, he coordinates dozens of volunteers who weed the areas and plant the new sprouts.
“We planted about 2000 plants in our plots and then we go back out and kind of nurture them, throw water at them and cage them up and protect them from the deer and everything so they grow,” says Mathews.
Each plot is about half an acre. Volunteers plant dozens of kinds of plants including several kinds of sagebrush, rabbitbrush, chokecherry, bitterbrush, gooseberry leaf, globemallow, and a ton of milkweed plants.
They rely on experts to help them figure out what plants to plant and where to plant them. Other experts donate their time to help teach the volunteers “who maybe don't have the knowledge but have the passion about caring for the river and caring for wild things. And so that's how we try and build communities,” says Finn.
We think of this as a model for community engaged conservation.Sean Finn, Project Lead for the Boise River ReWild Project
The project relies on hundreds of volunteers, from dozens of classrooms of kids to people who grow some of the seeds and sprouts in their backyard to folks who come down to the river and pull the weeds up by hand.
Finn says they’ll maintain the plots for two years to let the native plants get established.
“We will be monitoring plant survival. We're monitoring pollinators, our attendance at these plots, and we're monitoring bird populations around these plots. And we'll do that through the end of 2024 to evaluate what our actual conservation outcomes are,” says Finn.
He says our big government agencies are working on big restoration projects but the smaller areas can fall through the cracks, like a five-acre plot of weeds along the Boise River.
It's only going to happen if the community wants it.Sean Finn, Project Lead for the Boise River ReWild Project