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Monday, October 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Serving Spokane Valley: Lands Council coaxes trees’ growth along Latah Creek

Casie Schennum, a volunteer with the Lands Council, hauls buckets of water from Hangman Creek to water trees recently planted along the creek bed south of Spokane on Valley Chapel Road. (Colin Mulvany)
Casie Schennum, a volunteer with the Lands Council, hauls buckets of water from Hangman Creek to water trees recently planted along the creek bed south of Spokane on Valley Chapel Road. (Colin Mulvany)

For now, the banks of Latah Creek near Valleyford are overgrown with weeds and invasive grasses. But environmentalists hope that in 50 years, a grove of towering aspen and cottonwood trees will stand there, protecting the creek from harmful erosion and glaring sunlight.

Since autumn 2013, staff and volunteers with the Lands Council have been cultivating thousands of seedlings along Latah Creek in an effort to mitigate pollution and protect native wildlife.

The creek, which feeds the Spokane River, has long been the target of environmental efforts for the large quantities of agricultural chemicals that trickle into it from surrounding farmland.

Those chemicals contain phosphorus, which binds to sediment in the creekbed and promotes the growth of blue-green algae, which sucks oxygen from the water that fish need to survive. With shallow root systems in the surrounding soil, the banks erode quickly, sending muddy, contaminated water into the Spokane River.

The trees, once matured, will help restore the creek in many ways, said Amanda Parrish, the Lands Council’s watershed programs director. Roots will take hold of the soil, reinforcing the banks and helping prevent erosion. Shade will edge out the invasive grass and cool the water, which harbors high concentrations of fecal bacteria and often is too warm to support fish and beavers.

“Just by planting these trees here, this 50-foot barrier, it does a lot for the health of the creek,” Parrish said.

But first: a lot of hard work.

On a recent Friday morning, Parrish and three volunteers watered nearly 400 newly planted seedlings on the stretch of the creek near Valleyford. With a five-gallon bucket in each hand, they plodded through muck and weeds to bring water from the creek to the delicate seedlings, which are sheathed in plastic tubes to protect against hungry deer and mice.

The Lands Council has a truck with a large water tank, but it’s gravity-fed and doesn’t work well on the level floodplains, Parrish said. So, most of the work is done by hand.

The Lands Council’s watershed program services 10 sites. Most of them are on Latah Creek; others include Valleyford County Park and Garden Springs Creek in Spokane. Staff and volunteers travel to a site about three times a week and work for about two hours, Parrish said.

The seedlings come from the Spokane Conservation District and Plants of the Wild, a nursery in Tekoa, Washington. About once a month, a big group like the Boy Scouts or a local high school club volunteers to help plant the seedlings.

But on most days, the turnout is much smaller, Parrish said.

“Planting trees is a lot of fun,” she said. “Watering them, not so much.”

That Friday’s group included Parrish, who studied environmental science at the University of San Francisco and has worked with the Lands Council for seven years; Rhonda Schennum, an electrical engineer for the city of Richland; her daughter, Casie Schnennum, who studied environmental science at Gonzaga University; and Lee Logan, who works at a picture framing store in Spokane.

“My wife used to work at the Lands Council, so when they call me I come running,” Logan said, lugging three buckets through waist-high reeds. “They’re like family to me.”

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