“We got a good hardworking crew,” Tom Kelly says surveying the handful of people around him who are busy digging in the dirt, cutting down overgrown weeds and carrying wheelbarrows full of invasive species out of the area. It’s the first Saturday in July, and like every first Saturday of the month, Tom and Jane Kelly are out on the Bay Trail down Rydin Road, off Central Avenue in Richmond, working with volunteers to clear away invasive plants and give native species a chance to survive.
The Kellys—a husband and wife team—have organized past Saturdays in this manner for the last 6 years. They would pass this stretch of the Bay Trail while riding their bikes on weekends, and would invariably complain to one another about the overgrown broom lining the trail by Point Isabel Regional Shoreline. “We couldn’t even see the marsh and we kept saying, ‘Someone should really clean this up,’” Tom said. Finally the Kellys decided to stop waiting for “someone” and to go ahead and do it themselves.
This wasn’t exactly new territory for the couple. They are avid nature lovers and had volunteered for clean-up projects in the area for years. Before they started this particular project, Jane attended training at the Aquatic Outreach Institute (now named the Watershed Project) to learn more about local natural resource protection.
The land is managed by the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), but the Kellys said that at first the district was apathetic to their requests and seemed unwilling to work with them on the cleanup. But that didn’t deter the Kellys. Instead they went out and started pulling the broom and leaving it on the trail where EBRPD workers would have to clear it.
Over the years, the relationship between the Kellys and the park district improved, the couple said. Now, EBRPD signs up volunteers and furnishes tools for Saturday cleanups, they said, and the parks district even provides some worker’s compensation should anyone get hurt while volunteering. Tom chuckles, saying they haven’t had any injuries to date. “Nobody’s been hit in the head by a shovel,” he said.
With the help from volunteers, the park district and the Watershed Project, the Kellys are trying to re-create a vigorous marsh land ecosystem. The bay used to extend past the Bay Trail up to the freeway. In the 1920s, Richmond experienced accelerated growth due to industrialization and the opening of the Ford Motor Assembly Plant, made possible by dredging parts of the harbor to deepen it for larger ship access and filling tideland areas. In the process of reshaping Richmond’s waterfront and filling much of it in with foreign soil, Jane Kelly says non-native species were brought in to the area and in many cases the native ecosystem was buried and crowded out.
When the Kellys first started pulling out the invasive Scotch Broom, or cytisus scoparius, to be scientific, they found very few insects or creatures living in the soil—an indication of poor environmental health in the area. “In order for different animals to thrive here you need diversity. With just broom you don’t have a diversity of life,” said Tom, gesturing to the restored land around him he continued. The restoration effort “created a habitat that supports all different sorts of life.” Now the area is host to an array of insects, gopher snakes, marsh birds and, at this time of year, butterflies—something Jane takes great pleasure in pointing out.
Volunteers come to the program “haphazardly,” Tom said. During the school year, groups of students from nearby high schools assist for service credit, and occasionally a class at UC Berkeley will send college students out. Then there are the people whom he says just need to get a way from their usual setting, “It’s really cathartic work. People who are feeling stressed at work can just come out here and sit by the water pulling weeds and just zen out,” he said.
Kirsten Heming, a Richmond resident who has been helping out on Saturdays for the last five months, confirms that theory about why some volunteer. While wrestling a stubborn weed from the soil she explained why she keeps coming back. “It’s a break from my normal routine of working in front of a computer all day,” she said.
The Kellys both seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction from seeing this small swath of land flourish under their care. Jane describes how one native plant, artemisia californica—commonly called “Cowboy Cologne” because of its strong musky sage scent—surprised her with its hardiness. A large group of college students was volunteering one day and Jane put them to work clearing broom—appropriate work for a bunch of strong, energetic kids. After hours of pulling, cutting and sweating, one of the guys in the group called her over to take a look at a plant he didn’t recognize. “They found plants struggling under the broom, but I wasn’t convinced they’d be able to survive,” said Jane. Not wanting to disappoint the volunteers by telling them to just pull it out too, she congratulated them on the find and told them to leave it in the ground. The few twigs they found that day did indeed survive and are now aromatic shrubs over two feet wide.
In addition to removing invasive plants, the volunteers have also planted native species. The way they discover plants to add to the area is beautiful in its simplicity: They walk up and down the Richmond Bay Trail, looking in areas that have already been restored and taking seeds from those natural habitats to the Watershed Project, where they are planted and then nursed into becoming young plants that have a good chance of surviving back on the trail. Jane says that if you walk in nature, nature will tell you what should be there. “When you see it, you can just feel it in every fiber of your being,” she said.
The Kellys have many stories about past volunteers, people who have come out for a few hours or continue to return for months and even years. Their favorite experiences are with kids and people who have never dug in dirt before. “About two years ago we had some kids from a nearby church come out. They had to work here in order to earn a trip to Disneyland. We set them to work pulling weeds and they worked harder than anyone else,” said Jane. In the end those kids went from whining about having to work outside to not wanting to leave. “It was an amazing moment,” she concluded. Her husband agreed, saying that people with the least amount of experience require the most help, but in the end the teachable moments and reward of seeing them open up to nature far outweighs the work.
The Kellys have no plans to stop their Saturday routine, and hope to continue inspiring others to help, too. “The next step is to encourage a stewardship role for some of our longer term volunteers,” Tom said. That’s how they hope to expand the program, by getting other people to follow their example and take on their own sections of the trail.