Wearing gloves and holding shovels, a group of volunteers knelt down along the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline on Wednesday afternoon near the Oakland International Airport. They were carefully planting seedlings in the soil surrounding a piece of marsh. “One Mississippi,” a lady in a straw hat counted to herself quickly—the verbal signal is a simple technique to avoid pouring too much water onto a new plant.
The volunteers had just learned that trick from Dylan Chapple, a restoration specialist with Save the Bay, the environmental collective that organized yesterday’s event. January 5 is National Bird Day, but Chapple said that volunteers come out to help restore the wetlands of the Bay Area every Wednesday. The group’s partners include companies like PG&E and Kaiser, as well as schools around the Bay Area.
“Ninety percent of the wetlands once we had are gone,” said Chapple to the group while showing them two maps of the Bay Area—one of where the wetlands existed 200 years ago and one from 2001. “We are really working against a history of complete destruction.”
Chapple said the Bay Area, as the biggest estuary on the West Coast, is an important habitat for millions of birds on their migration routes. Sometimes 15 different species of birds can be seen feeding together after the tide’s ebb, he said. The highland beside the marsh where the volunteers were planting on Wednesday is a crucial shelter for the Clapper Rail, an endangered kind of bird that only exists in the Bay Area.
Other major functions of wetlands, Chapple said, are that they can soak up floodwater and filter out trash, which keeps pollution away from the Pacific Ocean. “The biggest single thing I pulled out of the bay was an airplane tire,” Chapple recalled. “At the same day we also pulled out a refrigerator. The weirdest thing I pulled out was a brand new flat screen computer monitor still in its box.”
As the climate is changing, Chapple added, the sea level has been rising every year, which is causing serious flooding for the residents and businesses near the bay.
Chapple, who moved from Los Angles to the Bay Area three years ago, has been a fan of nature since he was a kid. “When I settled in the bay, the first thing I became interested in was the bay itself,” Chapple said. He said he later got “sad about habitat being lost” and decided to do something active and beneficial by joining Save the Bay.
The Oakland-based organization, also known as Save the San Francisco Bay Association, was founded in 1961 by three East Bay women who “were watching the bay disappear before their eyes,” states the group’s website. During its 50-year existence, the organization has been working on restoring shoreline areas and defending natural habitats against pollution and commercial development. It has also been involved in establishing legislation that protects the wetlands of the Bay Area, including the McAteer-Petris Act, which was enacted in late 1960s and founded a state agency called the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.
“The biggest part of our whole effort has been creating awareness about the bay and its connection to everyone around it, ” 92-year-old Sylvia McLaughlin, a co-founder of Save the Bay, told the Oakland Tribune last December.
One of the organization’s current campaigns is to help reduce plastic bags by passing laws that require a 25-cent fee on both paper and plastic bags distributed by all retailers. “Toxic plastic bag pollution is a growing problem in California and throughout the world,” proclaims a Save the Bay press release. “About one million bags wind up in the bay each year where they pollute the water, smother wetlands and entangle and kill animals.”
“99.5 percent of shore birds that are autopsied after death have plastic in their stomachs,” said Chapple on Wednesday. “You can buy organic produce but at this point in the ocean, if you’re eating an ocean fish, you can’t claim something is fully organic because they have such a high level of plastic in them.”
Three types of seedlings were planted yesterday—California Bee Plant, Sticky Monkey Flower and Naked Buck Wheat, which are all local plants that are dying out because of encroachment by other invasive species. The new plants will provide shelter and food for birds inhabiting in the marsh. Chapple said it will take up to five years after the seedlings have been planted before they are considered a self-sustaining population.
Many of Wednesday’s volunteers didn’t know that it was National Bird Day, but being able to help the environment was enough motivation to get dirty. “I see the value of helping the habitat here and I like working outside, ”said Laurel Cain, who just moved from Seattle to Oakland a few months ago. Alan Tong, a volunteer who’s an equipment operator at the Oakland International Airport, said he came out to plant the seedlings because he believes that people should “think about how to be more balanced with the ecology.”
“When I grew up here, it was really hard to find access to the bay, ” said Larry Flaten, a 46-year-old retired fire fighter from San Leandro who was volunteering for the second time. “Now we have the Bay Trail going along the bay—it’s an important part of where we live.”