For Cheryl Conway, of Astoria, volunteering with the North Coast Land Conservancy for their various Hands-on Stewardship events and Weed Warrior Wednesdays is about embracing not only the opportunity to play in the dirt but also a chance “to help balance out the things I help screw up in the environment.”

From using plastic bags at the grocery store to driving a car, she said, “I try to make up for it in the little ways I can.”

Conway was one of about a dozen volunteers who took to the Surf Pines Prairie Habitat Reserve near Gearhart on Nov. 6 to help plant beach strawberry and seacoast angelica strawberry, two plants that are native to the coastal prairie. The planting, which was the conservancy’s Hands-on Stewardship event for the month of November, is part of the group’s continued coastal prairie restoration efforts at the site.

Experimenting on the prairie

According to Land Steward Eric Owen, strawberries already exist at the Surf Pines site, along with other coastal prairie habitats, as they are inclined to grow near the shorelines and in the dunes. They can thrive in sandy soil with low nutrients.

“It’s their preferred habitat,” Owen said.

It can be challenging, however, to get new ones established. Owen expects there will be some mortality among the strawberries planted during the stewardship day, simply because of the harsh conditions and grazing by wildlife. Native plants and seeds that the conservancy put out on the prairie several years ago are just now starting to take hold. Meanwhile, the conservancy tests different measures, such as topsoil removal, to try and bolster the survival rate of the plants.

“A lot of it is experimenting and just learning as you go,” Owen said.

The conservancy’s efforts are aided by grant funding from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, which was designated to help restore the Oregon silverspot butterfly, a federally threatened species that has declined because of habitat loss and degradation. While the conservancy doesn’t tend to narrow its focus to one species, efforts to restore the Oregon silverspot are mutually beneficial for other species and the habitat as a whole.

“There is so little coastal prairie remaining,” Owen said.

A sense of purpose

While the work profits the prairie, it also enhances the lives of the volunteers.

Conway, who moved from Ohio to Astoria about a year ago, enjoys being outdoors in nature. Now that she lives in an apartment, “I don’t have my own dirt to play with,” she said. Volunteering for projects such as the strawberry planting or pulling weeds gets her outside and also makes her exercise “without realizing it,” she added.

She also appreciates gathering with like-minded people, or even those from different walks of lives and professional backgrounds. It was especially helpful when she first moved to Astoria.

“For those of us who don’t have any friends, it gives us a base,” she said.

Penny Abegglen, who moved to the area in 2013 and is now one of the site managers of the Blind Slough near Knappa, agreed. She started volunteering with the conservancy because, as a retired nurse, she was “looking for something that gave me that sense of purpose again.”

“This has,” she added.

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