Local “Green Team” spends summer restoring Rogue River

Morgan Werner, Matt Anderson, Niyah Banfill, and Meriah Gannon planting riparian trees along Blakeslee Creek.

By Jamie Vaughan

Rockford locals may have noticed green-clad students working throughout the community this summer, usually covered in mud and always sporting a smile. It may look like a typical summer gardening job, but don’t be fooled: This group has a greater mission.

For its third year, Trout Unlimited (TU) assembled a “Green Team” to support efforts of the Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative. Eight local Rockford students were hired and tasked with protecting and restoring the important coldwater resources of the Rogue River.

Most of their work focused around “green infrastructure” practices like installing and maintaining rain gardens, stream buffers, bioswales and other landscaping techniques that utilize native plants, which act as filters that remove pollutants like fertilizer and pesticides from stormwater runoff before it reaches the Rogue River. They worked in Rockford, Cedar Springs, Sparta and Grand Rapids implementing projects for local businesses, schools, municipalities and homeowners.

Nate Bollman, Tanner Vincent, Noah Clements, Meghan Gault and Hailey Powers working on a rain garden.

The program, which is quickly becoming one of TU’s most impactful projects, was started as a counterpart to the successful program of the Plaster Creek Stewards, a part of Calvin College. The addition of the Rogue River Green Team, working in an upstream community in a higher quality watershed than Plaster Creek, introduces students to matters of environmental injustice and helped bridge typical social barriers, allowing long lasting relationships to be formed.

Rockford High School student Niyah Banfill reflected back on her experience: “From day one, I learned many things: teamwork, cooperation, and the power of the watershed I live in. … I found that establishing friendships was as equally impressive as forming a rain garden. My experience with my Green Team would not have been the same if I had not formed the friendships or shared the memories that I did. … There was an enthralling feeling about high-fiving another sweaty palm as you both realized the work accomplished something for the better.”

As the students immersed themselves in the field of conservation through hands-on service learning, they not only had major impacts on the health of local streams, but improved their environmental literacy and knowledge of community issues.

“The Green Team was a great experience because we were able to both learn and work while helping an important issue in our community,” said Nate Bollman, a Rockford resident and student of Grand Rapids Christian High School.

When the Green Team wasn’t working outside, they were learning about the college experience from student mentors at Calvin and even began to explore potential careers in the environmental field. They had lunch with local environmental professionals, including a representative from Senator Debbie Stabenow’s office. They also toured Catalyst Partners’ LEED Certified facilities to get familiar with jobs in the green building sector.

As demand for professionals with experience in green infrastructure grows, these students can grow up to serve a unique and expanding niche in West Michigan.

The Green Team is supported by the Environmental Protection Agency through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative Project is funded by the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the Wege Foundation, the Wolverine World Wide Foundation and the Schrems West Michigan Trout Unlimited.

Jamie Vaughan is Trout Unlimited’s Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative coordinator.

By Mark Taylor. A native of rural southern Oregon, Mark Taylor has lived in Virginia since serving a stint as a ship-based naval officer in Norfolk. He joined the TU staff in 2014 after a 20-year run as a newspaper journalist, the final 16 as the outdoors editor of the Roanoke Times. A graduate of Northwestern University, he lives in Roanoke with his wife and, when they're home from college, his twin daughters.