Astoria’s South Tongue Point will provide a future for both habitat and local students.
By Dez Ramirez
“I’m not much of a morning person,” my volunteer photographer says to me in a low voice as we meet each other for the first time. He’s in good company, because I’m not much of one either.
It’s 8:45 a.m., and photographer Doug Gorsline and I are loading into a small boat with two bags of very expensive photo equipment, getting ready for a morning on the John Day River. We get a brief safety talk from our captain, and Land Trust land steward, Austin Tomlinson, and snap on our life jackets. I immediately regret not bringing a second cup of coffee for the boat ride as I watch Tomlinson take a sip from his Yeti mug. Rookie mistake.
It’s a classic Astoria morning: low grey clouds, ocean-chilled air, and seagulls flying overhead. Our mission today is to get a good look at South Tongue Point, the Land Trust’s latest project and future home of Clatsop Community College’s “living lab.”
The cold air hits my face as we take off on our boat ride, and I learn quickly from Gorsline that this John Day River has nothing to do with the other John Day River, in Eastern Oregon. South Tongue Point appears in the distance, and we get our cameras ready, Gorsline with his Canon and me with my iPhone. We begin a large half-circle around the property, which is chock-full of lush greenery—layers of salt marsh grass, cattail, willow, alder, and cottonwood growing wildly along the intertidal banks. Great blue herons stare back at us as we inch closer toward them, trying to get the perfect shot.
It’s easy to see the vegetation density, habitat potential, and rich biodiversity South Tongue Point offers, an ecological dream for scientists, making its future as a living lab quite fitting. “This is such a rich area for diverse scientific opportunities,” said Clatsop Community College president Chris Breitmeyer. “A living lab at South Tongue Point is a wonderful way to jump–start an environmental science program where students could do some long–term ecological monitoring and gather real–world data that would be of value to the scientific community.” After 20 years of studying, teaching, and being an academic administrator in the environmental sciences, Breitmeyer is clearly passionate and excited about South Tongue Point’s future and grateful for the partnership with the Land Trust.
Four years ago the Land Trust and the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce (CREST) brought South Tongue Point to the college with hopes that we could conserve the land and transfer it to them, and CREST could help restore it. Situated on the main stem of the Columbia River, the 82 acres provides tidal wetlands, riparian area, and habitat for salmon and migratory bird species. The partnership between Columbia Land Trust, CREST, and Clatsop Community College formed with all three groups identifying the potential of the land as well as a cohesive vision for its future.
“My hope for that piece of land is that our students have access to a habitat where they can learn field techniques, experimental design, and those kinds of real–world things that undergrads at a community college wouldn’t normally get,” said Breitmeyer. Students who go through the college’s environmental science program and spend time out at South Tongue Point in the living lab will gain experience in conducting, planning, and executing field research, as well as land management and restoration practices.
In addition to the living lab, the college has plans to build a new campus for its Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station (MERTS) on adjacent land. Breitmeyer has been developing relationships with local environmental groups in order to create job pathways for students coming out of the program with certifications in environmental science—and the curriculum for this program is also aligned with Oregon State University and Portland State University to create easier transfers for students. Enrollment in Clatsop seems to be on the rise, specifically with local high school graduates, a good sign that regional high school graduation rates also may be on the rise.
Breitmeyer’s big picture looks like a well-traveled and well-defined path with off–ramps into further education at our state schools and placement into local science– and environment–based jobs. “In every aspect of this project, we see a lot of benefits to the students and to the community as well,” he said. The vision is a big one that puts the local community at the center, creating options for future education and job resources.
“This partnership is an embodiment of both our past and present strategies that conserve and restore important wetlands and floodplains in the estuary, as well as an opportunity to inspire and educate the next generation of conservationists.” Said Land Trust Conservation Director Dan Roix.
The Land Trust has leveraged its 20 years of experience writing grants, building relationships, and conserving vital wetland habitat along the Columbia River Estuary to secure public funding for the site’s acquisition. Today, the Land Trust is 90 percent of the way toward raising the $1.41 million needed to purchase South Tongue Point. The remaining $141,000 represents an opportunity for Astoria and the communities of the North Coast and Lower Columbia to help complete a project that both supports wildlife today and trains the environmental scientists of tomorrow. Pending funding, South Tongue Point is expected to close this October, and students could be using the living lab as soon as winter of 2020.