Over the weekend, about 15 veterans and civilians traveled from as far away as Eugene and Seattle to slog through the muck for several hours at Otter Point in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, planting spruce and shrubs to improve salmon habitat.
The volunteers were deployed for the day by Seattle’s 1st Service Platoon from nonprofit The Mission Continues, which connects veterans, friends and family with community service projects around the country.
Leading the group was Doug Pfeffer, a veteran with four years in the U.S. Navy and 20 in the U.S. Army as a forward observer. In his civilian life, Pfeffer is the Seattle city impact manager for the nonprofit, which connects returning post-911 veterans with community service projects.
“We want to take veterans who have transitioned from the military, and we want to focus that leadership and that can-do attitude and that take-no-prisoners attitude, and refocus it from a military perspective to a community perspective,” Pfeffer said. “We find that a lot of the skills that veterans bring to the table from their service in the military translates very well to the community impact projects.”
The Mission Continues found a partner in the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit focused on improving national parks.
“What better place than a national park,” said Rob Smith, the group’s regional director in Seattle. “Everybody agrees that this is the common ground that we all share.”
The partners found a project site at Otter Point, where 33 acres of parkland were reconnected to tidal influence from the adjacent Lewis and Clark River in 2012.
Contractors dug trenches through 70-year-old dredge spoil deposits to recreate off-channel salmon habitat. They built a new dike around the inland side of the project, and breached an existing dike fronting the Lewis and Clark.
Alicia Todd, a specialist with the U.S. National Guard’s 181st Brigade Support Battalion in Seattle, has been volunteering with The Mission Continues for a year and a half.
“I regain my faith in humanity when I’m out here on projects,” she said, shovel in hand after planting several Sitka spruce. Todd also volunteers with Team Rubicon, another veterans service organization that dispatches disaster responders.
Last year, the National Park Service reported nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance.
Matt Shaefer, the chief of facility maintenance at Lewis and Clark, said the park relies mostly on contractors for its major projects. The Otter Point project was overseen for the park by Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce, and paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration.
Handling general maintenance are a mixture of park staff and part-time seasonal workers from the pathways program, which provides federal internships for students on break. Last year, 410 volunteers contributed more than 9,200 hours of service at the park. The park values each donated hour at $23.56.
“That’s really huge for us,” Shaefer said.
There isn’t as much fanfare for returning post-911 veterans as there was after World War II, Pfeffer said. “Programs like this really enable citizens that don’t have a lot of contact with the military to all of a sudden get out there and do something with our veterans.”
The group next heads to Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve on Whidbey Island. Pfeffer said anyone — civilian or veteran — interested in volunteering with The Mission Continues can contact him at email@example.com