Working for a Better Habitat
This is the story of an unlikely villain and an unlikely hero. Both were transplanted from unfamiliar climes. One pushes out diversity, the other is helping it to thrive. Like many stories, this one begins many years ago.
A Strange, New Breed
In the Pacific Northwest, blackberries are a common sight along freeways, in parks, and along waterways. Birds and other animals spread the seeds far and wide. But this invasive menace was not always such a ubiquitous part of our landscape. In a time when industrialization was creating a new middle class and when people were moving from rural areas to towns and cities, an eccentric man with no formal training was working to create strange and wonderful new plants to bring delicious, fresh produce to the growing urban economy. His name was Luther Burbank.
A Fruitful Legacy
Some of Burbank’s creations, like the freestone peach, elephant garlic, and the Shasta daisy, are still perennial favorites. Used for making McDonalds fries, the Russet Burbank is the most widely grown potato in America today. Despite this popular list, one of Burbank’s experimental plants had unintended consequences. Photo courtesy of New York Botanical Garden/LuEsther T. Mertz Library/Biodiversity Heritage Library
Trading seeds with other plant aficionados from around the world, Burbank received from India seeds that grew a huge, flavorful blackberry variety which he named the Himalaya Giant (even though it is actually believed to be from Armenia). In 1894 he offered it for sale. It was very popular and spread quickly.
An Unlikely Villain
The Himalaya blackberry thrived in the mild Pacific Coast climate, especially in the Puget Sound region. The plants quickly escaped their domestic confines and took root in all sorts of natural areas. The quick-growing thickets–sprawling up to 20 feet per year–are particularly damaging because they crowd out existing trees and prevent new ones from establishing. This lack of diversity disrupts the ecosystem.
A River Runs Through It
Attracted to waterways, the Himalayan blackberry is also harmful to salmon populations. Riparian habitat is essential in filtering pollutants, reducing erosion, and maintaining a stable stream channel. Young salmon prefer cool waters that tree canopies provide and rely on woody debris such as roots and logs to create pockets of slow water where they can rest. Blackberries tend to out-compete this native vegetation that is so necessary for salmon habitat. With many other factors threatening salmon populations, some species are considered endangered and need human intervention to survive.
An Unlikely Local Hero
Though she grew up far from the shores of the Pacific Northwest, Tracy Banaszynski, Kenmore resident since 2016, has become a slayer of blackberries and a hero for the restoration of salmon habitat. She grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After earning a PhD in social psychology at Yale University, Tracy moved to Seattle and studied art at the Gage Academy of Arts for four years and in New York City for two years. She came back to Seattle soon after and gave birth to her son, who “cracked my heart open in a big way,” Tracy said. She believed that nurturing her son was the most important thing that she could do. “I threw myself into being a parent,” Tracy said.
Two North Stars
With her little boy at the center of her life, Tracy focused on work and activities that could involve and enrich her son. One such activity included visiting the Les Malmgren salmon imprint pond at Carkeek Park. That’s when her interest in salmon took off and reinforced something that she already knew–that we are all connected and that we humans depend on the health of the natural environment, including keystone species such as salmon. As a result, Tracy has two north stars: Salmon and her son. Helping salmon means healing the planet and caring for other people. And that translates into a better world for her son. Tracy knows that “if we are caring for salmon, we are caring for each other.”
Salmon Habitat Restoration
Tracy’s interest in salmon led her to take the “Community Action Training School” (CATS) produced by a partnership between Mid Sound Fisheries Enhancement Group and Sound Salmon Solutions. CATS immersed Tracy into the world of salmon habitat restoration, which led her to becoming a Restoration Project Manager at Mid Sound Fisheries.
Tracy has led a very successful volunteer effort at Wallace Swamp Creek Park in Kenmore since 2019. Under her leadership and through the local nonprofit Sno-King Watershed Council, hundreds of volunteers have cleared acres of invasive blackberries so that native plant species can return and thrive within the salmon habitat ecosystem. Volunteers have logged over 1,600 hours during 75 habitat restoration events that Tracy has organized.
Kenmore city manager Rob Karlinsey commented on Tracy’s leadership in restoring habitat at Wallace Swamp Creek Park. “Tracy is what I call an eco-cocreator. We are inspired by her sticktoitiveness and her ability to bring a strong showing of volunteers to her work parties time and time again.”
You Can Help
Tracy also serves on the City’s Planning Commission, is active in local issues, and loves where she lives. “Once I started to love Kenmore just a little, Kenmore started loving me right back,” Tracy said. If you too would like to become a blackberry slayer and a salmon hero, you can find more information about Tracy’s volunteer work parties and restoration efforts at Swampcreekwatershed.org. You can email Tracy directly at email@example.com.
Pictured below: Tracy giving instructions to volunteers at a habitat restoration work party.