'You can see your efforts': UMBC students work through dreary weekend to clean campus

Beneath gray skies and over a slightly swollen stream, about a dozen University of Maryland, Baltimore County students carried buckets of trash and grabber tools on a rain-soaked boardwalk, collecting litter and clearing invasive species as part of a community stream cleanup.

The undergraduates, all up before 9 a.m. on a Saturday, worked through a cold drizzle with the Environmental Task Force, a student group, to help clean UMBC’s Herbert Run Greenway, a 1.4-mile loop on the school’s campus.

“You guys are such troopers,” said Elizabeth Eakes, president of the student organization. “Thanks for coming out in the rain.”

The Herbert Run cleanup was part of UMBC’s Welcome Week Service Project, a campus tradition that aims to connect students with opportunities to help their local communities.

The greenway starts and finishes near the Commons Garage off Hilltop Circle and is open to the public. Like the rest of the Patapsco Valley, it is considered an “Important Bird Area” by the Audubon Society.

Much of the greenway is wooded. After passing under Hilltop Circle, a visitor would walk through a field and behind UMBC’s stadium, almost reaching Shelbourne Road, before reaching the school’s Conservation & Environmental Research Area.

From there, the trail becomes a boardwalk, built to keep visitors from disturbing the streams and wetland-like environment on campus. The boardwalk leads visitors next to a pond that Eakes said is popular with students. A map of the greenway can be found online at https://herbertrungreenway.wordpress.com/map/.

The greenway is home to 76 species of birds, according to its website, including robins, kingfishers, bluebirds and ducks.

Eakes, a sophomore majoring in global studies and environmental science, said the band of student volunteers taking part in the Sept. 8 cleanup collected 149 pounds of garbage and recyclables.

“It wasn’t the best weather, but I think that everybody came out, they didn’t really know what they were signing up for, but I think they actually ended up enjoying it,” Eakes said in a later interview.

Jordan Armstead, a junior studying mechanical engineering, said he was happy to work on the dreary morning because he loves the rain and enjoys both service work and being in nature.

Yes, it required waking up early, Armstead said, “but it’s for a good cause.”

After collecting trash and learning about invasive species that have cropped up around UMBC, the volunteers reconvened near the start of the greenway to clear some overgrowth and split into groups to plant two native plants: black-eyed Susans and a redosier dogwood tree.

The plants were purchased and donated by Larry Hennessey, associate director of UMBC’s facilities management department. Hennessey isn’t the faculty adviser for the Environmental Task Force club, Eakes said, but more of a “sponsor” who knows a lot about the greenway and the natural environment on and around campus.

Hennessey led the students around the greenway during the cleanup, teaching them about the campus and helping identify invasive species.

As a larger group of students removed some weeds and planted black-eyed Susan bulbs, Hennessey worked with a smaller group to plant the dogwood.

After selecting a spot along the trail to place the tree, Hennessey was quick to grab a pickax and start removing roots.

“Once you have to get down maybe a foot or so, soils are never that easy to get into,” he said.

Hennessey had to cut through roots and sandy soil before Armstead, the mechanical engineering student, could grab a shovel and dig a hole large enough for the potted tree.

A few minutes of digging later, Armstead encountered something in the subsoil he didn’t expect.

“What’s this green netting?” he asked. A few inches below the organic topsoil, thin, green netting crept like tendrils around where he was digging.

“Erosion control,” Hennessey said. He explained that a few years back, when a pedestrian bridge was built over part of the stream, UMBC laid the green netting below the topsoil to act as a safeguard against landslides and help keep the stream banks from caving in.

Hennessey said he wants to continue working with the club to plant more dogwoods along that stretch of the greenway, between UMBC’s Joseph Beuys Sculpture Garden and a pedestrian tunnel that travels under Hilltop Circle.

Creating a dogwood grove would help clear out invasive species, create a bright red spot of color on campus — especially important during winter, when the tree retains its color while other leaves fall — and serve as a living, physical connection between the students who plant the trees and the campus, Hennessey said.

Hennessey said planting trees on campus that will outlive a student’s tenure at UMBC gives them something they “can look back to” and could prove “inspirational” for environmentally minded students.

In a later interview, Hennessey said he tries to introduce an educational aspect to the volunteer work so students collecting trash, cutting invasive vines or planting native species gain a greater understanding of the campus they’re working on.

“We try to introduce [student volunteers] to a number of concepts, so that when they are walking around campus, they are more aware of the ‘why’ and the ‘where,’” Hennessey said. “You should be able to reflect.”

Students work year-round to keep the area clean and invasive species at bay, Eakes said.

UMBC’s Environmental Task Force holds weekly stream cleanups on campus, with students deciding where to work each week based on what they see during the week, Eakes said.

“It’s really meaningful, the fact that you can see your efforts, like you go in and you see this litter, but then you leave and it’s cleaner and greener,” Eakes said. “It just shows that it does make a difference, what we do is important.”

cboteler@baltsun.com

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