IAS Intersections

Sarah Witte

IAS Intersections

Building lasting relationships with the environment

Sarah Witte outdoors with toolsSarah Witte graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and a minor in Ecological Restoration in 2012. In her Restoration Ecology Network (UW-REN) class, she partnered with Friends of North Creek Forest: now she is its president.  She also works as Senior Tech Representative for a water treatment company.

Our recent interview uncovered a life-long commitment to environmental work that hinges on human relationships.

What prompted you to major in Environmental Science?

I’m not an indoor kid. In high school, one of the requirements for being a senior is to do service learning hours. So, I started doing restoration ecology work parties—volunteer events all around the Puget Sound area.

My little sister and I would go together. It was fun. It got us out of the house. We were able to explore the greater Puget Sound, we didn't have to have our parents with us, and we were out in the parks, pulling weeds and removing invasive species and planting trees together. Even after the hours were completed, we liked it so much—we just kept doing it.

Eventually I figured out that I might be able to go to school to keep on doing it, and maybe make a career out of doing it.

As part of the minor in Restoration Ecology, you completed the UW-REN Capstone course. What that experience like?

It was pretty much the epitome of how you would describe a capstone in interdisciplinary arts and sciences. We had people who were focusing on art, we had people who were focusing on science, we had people who were focusing on just getting through the program with a grade, and everybody spoke a little different language. Everybody communicated a little differently and accepted communication in slightly different ways.

We were all very energized from our education and wanted to do our own projects. But we had to figure out how to work together, accept everybody for who they were, find people’s strengths and capitalize on those.  

It was quite the process to get to know each other, but once we did it all worked together very nicely towards the end. The capstone experience set me up to be more of a collaborator than a competitor.

[See the Student Feature in this issue for more on the UW-REN Capstone experience.]

Who was your community partner for the restoration project you worked on?

Sarah Witte digging up roots

I was in the first year that partnered with the Friends of North Creek Forest nonprofit organization. This was before they had anything going there, when they were still writing grants for land acquisition. We didn't have shovels, we didn't have tarps, we didn't have plants.  It was very bare bones. We've grown so much in the past 10 years.

I never left Friends of the North Creek Forest. I started as a student and then I stayed on the next year to help them organize the volunteer coordination for the next REN team. Then I stayed on as the stewardship coordinator for the nonprofit organization to help support the next year’s REN teams. I stuck around for so long that they put me on the board of directors. Eventually my knowledge of the organization’s history, projects, and future trajectory led them to ask me to hold the steering wheel as president.  I’ve been doing that maybe three or four years now.

You say Friends of North Creek Forest has grown. What has that growth looked like?

2021 is our 10th anniversary as a nonprofit organization working with the forest and the City of Bothell to make it into an accessible community space. Over the years, places like University of Washington Bothell, Cascadia College, and a lot of school districts have sent us students and volunteers. Tens of thousands of students have come into the forest and learned. Tens of thousands of volunteers have put shovels in the ground and learned how their work contributes to the larger picture for ecology. We've had bird walks and forest failing walks, and yoga in the forest, and arts in the forest, and seniors in the forest, and different classes in the forest.

It's only 64 acres but, once you walk up that hill, the trees block the sound of the freeway.  You get that quietness down in the ravine surrounded by trees and bushes, and you get the water trickling over the rocks.

Looking forward to the next 10 years, what are the goals for Friends of North Creek Forest?

More students in the forest, more work parties, more volunteer events. Parts of the forest are really degraded and they need to be brought up to ecological health and ecological diversity to be healthy and sustainable. We want to build the capacity to answer to the community’s needs.

We've had groups of 120 volunteers wanting to help out on Earth Day. We want the capacity the ability to always say: Yes, let’s work together, we can figure out how to make that happen.

How would you describe the importance of restoration ecology and working on a forest like this?

Sarah Witte at table for Friends of North Creek Forest volunteer eventIt's about making connections, as well as restoring ecology. If you plant five trees in five years, how many of them survive?  That's the restoration ecology science. But if five volunteers plant five trees, we also want to make sure that they come back to see how the trees are doing in five years. Did they make a connection to the forest and their community and to the tree that they planted? Do they return to that environment and that connection to see what happens from their efforts?

We want to connect people to their local space like that, where they're going to walk their dogs, and where kids are going to grow up. We’ve seen next-door neighbors meet each other for the first time during volunteer events or classes. They make that connection to each other in the forest.

So, while we want to use sound science practices to increase the health and diversity of the forest itself, we also definitely want to support the humans that are in the forest doing the work, making sure they feel appreciated and feel connected to the work they're doing and the greater community.