This month the City of Salem formalized its first-ever partnership between a City department and a private group to provide improved and ongoing maintenance for a city park. The details were set forth in a memo of understanding (MOU) endorsed unanimously by Salem City Council on July 14 that memorialized an agreement between the City’s Public Works Department and the Mission Street Parks Conservancy to work together for the benefit of Bush’s Pasture Park.

“I’m excited about it,” says Carel DeWinkel, who has worked in the park as a volunteer for 8 years. “Clearly the City and the community need more support to maintain the park in the best possible way.”

The Mission Street Parks Conservancy is the most recent incarnation of an organization of volunteer gardeners that was formed in 1979 to tend the plant collection housed in the then-newly rehabilitated Bush Conservatory.

The group evolved into Friends of Bush Gardens in 1991, who, among other projects, restored the sizable and historic rose garden (purchasing 600 roses in recent years) originally planted by the Bush family and, ten years ago, led a three-year capital campaign to completely restore the Bush Conservatory. In recent years the ‘Friends’ regularly donated thousands of volunteer hours to Bush Pasture Park annually.

 

Late last year the entity, in its words, “responded to threats to the park’s landscape and its iconic Oregon White Oaks by reorganizing as the Mission Street Parks Conservancy” (MSPC) with the goal of raising the level of care in the 90.5 acre Bush’s Pasture Park in partnership with the City.

In addition to bringing its volunteers and park know-how, the new Conservancy will be a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, giving it the ability to fundraise from private donors and pursue grants. It will raise money independent of the City but will spend it under an action mutually agreed upon between the two (City and Conservancy funds will not be comingled). This means that going forward many more resources will go toward needs like buying new trees and plants, hiring an assistant gardener to direct the work or installing interpretative kiosks.

The notion of a public-private partnership between City staff with a proven, motivated entity like MSPC, delighted the councilors at the July 9 hearing.

Park territory where the new Conservancy will assist the City of Salem

“I’m really excited,” said Mayor Chuck Bennett. Improved park maintenance was “obviously badly needed or we wouldn’t have a conservancy group coming forward… The work that has been done at Bush has just been exemplary.” Bennett reflected on cutbacks that have impacted park care in recent years and added, “and to see it have a plan for more assistance from grants and other kinds of things that a 501 (c) 3 has, I think really makes sense.”

Gretchen Carnaby, founder of Friends of Bush Gardens and co-founding member of the new Conservancy board, has led the volunteer efforts in Bush’s Pasture Park for decades. Carnaby says, “I was greatly heartened by the council’s commitment to monitor our progress and to help ensure our success.  The only way a conservancy can be successful is to be tightly partnered with the governmental agency involved – in this case, Salem City Parks.”

DeWinkel is part of a devoted volunteer team that shows up each Tuesday morning for about 6 months every year. He says he has particularly enjoyed working in the perennial beds just south of Bush’sConservancy and straightening, replanting and maintaining the rose garden. He notes the historical nature of heirloom rose bushes planted by the Bush family, and says, “from a historical perspective it’s of value to maintain these for the community. They are a treasure for so many people.”

For her part, founding Conservancy board member Ellen Stevens feels a deep and abiding admiration for the Park’s groves of White Oak, including some inspiring giants that date back before the time of Columbus.

“The native white oak is the most important aspect of the park for me,” Stevens says. “That’s why I’m so excited that one of our Conservancy goals is to ‘secure the health, longevity and succession’ of these irreplaceable trees. The white oak is the singular historical, natural resource — botanical species — that is the foundation of Bush’s Pasture Park.” 

Stevens has reason for this concern; less than 15% of the oak woodlands that existed prior to pre-European settlement now remain in the Willamette Valley.

Carnaby seconds Steven’s commitment, saying, “we look forward to working with the city to develop a specific management plan for the Oregon White Oaks and the Rhododendron Hillside.”

To concerns that the alliance with MSPC might give the City a “pass” on its duties, Mayor Chuck Bennett told the Council, “We want to make sure that this doesn’t become a substitute for [the City’s] obligation to our parks… We want to be sure we don’t continue to use volunteers to continue what was a recession-era decision to trim employees.”

A protection against this possibility is built into the structure of the MOU; the agreement will remain in effect for two years. At this point, all parties will evaluate the partnership before it is, ideally, extended another two years.

“We feel very strongly that it’s a public park and it needs to be maintained by the public,” new board President Michael Slater told CCTV when he and Carnaby recently appeared on the InSight program. “We’re just stepping into a piece that the City is having challenges maintaining. We just want the park to achieve its full potential.”

 

Photo at top: Conservancy members Lindsey Kerr, Karl Roth, Gretchen Carnaby, and Kathy Savicki study a preliminary sketch.