Redefining the landscape industry

Noah Booker has made a business out of his passion for native species

 

Noah Booker kneels in front of the rain garden on Racine Street. His company specializes in native plant restoration projects that lower the impacts of development and promote healthy environments.

 

Noah Booker is an amiable man with dirty hands and a chortling laugh similar to the snaggletooth tiger cartoon character. He’s only in his late 30s, yet his hair has already turned platinum. He doesn’t blame his job, although it would appear quite sensible to do so — his life has been threatened twice, once by a man Booker described as a little Frenchman outraged by the thought of Booker using herbicides to kill patches of bohemian knotweed.

He snorted in bewilderment. It turned out the Frenchman and his wife were growing this dangerously invasive plant in their garden, and it had spread down into a ravine. It may make a good hedge, but it’s a bad neighbor. The plant is seen by some to be one of the biggest threats to native habitat along the Nooksack watershed, and the county had hired Booker to survey the infestation.

Booker wouldn’t blame his job, however — he likes plants too much. So much, in fact, he had to start his own business five years ago to do what he loves. Booker owns a habitat restoration business called Shelterbelt, and he embodies a shift toward a job sector which may employ millions of Americans in the future.

His business turns edge areas and buffer zones between developments and natural areas into “defensible space,” which he said limits erosion, restores natural habitat and inhibits invasive species.

“A shelterbelt is a hedge or row of trees that protects a farm,” Booker said. “My shelterbelts protect people from natural forces while protecting nature from human impacts.”

The green sector may generate three million “green collar” jobs for Americans and promote $30 billion in investment over the next 10 years, according to the Apollo Alliance, a coalition promoting green collar jobs and clean energy. The trend is driven by government regulations combined with consumer demand for products and services good for the environment.

Until institutes of higher education retool themselves and offer specific trade programs to meet the demands for this market, the people filling these roles will need some background in higher education. Booker’s bachelor’s degree and three additional years of horticulturist schooling give him the expertise needed to do his work well.

 

The changing landscape

Although he can count the other people doing similar work on one hand, Booker said competition is tight and it has forced him to specialize. He used his credentials as a certified arborist, horticulturist, and native plant specialist to create a niche in the plant profession.

Fifteen years ago, Booker said revegetation and restoration was a fringe business filled mostly by volunteers. All of it was new and there weren’t any classes on sustainable landscaping.

Booker said business is up 40 percent to 50 percent this year, and he’s grossing around $150,000. To say that Booker is a member of a growth industry is more than a bad pun. But it’s not as ridiculous as calling him a landscaper, a profession that raises his ire.

“The landscape industry is screwed up. Two-thirds of noxious weeds are coming from horticulture,” Booker said. “When it comes to transforming ecosystems, traditional landscaping is resource intensive and it

doesn’t need to be.”

As a young man, he worked for a landscape contractor who didn’t follow sustainable guidelines, and Booker realized that wasn’t what he wanted to do. As he matured he saw how owning his own business would be worth it because he wouldn’t have to be a traditional landscaper. He’d be free to use a more balanced approach to landscaping than his predecessors.

On bigger projects, he works with consultants who generally understand his philosophy on plants, and he said his residential clients tend to be well educated and very interested and attached to the environment. But sometimes he needs to do a little education. At those times, Booker said as long as you’re reasonable and don’t start foaming at the mouth, people are generally responsive — although sometimes they just like to debate.

“All these things are backed up by scientific data,” Booker said. “So if it’s a person who is willing to listen, you can give them the facts and let them think about it.”

Business is good right now for Booker and projects are stacking up. He just finished work for a rain garden on a newly paved road straddling the city and county line on Racine Street in the Puget neighborhood. He planted a diverse mix of native species that are adapted for the area, including sword fern, wild rose, red stemmed salal bushes, service berry, and native filbert trees to mitigate the developmental impact.

Booker said he’d done this kind of mitigation work before. As he and his two employees were laying down a carpet of sod, people from the neighborhood approached him to see what he was doing.

“I think a lot of people across the spectrum, young people, old people, can get confused and say things like ‘Hey! What the heck is this pond? There’s no water in it. But once you explain what it’s for they get excited about a relatively simple fix that solves the problem,” Booker said. “Because everybody likes Orcas, right? Everybody likes salmon. It doesn’t really matter what your political spectrum is.”

 

Confronting the past

Most of Booker’s work comes from private developers and private homeowners who are infringing on the buffer zone along the creeks, shorelines and watersheds that are critical to habitat. He replants these disturbed areas with native plants that can survive without irrigation, fertilizers or herbicides, but the biggest challenge of any revegetation project is invasive species because they can quickly colonize disturbed areas.

“Every kind of weed takes time to get rid of. It’s not like a one-time treatment and you go away, you’re done,” he said. “Weed control is land management. It requires follow up, a well-thought-out plan and not dropping the ball.”

According to national estimates, costs associated with invasive species are $140 billion annually in the U.S., and the Washington State Department of Agriculture spent $14 million between 1998 and 2007 combating invasive species. Most are a side effect of human activity and were actually planted by humans at one point.

Booker calls what he’s doing on the Nooksack “strategic restoration.” He is trying to restore the balance of species growing on the river to how it was before human intervention. To that end he said the invasive species threatening the area have to go. Driving along Mount Baker Highway past Deming toward the middle fork of the Nooksack, invasive plant species are evident to his trained eye and he slows down to call them out: Himalayan blackberries, salt grass, reed canary grass — more than 100 invasive species exist in Washington State.

One reason why Laurel Baldwin, coordinator for Whatcom County Noxious Weed Board, hired Booker as a contractor to deal with bohemian knotweed is his dedication and experience. No one knows where bohemian knotweed came from, but she said she’s heard anecdotal evidence from residents that it appeared in the ‘60s, probably as an ornamental plant that escaped from gardens.

“It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever dealt with,” Baldwin said.

The roots can spread 30 to 50 feet horizontally. It quickly invades disturbed areas like watersheds, creeks and rivers, then spreads from banks into the under-story where it out-competes all the other plants. A University of Washington study by Lauren Samanth Urgenson found that knotweed will wreak havoc along riparian forests because it interrupts critical nitrogen cycles, poisons the ground so other plants can’t grow and suppresses leaf-litter nutrients on which salmon rely. It may even replace swaths of the forest upbank.

Booker doesn’t make much money doing this — Baldwin said only a small portion of her $183,000 budget goes toward projects like the one Booker is working on. It is Booker’s passion to do the right thing that motivates him to strap on the waders and journey into thick underbrush along the Nooksack looking for knotweed.

 

The long battle ahead

Standing on a bridge overlooking the Nooksack’s braided flood plain, the knotweed’s yellowing leaves he’s pointing out can be seen everywhere. He said sometimes it’s hard not to be impressed by the knotweed’s resilience.

“Even if you gave me a million dollars, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for getting rid of all this,” Booker said.

But 10 minutes later he slows down while taking the turnoff near Acme, asking himself if he just saw some knotweed.

“You develop a second sense, you get this feeling and sure enough there it is,” Booker said.

Up near Blue Mountain Farm Booker knows a guy who dug up knotweed roots every year for 10 years and could barely slow it down. The only way to kill the plant is to use a glyphosate herbicide regimen in autumn, and even then it may still take a few years to make sure it doesn’t come back.

“The more you learn about weeds the more depressing it gets. You just want to throw your hands up and say I’m done,” Booker said.

He compares swaths along Mosquito Lake Road to wildfires where firefighters are forced to abandon whole areas because they can’t fight the entire fire. He said the same thing is happening at Canyon Creek. Some parts of the knotweed infestation have been written off as unsalvageable, and he believes the mitigation work he does at other locations will keep this from happening again.

While the scope of his job has broadened, the alternative isn’t an option.

“It’s a Pandora’s box — on one hand it’s futile and you’re never gonna get rid of this stuff, but on the other hand we have to fight and use our scientific knowledge to try and reduce the impacts of this weed,” Booker said.

“It’s kind of a losing battle, saving the best places but letting the rest of it go. We can’t put the genie back inside the bottle, but if we keep on doing restoration work maybe our grandkids will still be able to go fly fishing up here.”

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