Vigor’s 60-acre shipyard at the tip of Swan Island is a sea of steel and pavement, where cruise ships, naval vessels and ferries all turn to for crucial repairs that can take months and cost millions of dollars.
In the heart of the north Portland shipyard and in the shadow of North America’s largest floating dry dock — which stretches more than three football fields long and is as tall as the White House — a series of raised flower beds are starting to sprout tiny green plants.
The manufacturer that can repair ships weighing upward of 170 million pounds is partnering with the University of Portland to create habitat for a vulnerable creature that weighs no more than a feather: the monarch butterfly.
Whether the garden project in the heart of the Portland Harbor Superfund site succeeds is anyone’s guess.
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“If we even had one show up we would all just be doing backflips,” said Alan Sprott, Vigor’s vice president of environmental affairs.
But it’s off to a positive start.
One year after first planting various milkweed seeds, Vigor intern Gabe Ablin will be one of 780 UP undergraduates collecting a diploma this May. He’s also among thousands of students across the state who will be graduating over the next six weeks.
Ablin says he knew next to nothing about milkweed, which is crucial to the distinctive orange and black butterfly’s survival, when he started the project a year ago.
“This is confirmation that it worked,” he said of the first phase of growth. The milkweed survived Portland’s worst winter in a century under Ablin’s close eye. Buds are popping out of the ground.
Sprott said this is a three- to five-year project that will eventually see thousands of milkweed and other native plants installed along the river bank and spread throughout the shipyard. The company said it will devote 2.25-acres to the project, a substantial investment.
Butterflies won’t make Vigor any money, but Sprott said it’s not about that.
“We operate in the Pacific Northwest,” he said of the company’s 10 locations in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. “The environmental ethos of the people here is pretty strong, and you’re either at the dinner table with them or you’re on the menu. So, we’re trying to be at the table.”
Bakersfield to Portland
Ablin, 21, arrived in Portland four years ago from Bakersfield, a city he described as the most polluted in the country.
He and his older brother grew up going to the Jameson Ranch Camp each summer in the Sequoia National Forest northeast of town, where he fell in love with the outdoors and saw a career in environmental work as possible. He learned how to garden, weld and split wood. His dad went to the ranch as a child as well, and the years of summers were affecting.
“There’s something beyond the smog cloud. Literally, and metaphorically,” Ablin said.
For college, he landed at UP and pursued an environmental ethics and policy degree.
During his sophomore year, Ablin learned in an air pollution class about an internship opportunity at Vigor, which he only knew at the time as “those boats you see off the bluff.”
In response to neighborhood complaints to the Department of Environmental Quality about paint and other noxious smells wafting up from Swan Island, Vigor decided to investigate whether it was responsible.
Ablin was one of several paid interns who canvassed the neighborhood and took air samples as part of what would become an 18-month study.
The Californian’s first job was at one of Bakersfield’s oil companies so he liked the idea of working for a big company on environmental projects.
“I want to walk the line between being just a total eco-hippie warrior sitting in trees 40 hours a week and just fully working for a company and selling my soul,” Ablin said of his calculus.
He saw that Vigor cared.
“It was super cool that a big industrial company like Vigor was doing something that they did not have to do,” Ablin said.
The company shut down a wastewater treatment plant that it determined was responsible for some of the complaints, and shifted practices to try and boost air quality. Sprott said the company wants to be a good neighbor, and “walk our talk.”
Vigor had built a pipeline to UP. At the end of his air quality internship, Ablin pitched the company with a larger habitat restoration project on the island.
Vigor had another idea. The company had seen a story in The Oregonian/OregonLive about the benefits of planting milkweed in home gardens. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on the perennial, but their numbers have been in steep decline for 20 years as milkweed vanished from the sides of roads, rivers and gardens.
Sprott offered Ablin a solo project starting a milkweed habitat at the shipyard.
“We wouldn’t be able to go out and hire an entomologist or botanist to do this,” Sprott said on an April day as he and Ablin overlooked the garden. “We tap into, no offense, Gabe, cheap labor, and the resources of the university to guide it along.”
Monarch butterflies have distinct migration patterns on each coast, and both have been in steep decline for years.
The pollinating insects can travel thousands of miles, spending their winters in Mexico or Southern California.
Monarchs rely on milkweed. They lay their eggs on the once ubiquitous plant, and caterpillars depend on it for food. Nectar plants help fuel the butterflies on their lengthy road trips.
But milkweed is harder to find these days, and the effects are indisputable.
According to a 2016 report from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the western population’s numbers have plunged 74 percent in the past two decades.
Sarina Jepsen, director of endangered species at the Portland-based nonprofit, said the numbers are “startling.”
In 1997, estimates put the butterfly population in the West at 1.2 million. Today, the count is as low as 200,000.
In the eastern U.S., Jepsen said, the use of the chemical giant Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer and Roundup-ready crops are likely to blame for the precipitous decline in monarchs.
“We are not as certain as what’s causing the decline in the West,” she said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating whether the insects should be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in 2019.
In a good year people can see monarchs flying around Portland, Jepsen said, but the city is just outside of the historic range of the butterfly.
Vigor consulted Xerces about its project, and Jepsen said the nonprofit is supportive of planting native habitat.
“They are not the only threatened pollinator, threatened insect, that we have,” she said, citing bees and other butterflies. “there is a whole suite of other species that will benefit from this project.”
Vigor sits in the heart of the Portland Harbor Superfund site, an area of documented environmental hazards that dates back decades.
A Vigor subsidiary, Cascade General, is one of the dozens of responsible parties that is trying to sort out costs for the roughly $1.05 billion cleanup. Sprott said the company will be coping with the cleanup for the next 15 years, just as it has been bracing for the plan for the past 15.
The milkweed project is separate from that cleanup. It’s a small thing, but it’s been a hit with employees,” Sprott said. “Most people in the Northwest are. That’s why we live here.”
For Ablin, now that his internship is finished, he still sees the possibility of more work with Vigor. There’s a great chance for “full-scale habitat restoration” on the island. He envisions more partnership with the university.
As with thousands of students at Oregon colleges and universities set to graduate, he is excited for the next chapter. He hopes that includes a job at Vigor.