On Saturday, Big River Construction worker Jack Burkhart manned a company excavator behind the baseball field at Warrenton High School.

He swiveled the cab around, scooped up mounds of dirt and piled them into a dump truck over, and over, and over again.

It was just like a day at the office for him - except on this job he's working for free.

So is school board member Willy Nyberg, who drove the dump truck back and forth between the baseball and football fields Saturday, taking sandy fill material out of a historic wetland and using it to fill another wetland 50 yards away.

Slowly but surely - one truckload of dirt and volunteer hour at a time - the WHS girls' softball teams are getting a field of their own.

Burkhart and Nyberg, whose daughters play on the varsity softball team, are two of many volunteers helping to swap out the wetlands at the high school to make space for the field.

The diamond is long overdue.

An audit in 2006 flagged WHS ball fields for being out of compliance with Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 to prevent sex-based discrimination in schools.

Boys on the high school's baseball team can gear up for practice and games in the locker rooms and walk right out onto their field behind the school.

But girls on the softball team have to travel about a mile to City Park, where the spartan bathrooms might be locked and field time could be short because recreational teams of all ages play there too.

The City Park field is "adequate for rec, but not great for high school," said WHS Athletic Director Heidi Lent, who coached softball for years.

At times, the girls have to practice in standing water with no bathroom nearby, she said.

"There's no facilities out there," Lent said. "The bathrooms that are there sometimes will be locked, so then there's no bathroom. The boys get to walk out of the locker room and have their field right there. The girls have to get themselves out there, and get off the field for little kids."

Under a mandate to put the high school baseball and softball teams on equal footing, administrators, students, players, parents, coaches and local businesses have pulled together to build a new softball field on a shoestring budget.

Donations of time, expertise, material and equipment have cut the price tag on what would be a $350,000 project down to the bare minimum of permitting costs, said Principal Rod Heyen.

"A lot of players in the community have really pushed to help us out with this," he said.

Flip-flopping wetlandsMaking sure the project complies with wetland mitigation rules has slowed down construction considerably, Heyen said. Plans to build the field have been in the works for about three years.

The school sought expertise from local wetlands consultants Doug Ray of Seaside and Mark Barnes of Astoria, who designed a plan along with school engineer Jim Rankin to fill about an acre of wetland on school property next to the football field.

To mitigate for the filled wetland, they planned to restore a historic wetland nearby, just beyond the boys' baseball diamond. The fill material next to the baseball field turned out to be the perfect match for what is needed to build the softball field.

"The only real solution was to look at trying to put the field on campus, and that meant rearranging the shape of things we already have," said Heyen. "Essentially, what we want to do is just flip-flop the wetlands."

Under Ray's direction, and with donations of equipment and material from Nygaard Logging, Carlson Contracting, Big River Construction and Halton Rentals, volunteers - many of whom are fathers of girls who play on the team - are digging out the fill and reshaping the wetland behind the baseball field. They've saved organic material, which contains plant seeds and woody debris, to be placed back into the restored wetland.

"The wetland is lost, the spruce trees are gone, but the wetland functions will be replaced about 400 feet away," Ray said.

Heyen recruited two students, senior Jacob Bentley and junior Reese Johnson to help restore the wetland as an independent study project and keep a record of the work for Oregon Department of State Lands, which issues the permits for work in wetlands.

Bentley and Johnson have started placing native plants in the new wetland and are keeping a blog of their efforts.

Bentley said, to his surprise, he's actually enjoying the restoration work. He and Johnson have about 2,000 plants left to place in the wetland.

"Before I didn't really think it'd be fun, but I'm starting to like it," he said. "I'm getting excited about it. It's kind of cool to make something."

Loose ends still hangingOnce the wetland is filled, the softball field will be on even ground with the high school football field, but it will still need dugouts and fencing to make it game-worthy. Heyen said he's hoping to get grants to cover those costs, but additional fundraising might be necessary.

The wetland restoration will take seven or eight years, and Heyen plans to continue recruiting students to help with the process.

Lent and softball team members trudged around in the wetland - a couple of them lost their boots in the muck - installing silt fencing around the work site to prevent erosion.

"I can't wait to see it done," Lent said. "I'm a pretty big equal rights person when it comes to athletics. I have three girls of my own. I think the girls should have as nice a facility as the boys have. It's time. It's unfortunate it had to be mandated."

Last year was Lent's last year as the team's head coach. This year, Dionne Marshall took the helm with her dad, Larry Neahring, serving as assistant coach. Neahring was manning a bulldozer Saturday, spreading dump-truck loads of material on the field.

"It's all volunteer," said Neahring. "We have to build this for nothing. We have no money."

The field is a big muddy mess now, Burkhart said, but eventually, when it's all done, "it'll be top notch."

"I think it might be better than the boys'," Lent joked.


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