Wielding loppers, Kathleen Sayce cuts through brambles smothering a parcel in the heart of historic and otherwise tidy Oysterville on southwest Washington’s Willapa Bay.
Between a leaning red alder and a mangled Sitka spruce, Sayce (’78 M.S. Bot.) opens a narrow trail through native bittersweet, salmonberry, and red elderberry plants. With verve, she hacks invasive ivy and blackberry vines. In the center of the thicket she unveils shredded food wrappers, perhaps the plunder of black bears living on Long Beach Peninsula.
The science officer at ShoreBank Pacific, Sayce—-sporting a sheen of perspiration and bug repellant—-is no buttoned-down banker. She is the only working biologist or botanist at a commercial bank in the United States, says her boss, bank CEO Dave Williams.
Emphasize working; because even though Sayce is one of the Pacific Northwest’s foremost experts on coastal plants, she’d rather be tromping through woods than planted in a laboratory. “I realized in graduate school [at Washington State University] that I like to do things that are very practical,” she says. “I wanted the work that I did to make a visible difference.”
Everywhere you look around the lush landscape of the lower Columbia River, Sayce is making a difference.
ShoreBank, which has an Ilwaco office serving nearby communities, concentrates on sustainable lending, considering loan applications with a longterm view rooted in conservation and community as well as economics. Most banks don’t track a client’s environmental footprint, but Sayce monitors borrowers long after the papers are signed.
“If they’re damaging the environment,” Williams reasons, “they’re not going to last very long.”
The bank also hires out Sayce as an environmental contractor. On this summer day, she and a contract geologist survey the Oysterville property for its owner. Their assignment is to map out the parcel’s wetlands to determine the best place for a prospective buyer to build a home.
Marking off wetlands isn’t a matter of tugging a measuring tape until your boots get wet. Water ebbs and flows with the seasons, the years, the generations. In the dry season, the line between upland and wetland is subtle, but there’s evidence in the soils and the plants growing there.
On the latter, Sayce has few peers in this moss-draped landscape.
“She’s 10 miles deep and 100 miles wide in her knowledge base,” says Kim Patten (’83 Ph.D. Hort.), a WSU researcher and associate professor of horticulture who often asks Sayce to identify plants growing along the bay or in cranberry bogs. “I don’t think there is a living soul who knows half what she does—a quarter, even.”
Before joining ShoreBank in 1998, Sayce’s varied career included doing much of the early science on Srartina alterniflora, forming a foundation on which Patten and other partners built a strategy to eradicate much of the nonnative cordgrass, reopening Willapa Bay’s vast mudflats to foraging shorebirds.
The Willapa National Wildlife Refuge also frequently taps Sayce’s deep well of plant knowledge, manager Charlie Stenvall says. “She’s always been able to give us information.”
For instance, Sayce identified bog loosestrife, another invasive newcomer Stenvall hopes to eliminate. And just last year she confirmed a refuge biologist’s sighting of pink sand verbena at Leadbetter Point—leading to a restoration project half a century after the native dune plant was last noted in Washington.
Sayce, the daughter of a shellfish biologist, was born in Ilwaco, grew up in Ocean Park, and moved out of Pacific County only for college. When she was a child, the peninsula had 1,500 permanent residents. Now eight times that many people live on the fragile sand finger dividing serene Willapa Bay from the pounding Pacific Ocean, and the area is a magnet for tourists and second-home owners.
Though she’s the last person to don a superhero’s cape, Sayce is a guardian of the region’s environmental and historic heritage.
Aside from her bank duties, she keeps tabs on native and invasive plants and shares findings on her Columbia Coast Plants website. She volunteers for the refuge’s “friends” group, land conservancies, and native plant societies to protect ecosystems and educate people. She joins citizen battles against damaging developments. She represents coastal communities on the board of the Confluence Project, teaming with famed architect Maya Lin to commemorate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with art installations along the Columbia River.
“I would easily use the word ‘extraordinary’ board member,” says Jane Jacobsen, Confluence’s executive director, who leans on Sayce for native plant restoration at project sites.
Although activities such as Confluence are meant to be visible, Sayce often shies from the spotlight.
“It’s just sort of the way I operate,” she says. “I’d rather work behind the scenes. It’s kind of amazing what I can get done that way.”