SPRINGFIELD — When you see someone do the impossible, everything becomes possible.
That’s what former olympian Ben Blankenship hopes to bring to sustainability – and Springfield, too.
Blankenship is the founder of Endless Mileage, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering sustainable environments and programming that inspires the next generation of track and field athletes to break barriers.
Earlier this year, Blankenship proposed a partnership with Willamalane to combine sustainability and athletic achievement. The “Fast Forrest Program,” aims to support reforestation at Dorris Ranch after the recent infestation of Eastern Filbert Blight, a fungus that spreads quickly in orchards and is often fatal for filbert trees.
“We were looking for a way to meaningfully connect environmental sustainability to achievement in sport, and the Fast Forest does that. We look forward to expanding our groves to encompass additional track & field events and accomplishments,” said Blankenship.
For each athlete who breaks the barrier of the four-minute mile for men and 4:30 minute mile for women, Endless Mileage will make a donation to fund and dedicate a new tree at Dorris Ranch on their behalf.
So far, 692 trees have been planted and dedicated to recognizing the American athletes who have broken these barriers through 2021.
“Selecting 4:30 as the women’s barrier for the Fast Forest made perfect sense,” said Stephanie Garcia, Endless Mileage vice president. “As a track athlete, the four-minute barrier in the Mile for men was legendary, but finding an equivalent quest as a female miler was an important part of
validating our experience on the track as well. Targeting a sub-4:30 mile felt like a true test, requiring raw speed and grit as well as proper endurance to enable us to hold a hot pace for four laps of the track. As more and more women break through this goal, there will of course, be a next jump up – a more daunting time barrier to target. For now, it’s so gratifying to cheer on other women as they attempt their first sub-4:30.”
Blankenship himself broke the four-minute barrier in 2010, something he describes as, “a jump start for the rest of his career,” and both a “personal and emotional,” moment. He moved to the Eugene/Springfield area to continue his love of running and to train for more competitive races.
“This area is such a historic place to run,” said Blankenship. “We’re super pumped that it’s only three miles from Hayward Field and in the heart of Springfield. It really highlights not only Dorris Ranch, but Springfield in general.”
Since 2016, the filbert trees at Dorris Ranch have suffered from the Eastern Filbert Blight – a fungal disease that produces sores around branches, preventing the flow of sap and inhibiting further growth. The blight has infected forests throughout the pacific northwest.
“We use some of the harvest to offset the taxpayer costs of maintaining Dorris Ranch. It was something we were worried about, in terms of protecting the ranch and the potential financial impact of the district too,” said Kenny Weigandt, community engagement director for Willamalane Park and Recreation District.
To maintain Dorris Ranch as a working orchard, the filbert trees needed to be replaced with blight-resistant trees, which not only stops the spread of the fungus but reduces the use of chemical treatments at Dorris Ranch. Willamalane plans to replace 6,000 trees in 12 of the 13 orchards with a blight-resistant species in phases.
While orchard replacement is effective, it does carry a significant cost.
To replace all identified trees, costs would exceed $500,000. Funding to replace the orchid has come from sustainability grants, the Willamalane general operations budget and other government funding sources. In 2016, Willamalane replaced one orchard with blight-resistant species and did a second wave of replacement in 2021.
“We know this approach works,” said Weigandt. “It reduces our use of chemical treatments all over the filbert orchard. But it’s expensive and it takes time. This is a great project and a great solution to replanting Dorris Ranch.”
Blankenship hopes the project will inspire the next generation of runners to enjoy the outdoors and consider the climate.
“We live in a really unique community in terms of how tied into the running community is,” Blankenship said. “And one of my favorite things is that no matter the time of day you go out whether it’s super early or just before sunset, there’s always people out on the trails. With running, you have the opportunity to be outside and enjoy nature.”
Every tree in the Fast Forest will be associated with an athlete via a biodegradable hanging wood tag.
“The idea behind the fast forest is to recognize a notable landmark in track and field, and to honor athletes in a way they would give back,” said Weigandt. “We’re also going to continue to work on projects like this and find creative solutions to supporting sustainability.”