Chelsea Behymer was in the middle of explaining why she and a dozen other Southern Oregon University students chose to focus on Ashland Pond for their joint capstone project when, as if waiting for its cue, a river otter poked its head out of the water.

It disappeared under the murky brown surface of the water before Behymer could zero in on its whereabouts, but she knew it would reappear soon.

“Where are the bubbles?” she said, scanning the water. “He might be coming towards us."

Sure enough, its smooth, shiny, whisker-decorated face resurfaced near the bubbles and it paddled toward the shore effortlessly.

"Yeah, there he is," Behymer said, grinning. "So this is why we’re here, too. This area is such a hub for local wildlife that it’s just so important to protect this habitat. Then the kids, because they’re able to see all this wildlife, they’re like, ‘Yes, this is so awesome.’”

The kids on Thursday were fifth- and sixth-grade students from Butte Falls Elementary, and their goal was to clip, rake and haul out as many invasive plants — mostly blackberry bushes — as possible under the supervision of Behymer and the her fellow classmates from the SOU environmental education master’s program.

The site, which butts up against Bear Creek at the north end of Ashland, was chosen for the Ashland Creek Ponds Riparian Restoration Project in 2008, and as part of that community effort native trees and other vegetation were planted — some by Helman Elementary students — throughout the 12-acre Ashland Parks and Recreation property. But blackberry bushes have flourished around the pond and are threatening to choke out the native trees and plants. Behymery, 25, and her fellow SOU master’s classmates don’t want that to happen, which is why for their final project they have arranged for classes from three different schools in the Rogue Valley to bus to the pond every day this week, grab some tools, throw on some gloves and show those blackberry bushes who’s boss.

About 120 students from Hedrick Middle School in Medford — 40 each day — were on site Monday through Wednesday, Butte Falls took its turn Thursday and today students from Madrone Trail Public Charter School will be in town. Each group works for about four hours starting at 9:30 to 10 a.m. After that, the SOU students lead a pair of lessons which take up the rest of the day — one that focuses on water quality and another on riparian habitats.

“Yeah, it is hard work (for grade-schoolers),” Behymer said as a girl and a boy hacked away behind her, “but what’s really surprised me is a lot of these kids — I don’t think are given the responsibility to use big tools at home — and we just say right off the bat that these are very dangerous but we know you can handle them and here’s how we can use them really safely, and if you can do that then we can do this hard work. And we’re also in there with them, so they see that this is something that people do. And then when they get a chance to see otters and understand why it’s important, they’re totally psyched.”

That was even the case as it rained on Monday, said SOU student Paul Pronghorn, after helping a small group of Butte Falls students haul a log to a pile that was to be picked up by a dump truck later in the day.

“It was pouring rain out and they were still like, ‘Let’s go,’” he said. “The kids — put tools in their hands and they really love being outside. It’s been a great success so far.”

The students on Thursday did most of their work with cloppers and McLeod rakes, a two-sided tool usually used for scraping fire lines. Most of the students are paired up to maximize efficiency.

Shaylin Dortch, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, said he enjoyed the work, even if it was laborious at times. He and his partner had developed a strategy that worked well against the stingy bushes, whose thorns cling to shoes and pants.

“I’m supposed to pull some of it so she can see where to clip,” he said, yanking a vine up as his partner moved in with her giant scissor-like tool.

The work is especially important along the creek, where native shrubs help stabilize the bank, filter water and provide shade for salmon habitat.

It hasn’t taken long for the blackberry bushes to move in. Pine trees planted about eight years ago were being swallowed up by the bushes before the students came in and set them free this week. An entire hillside on the pond’s south bank was cleared by Wednesday, and the Butte Falls students had moved to the other side Thursday.

Ashland Parks is handling the removal of the debris.

“The Parks came and took (a pile) away with the dump truck (Wednesday) morning,” Behymer said. “They were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t expect you guys to get so much.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.