Fire Safe Homes on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast

Expect Wildfires

Wildfire is a natural phenomenon on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County, and there are things we can do to be better prepared. The Lockheed Fire (2009) followed by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire (2020) illustrate the extreme danger of wildfire as well as the potential return interval. Wildfires can repeat over the same landscapes quite frequently. Until we figure out how to use prescribed fire across our landscape to reduce the chance of wildfire*, we should plan on big, catastrophic wildfires at least every 10 years, especially because global warming will most probably increase the frequency and intensity of wildfire in California. If our infrastructure is well built and well maintained, we will be happier and nature, the land around us, will be better stewarded. To this end, we have much to learn and much work to do.

Protecting Houses

For most of us, our most expensive burnable item is our home and its contents. What can we do to protect houses? Our State’s wildfire agency, CALFIRE, starts with a simple message: “Clear to 100 feet!” But, what does this mean?

The hundred foot clearance guideline is meant to provoke questions about how to create a fire-safe envelope that will help to protect houses and the firefighters whose help is needed while a wildfire is blazing. (more about what that work entails in another essay) “Clearance” doesn’t mean every bit of everything needs to be removed from a one hundred foot radius around your house: it means vegetation must be “managed” within that area. Too much of the wrong vegetation in the wrong patterns can create flames that will set fire to your roof or siding, or break your windows and light the inside of your building. But, mostly poorly managed vegetation endangers fire fighters. 100’ of vegetation management is not always enough, but it is the beginner’s guide to getting started.

There are diagrams with written descriptions and checklists as well as videos, about what 100’ of clearance means. Unless you’ve been trained to interpret those resources, it is almost certain you won’t be able to apply them to your landscape. Just as a person new to cooking is unlikely to have success from a written recipe for chicken cattitore, someone who hasn’t learned about vegetation management directly from professionals is unlikely to get it right. Even if you aren’t doing the work yourself, if you are hiring landscapers claiming to know what to do, it is best if you have a basic understanding of the science behind firescaping before you waste time and money going it on your own. Take a workshop, occasionally offered by the Bonny Doon Fire Safe Council, visit guided demonstration sites, and seek advice from knowledgeable people, especially anyone who is experienced and whose work has demonstrably saved other homes during wildfires. Count on at least 40 hours of training to develop the necessary basic understanding and a day of continuing education each year to keep up on the latest information.

Protecting Other Stuff

It is important to understand that the house itself is rarely your only infrastructure needing wildfire maintenance- there are normally a lot of other things that require similar attention. These include: fences, outbuildings, water systems, power systems, lawn furniture, gardens, etc. Everyone understands that wood burns, but so does plastic…even metal can get damaged by fire. All of these things are costly and preparation can save you money when wildfire happens. If all of this other stuff is within your zone of 100’ of clearance, your plans in that zone must account for those, even there. If they are outside that safety envelope, they will need special attention in those other locations.

If you live in the country, roads and driveways are important to think about in case of wildfire. If you are lucky enough to live in a forest, creating shaded fuel breaks along those transportation corridors will be relatively easy to maintain annually but can be costly at the outset. If you live in shrubby or grassy areas, you will have to work several times each year to reduce fuels- annually, these take much more time and effort than in forests. Take note: most roads have culverts under them to carry rain runoff; hopefully, those culverts are concrete or metal, but if they are plastic they will easily burn and are expensive to replace, so those will need fire maintenance plans, as well.

Next Steps

Using an aerial photograph, create a map of all of the critical stuff on your property – your house, power, roads/driveways, and water infrastructure. Make a separate map of the other “stuff.” When you get those maps right- clearly marked and easily read, keep a set with your ‘go’ bag– the bag you grab when you evacuate during a wildfire. Keep another set next to your front door to give to firefighters as orientation for your site. Over time, as you are working with others to develop a fire safe landscape, you can use a set of these maps for planning purposes. These maps are also good reminders about what you need to protect each year while working on vegetation management.

* footnote: Chuck Striplen’s research for this region provides strong evidence that Native Peoples applied fire based on their Traditional Ecological Knowledge every 4-6 years. The catastrophic nature of fire after 11 years provides evidence that they understood when to apply fire to avoid such conflagrations.

The Narcissi-ists versus the Tenders of Native Bulbs

An essay about living in place using a recent example of ego-logical management of our common landscape

Opening

Every moment, we face personal choices to work against or with nature. Some of those choices have more, some have less, impact. In sum, those choices reflect how we see ourselves in the world. In this essay, I contrast two cultures from the North Coast of Santa Cruz: those who embrace the widespread planting of daffodils versus those who favor the wide ranging management for native species of bulbs. I illustrate how cultural norms of the former are indicative of a wider dis-ease of our species, which is dooming future generations to reduced standards of living and increased poverty of the spirit. And, I outline how a contrary world view can lead us to increased prosperity in a world with clean water, plentiful wildlife and happy, healthy children.

Transforming Nature or Transforming Ourselves

Some people feel most at home only after the landscape is transformed away from nature. Others are transforming themselves to settle comfortably into what is more natural. Managing our yards, our cities, our parks, our landscape against, or away from nature seems easier and its certainly more common. This process might even be called “normal.” Managing our yards, our driveways, our farms, our parks and our citiscapes to be in harmony with nature is unusual, harder, and is a Big Continuous Adventure- an opportunity for clearly unending work. And yet, transforming our landscapes away from Nature does not serve our interests over the long run. Managing WITH nature is the only hope for future generations. Which way will you go? Let’s walk together for a moment towards these two destinations and see what feels more right..

To avoid quibbles, I’ll first admit that we can’t help but transform nature whatever we do…but whether we choose to manage our lands with or against nature is more than a matter of degree. I see a philosophical division in these approaches, a way we choose to be, that is vastly different depending on what you intend to do. And yet, there are many paths, many vehicles, to work for or against nature when managing our land. The future is uncertain…. 

To illustrate the choice between the two approaches. I ask the simple question:

Are you in favor of widespread planting of daffodils? 

The Narcissi-ists Project

My community recently faced this question. And the debate became quite nasty. But, the words and ideas were very telling about how people living on the same mountain see our common landscape. There are diametrically opposed approaches to land stewardship at work simultaneously on Ben Lomond Mountain. I predict who will win: the culture that is managing against nature. And, I suspect how that dominant paradigm turns out: global warming, a world on fire, not enough food, not enough clean water, miserable people, extinct wildlife, air pollution…etc.

A little context and back story for the local situation is in order.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire blackened our landscape last August and, in response, some people thought it would be nice to color that blackened landscape with splashes of cheerful color. This was their way of recovering from a traumatic disaster where people lost homes, pets, and their belongings. The green forests, lush shrublands, and moist stream corridors were transformed in the course of a week to crispy dry blacks, browns, and ashy grays. Wouldn’t it be nice, they thought, if daffodils would brighten this bleak landscape come spring? More than just art or gardening, to them this was building community and healing.

And thus, The Narcissi-ists Project was born. Bushels of daffodil bulbs (genus Narcissus, many cultivars; plural of the common name, Narcissus, is Narcissi) were purchased and people were urged to buy and plant them along roadsides and wherever visible to the public. Many people warmly welcomed this community project, proudly announcing their plantings on social media and urging their neighbors to participate.

To understand whether The Narcissi-ists Project was a choice towards the transformation away from Nature or towards Nature, one has to understand how daffodils might or might not ‘fit’ into the ecology of the area. So, here’s some natural history…

Daffodils in California? Nooooo!

Daffodils don’t belong in California, and they don’t fit in. They are toxic, their colors are strikingly foreign to the landscape, they compete with native plants, reduce pollinator communities, they present an increased fire hazard, and they are nearly impossible to remove once established…there’s no going back.

Narcissus species have the poison called lycorine, especially concentrated in the bulbs. Ingestion of the plants can cause seizures, abnormal heartbeat, pain, and/or convulsions. Apparently, pet dogs are routinely hospitalized for ingesting the species. Even exposure to dust from the dead bulbs or sap can cause problems. People say that adult dogs might be as smart as 5 year old humans. I wonder how many people would put daffodil bulbs where their two year old toddler might ingest them? Probably no one would wittingly do such a thing. And so, why would any kind person put these poisonous bulbs where baby wildlife might encounter them?

Aesthetically, daffodil bulbs stand out in our local landscape: nothing in nature looks anything like them. Those yellow trumpets add to the seas of non-native yellows created by French broom and Bermuda buttercup. The Big Yellow daffodil trumpets appear in early spring, visually shouting above any of the more subtle wildflowers that naturally occur at that time. At Daffodil Time, there are numerous subtle white-pink native wildflowers: manzanitas, madrone, milk maids, sorrel, and star lilies to name a few, more common species. How is the Narcissi-ists project transforming the aesthetic of our common landscape? What will this screaming yellow do for our children’s expectation of the spring landscape…will those yellow trumpets change their ability to engage with the more subtle and diverse native wildflowers? Will this New Color make them want to further transform and brighten the landscapes of their future, to make them even MORE COLORFUL?

One bulb planted begets seeds and bulblets and yet more plants over time. The process is slow and site specific. Some dry, sandy soils are poorly suited for some Narcissus cultivars and those die out without additional ongoing care. Other, more moist ditches, meadows, seeps, cliffsides, or dunes are more conducive to daffodils. In those places, over time, the species is proving to be slowly invasive, edging out native plants and spreading from where they were introduced. A home site high up in the meadows of Wilder Ranch State Park has hundreds spreading from where they were once planted. A bulb field above 4 Mile Beach at Wilder Ranch has hundreds of daffodils clinging to rocky cliff edges and down into ravines adjacent to the fields they were once cultivated for cut flowers. There are escaped daffodils near Scott Creek Beach, perhaps from a memorial planting or from cultivated fields or homesites nearby. All of these populations are spreading and removing them would be impossible without concerted toxic herbicide work in difficult to reach places with follow up over many years. Meanwhile, those daffodils are doubtlessly causing wildlife poisoning. And, wherever they invade, daffodils displace native plants with their flowers that support pollinators, which we desperately need to conserve due to declining honey bee populations.

(Oh, and by the way, daffodils die back in the spring and leave a relatively large amount of papery, easy to ignite fuel, creating a fire hazard – be sure to rake that stuff up and dispose of it appropriately)

That was a lot of information about one type of landscape manipulation- one project of the Narcissi-ists in our area, taking steps to transform our landscape away from nature with all the concomitant repercussions.

The Other Way: Tending the Wild Bulbs

But, there is another way…to live with nature. For clarity of contrast, I use another bulb culture analogy. There is a burgeoning movement of people wanting to learn how to tend the wild. Our local naturalists, primitive skills practitioners, wildlife trackers, native plant gardeners, and weed warriors are exuberant about the relearning of the Amah Mutsun, gleaning lessons from them and other tribal peoples about how to live with the land here in California. We practice what we learn where we live, where our friends live, or where we can help conservation lands managers. We get to know the native geophytes, our native bulbs, some of which have been important native foods to the indigenous peoples. 

Many native bulbs respond very favorably to tending, even to fire. Star lilies bolt ten times as big after fire. Randy Morgan draws our attention to a narrowly endemic, endangered bee he captured pollinating the native star lily in the UCSC meadows. Native checkerlily and globe lily bound abundant when the forest understory is tended. There are many stories of people tending grasslands with digging sticks, harvesting and cultivating native bulbs for food.

(An aside- native bulb leaves are not very plentiful, are largely edible to wildlife and so do not accumulate as a fire hazard)

We steward native grasslands, woodlands, and redwood forests to tend our native bulbs. After fire, we must patrol for jubata grass invasion and control broom and ivy. With more light on the forest floor, bulbs will do better, but so might the weeds. 

Native bulb stewards work to figure out how to live on this fire adapted landscape so that we have native bulbs in the future. Scientists forecast more frequent, more intense fires and wind storms with increased global warming. In California with more frequent more intense fires, forests give way to shrublands and those to weedy grasslands…the bulbs disappear. And so, native bulb stewardship requires political action to end fossil fuel consumption and to transform agriculture and improve building and transportation efficiency. 

Of the two bulb cultures, which one do you want to join?

(and, its not about just bulbs)

Scaling Up: the Ego-Political Landscapes of Narcissi-ist Types Across our Common Planet

I wonder if those who would affiliate with the Narcissi-ists have similar notions about transforming Planet Earth in other ways. One suggested that they believe daffodils to be different than French broom, the latter being a problem but not the former. Here, we meet abandonment of the precautionary principle, which is inherent in managing with nature: how do we act so that no harm is irreparably done? This is why managing for nature is ongoing and full of observation. Those who think that the precautionary principle should only apply to human bodies and not the body of life that supports humans are being short sighted, they may be either faithful in technological solutions or believers in an inevitable apocalypse (which I have found is depressingly common). Would those types of people have us make swift uninformed decisions for relatively short-term and minor outcomes, in general?

Another of the Narcissi-ists has pointed to their own (inexpert) online research to show that daffodils are not invasive. This notion was presented despite local and very experienced experts testifying (in a signed letter) to the contrary. And so, those who would transform nature appear to not only abandon the precautionary principle but also to embrace a world where group expertise is rejected in favor of individual experience. Science denial writ large is just one step away from that approach. Dismissal of indigenous knowledge is another outcome of that way of thinking. In short, I wonder how the Narcissi-ist types are thinking life will thrive in seven generations, and who do they think should guide us towards the best outcome?

Lessons from a Sad History of a Santa Cruz Park

This is a story illustrating how nature is damaged by recreation focused parks managers, and how that focus creates unfortunate adversarial situations with their fellow citizen park stewards. Soon the managers are lashing out at the very conservationists who brought them this beautiful piece of nature to protect in the public commons.

This particular tale starts out typically—environmentalists successfully saving land threatened by development and establishing a public park. This victory evolved into a barely legal and cursory process to open the park to recreation and to expand recreational access to the maximum extent feasible. Opportunities for a more balanced approach to protect wildlife habitat while providing public access were missed. Organized opposition to this unbalanced approach led to a series of unpleasant altercations, minimal mitigation requirements, and, eventually, abandonment of most environmental protections. In sum, there was inadequate resolution of disputes between parks managers and conservationists, resulting in recreationists winning and wildlife losing. Many elements of this story are evident in most other parks in Santa Cruz County, but there is hope: working together, we can improve these situations. Perhaps you can help. Please read on.

The recent conservation history of the Gray Whale Ranch began in the early 1990s when a land developer purchased a working ranch, proposing a housing development. The developer’s plans envisioned an extensive housing subdivision: a private, gated paradise. Conservationists organized and created the group “Save the Gray Whale Parklands” to oppose the proposal. Behind the public battle, others organized politically to find funding to purchase the property. Negotiations and pressure eventually succeeded, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation added Gray Whale Ranch to Wilder Ranch State Park.

Conservation purchase of a property is like a wedding, where the real work comes afterwards…. The years that followed the purchase of Gray Whale Ranch have been at times tense and rife with unfortunate surprises. Directly after the celebration of park acquisition, there was pressure to open the park for recreation. To open the park to visitors, State Parks created an Interim Use Plan to adhere to legally required public and environmental review regulations. Park management policy requires managers to thoroughly inventory natural resources, identifying sensitive areas for protection from any potential recreational development—including the extensive trails, roads, and the parking lot envisioned for this particular new park. Instead, parks planners favored a streamlined approach that ignored the locations of sensitive natural resources, expediting recreational access on the “‘existing trails” of the former ranch. Surely, they proffered, using existing ranch roads would be better than creating new trails. Similarly, State Parks’ proposed parking lot was to be situated in a purportedly degraded site, where planners suggested previous use had destroyed any sensitive natural resources. However, these claims were not supported by rigorous analysis and seemed contrary to conditions observed in the field, so once again conservationists had to organize to protect the park from this new set of threats.

It became clear that State Parks’ streamlined planning process in effect ignored input, and that the agency would proceed apace with opening the park for recreation. Even so, opposition had gained some ground on stopping the new vehicular entrance and parking lot proposal since State Parks had suggested they be located in what was clearly sensitive habitat.

After failing to improve the Interim Use Plan through the initial public and environmental review process, the conservation community had four remaining avenues to pursue: political pressure, action by either the California Coastal Commission or California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), or perhaps a lawsuit. They dismissed the last option as infeasibly expensive and unpopular, turning their attention to the other possibilities. But first, more research was needed.

With the park now open to the public and with the blessing of State Parks ecologists, conservationists organized a more careful examination of the entrance and proposed parking lot location. They collected data on locations of mima mound-associated wetlands, mapped the state-listed endangered San Francisco popcorn flower, and inventoried locations of the federally endangered Ohlone tiger beetle (OTB). All of these sensitive natural resources would be impacted by the proposed developments.

Armed with this information, conservationists first met with Assemblyman Fred Keeley, who was able to extract verbal assurances from State Parks that they would not impact rare mima mound habitat. To address concerns about enforcing resource protections, Keeley was also able to secure funding for an additional park ranger as well as establish a Gray Whale Advisory Committee to explore expanded public access while addressing resource protection. At the same time, conservationists were working with the Coastal Commission, resulting in direction that State Parks desist from developing the parking lot in sensitive habitat and instead explore other, less sensitive locations. The Coastal Commission also directed State Parks to develop an Ohlone Tiger Beetle Management Plan. Finally, upon notification of the parking lot location’s threats to the endangered popcorn flower, the California Department of Fish Game issued a letter notifying State Parks of a state law violation if they commenced with the proposed parking lot. Despite these seeming victories, State Parks proceeded with a series of unfortunate actions: developing the parking lot in sensitive habitat, ignoring the OTB planning process, destroying OTB habitat, and launching legal actions against conservationists.

Despite pressure to abandon the proposed parking lot development, State Parks started development with cement pouring for a foundation for the restrooms as well as placement of logs outlining the parking lot. Discovering the parking lot development, conservationists quickly worked to follow up on the assurances given to Fred Keeley and the Coastal Commission. Further investigation revealed a curious situation: an unprecedented hand-edited backtracking on the CDFW’s original letter to State Parks striking and replacing language, thus green-lighting the parking lot. Investigations concluded that a State Parks staff person had approached a high level CDFW staff person “friend” to achieve this result, favoring State Parks’ plans. Shortly thereafter, a State Parks staff person wrote a very threatening letter (on State letterhead) threatening one of the conservationists with legal action. This was a commonly employed strategy at the time called “Strategic Legal Action against Public Participation” or a SLAPP suit. Shortly thereafter, higher level State Parks administrators distanced the agency from this individual’s actions, but the staff person went on to file the lawsuit as an individual citizen. Amazingly, this individual’s complaint was supported by testimony of two of their subordinate employees. The lawsuit dragged on, costing thousands of dollars and untold stress; the matter was eventually settled though not before frightening other conservationists working on the issue.

Fortunately, through all of this, the Coastal Commission maintained its pressure on State Parks and was experiencing some success. Whether it was Fred Keeley or the Coastal Commission, or the embarrassment of the legal actions of its employees, State Parks eventually abandoned work on the ill-advised parking lot and turned its attention to the potential expansion of recreational trails through the work of Fred Keeley’s Gray Whale Advisory Committee (GWAC).

The GWAC’s first meeting was an unveiling of a polished plan presented by Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz for an extensive new trail system throughout the park. In a well-orchestrated maneuver to establish the basis for group’s focus, the biking community had been working with State Parks’ permission, surveying areas of the park for potential trail development. Meeting after meeting, the outnumbered conservationists on the committee repeated their testimony from earlier in the planning process: the right way to do recreational trail planning was by inventorying natural resources and subsequently planning for recreation where impacts to the most sensitive resources could be minimized. Parks administrators, clearly inexperienced and unprepared for group process, failed at any progress from the group, which eventually stopped meeting. State Parks presented the Fred Keeley with the report of failure to find a way to expand trails and eventually stopped organizing meetings. Fred Keeley had failed at his venture to secure both increased natural resource protection alongside increased public access. In one small way, this outcome might be seen as a conservation success, but in many other more significant ways it was a terrible failure. Conservationists had succeeded in stopping an expansion of official, State Parks-sanctioned trails through the many sensitive areas on the property, and yet, proposals to move existing and ill-designed access out of sensitive habitats had failed. Gradually, mountain bikers built and currently use the expansive trail system they had originally proposed with no consequence from State Parks’ enforcement staff. And so, mountain bikers got what they wanted while conservationists got little: wildlife lost habitat, and future generations have lost the chance to experience a more intact version of nature within the park.

To complete this story, we must explore two remaining legacies of the Gray Whale planning process: the outstanding Ohlone Tiger Beetle Management Plan and whatever planning process State Parks would initiate to take over where the Interim Use Plan left off.

Gray Whale Ranch is home to one of four populations of the very endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, and State Parks management of the species has been mixed. State Parks never submitted the required Ohlone tiger beetle management plan that the Coastal Commission had required for opening the park to recreation. Instead, sometime in late 2006 or early 2007, State Parks staff spread tons of gravel over very large areas of recreational trails, including in areas previously occupied by the Ohlone tiger beetle. To survive, these beetles create burrows in certain types of native soil: their larvae develop in those burrows, feeding on invertebrates passing within the reach of the burrow entrances. Adding gravel destroys Ohlone tiger beetle habitat. Gravel placement skipped the largest known area of beetle burrows: somehow, State Parks had decided to limit the species to a single area, perhaps in an effort to simplify their management and oversight. But, management at that now single site has seen some positive results: that population at times has been quite successful and healthy. Also, to State Parks’ credit, recreational users of the trails are at times able to learn about the species (when interpretive signs are maintained and legible). State Parks ecologists have even managed trail use to create additional habitat for the beetles. And yet untold but large areas of the beetle’s habitat have been destroyed and there is no published comprehensive plan for mitigating that destruction nor the ongoing destruction of their habitat throughout the park.

It has been many years since the publication of the Gray Whale Ranch Interim Use Plan, but there has been no progress on creating a longer-term plan for managing the park. According to State policy, State Parks must create a General Plan for each park. And, each General Plan is to include a carrying capacity analysis that outlines ways to balance recreational use with protection of natural resources. General Plans are subject to public review and concurrence by other agencies charged with protection of public trust resources (wildlife, clean water, plants, soils, etc.). Without further planning and improved management, the future of Gray Whale Ranch is in some ways certain and in other ways unknown. Without major changes in management, there will be continuing but gradual and severe habitat degradation from ill-planned recreational use and management. Trails have already eroded with the loss of hundreds of tons of soil that has been washed into surrounding habitats, filling wetlands and degrading streams. Unplanned and unregulated trails bisect sensitive wildlife habitat, degrading it and spreading diseases and invasive plants. The park ranger position that Fred Keeley helped to fund has long since evaporated and one very rarely sees any ranger presence at the park. Families with small children and horseback riders report feeling displaced from using the park, which has been overrun by fast moving mountain bikers on the shared trails. And yet, a small but very dedicated cadre of State Parks ecologists do what they can to restore portions of the park when they have the time.

On face value, this story is all about one place, but every element of the story has been and is currently being repeated in every park in our area. Public parks planning processes in our area are always done in contravention to best practices, failing to analyze the park for opportunities and constraints to recreational use with natural resource inventories. Parks planners point to limited resources and a rushed timeline to complete such inventories and yet reject offers by volunteers to complete those—suspect of these meddlers as “biased” and “unscientific.” As with this story, when presented with data, parks personnel ignore it. As with this story, parks planning processes are driven behind the scenes, outside of public process, by the mountain biking community in close partnership with the public parks agencies. Like the example given in this story, conservationists who actively participate in parks planning processes and attempt to increase natural resource protection are reviled by parks managers and face personal attacks and punishing retribution. When other agencies attempt to influence conservation outcomes, their work is stymied and ultimately abandoned. Sometimes, too few staff manage well-designed conservation successes but addressing only a tiny fraction of the need. Finally, parks planners who promise the necessarily ongoing and subsequent planning and monitoring fail to deliver, making temporary plans permanent, follow-up plans never materialize, and monitoring very rarely occurs.

In closing, I want to give some means of action for those who care about wildlife, clean water, and the ability for future generations to experience the wonder of nature in our parks. First, we badly need a more organized constituency for nature. The California Native Plant Society needs funding, more members, and more active members; this group offers a science-based and collaborative approach to conserving native plants including in our parks. The Wildlife Society might also benefit from increased funding, membership, and participation— this group might one day become more active in parks management planning for wildlife conservation. The Xerces Society has resolutely been protecting insects everywhere they can- including by advocating for sound public land management. Second, everyone should express concern about parks management often to their elected officials, who should be pressured to increase funding for the natural resource/ecologist positions for parks agencies. Third, people could monitor parks resources and report their findings to the agencies, perhaps even using the popular iNaturalist application during organized bioblitzes: long term monitoring of trends using the same methods could be powerful. Fourth, assisting volunteer groups in removing invasive species from parks would have very direct positive impact: there are regularly organized opportunities throughout our area. Fifth, following up on any aspect of the above story in any park would be useful—ask questions, investigate, document, and stay involved … that attention could garner results. And, finally, participation in the public processes for planning in parks; learn from others about how to do this effectively and teach others what you’ve learned. Though my story seems grim, together many conservationists have accomplished much. There are many others working on these issues right now. Every success to protect nature in parks means a better chance of a child a hundred years off experiencing natural wonder on their visits to parks. I hope you will help.

The privatization of open space – Land Trust vs. Public Trust

elephant pict Licensed under CC: photo by flickr user hbp_pix All rights revert to originator.

 

Could the rise of the ‘Land Trust Movement’ represent a retrograde change in the way we protect land for future generations? We may be experiencing a shift is from public responsibility, funding, authority and accountability to private funding and private ownership of conservation lands. Private ownership by Land Trusts –even those incorporated as nonprofits– normally has limited public accountability and transparency. In consequence, the purpose and focus of land protection is in danger of shifting from ecologically sound conservation of plants and animals to the recreational and utilitarian desires of the moneyed elite.

 

At its best, the Land Trust Movement is the capital economy’s response to ongoing lack of public support for funding public land protection agencies. This attitude suggests that if you want protection for public lands you’re going to have to pay for it yourself. And, this view assumes that development and maximized use is a natural or desirable condition while protection from development and overuse is reduced to a ‘special interest’ – one that should be privately funded.

 

At its worst, the Land Trust Movement represents a shift toward a new feudalism, widening the gap between the rich and poor via appropriation and control of land once called the American commons. At the whim of wealthy donors, Land Trusts manage and control ecosystems according only to the vicissitudes of an elite few, without regard for or accountability to the people. In essence they transform management of natural areas into a commodity, excluding the views of the relevant sciences and the general public alike.

 

How is the public losing control? For nearly forty years, the well-worn phrase the problem with the government is…” has been bleeding into Liberal philosophy, poisoning the public’s faith in the protections offered by the government itself. Other oft heard phrases like “State Parks is corrupt,” “the State Wildlife Agency is inept,” “US Fish and Wildlife does what??” etc. are just different ways of saying the government –the people themselves according to our democratic way of government– doesn’t work. Instead of working with and trying to fix these public agencies, the elite turn their paternalistic worldview to Land Trusts for nature conservation, avoiding those who might disagree with their ‘enlightened view.’ Land Trust lands and sponsored activities often provide outdoor experiences to like-minded people –preferably wealthy and generous. Thus, Land Trusts create ‘nature-consumers’ – distant from nature but feeling a certain privileged ownership of it. Land Trusts and their donors assume a right to use –and through willful neglect degrade– what amount to private parks, under no obligation to protect them from human excesses or the ravages of harmful invasive species. Land Trust clients (a.k.a. donors) are largely derived from social elites:  white, upper class, and educated. These donors are at times granted undue influence over land acquisition and management, reducing the importance and influence of scientifically-based conservation and forcing Land Trusts to defer to a use-based approach because someone thinks a new mountain bike trail would be neat or owns a local ATV dealership. Land Trust development officers know that donor-clients are best courted with tangible results involving humans using the land, results that give them social status…that allow for good Facebook selfies: results that can be put in glossy brochures to show that humans with money in this country are free do as they please. To grow this constituency Land Trusts carefully construct messages resonant with this resource-hungry, profit-oriented culture. This uninformed version of ‘sustainable development’ guarantees the continued flow of wealth. ‘Open space’ purchased from ‘willing sellers’ guarantees that neighbors keep their property value (or preferably increase it).

 

When Private Land Trusts focus on short-term goals of preserving or expanding funding there is a major contrast with Ecological Conservation prioritizing and visualizing the health of the land over time, for today and generations to come. ‘The long view’ holds the health of the land in mind as a concept –let alone a thing of value– in the act of deciding whether to log a certain slope or dam a certain river. In the U.S,. on public land, nature ‘has a say’ in large-scale land use cases, the decision-making authority long having been vested in government. The sheer scale and complex fundraising structure of Land Trusts means at times they acquire ecosystem-defining control, and act without public recourse or long-term restraint in the installation of hiking/biking trails, buffer zones for residents, protecting private interests in timber, livestock, and farming. They expertly facilitate human use and activity, but may fail to consider the long-term ecological implications of their use plans. Nobody disputes that it is a social good to acquire land that might otherwise be degraded by condos, shopping malls, or such.  And, it is also good to get people out into nature. But it is possible to ‘love nature to death’: to tread so thoughtlessly, frequently, and heavily on the land in our pursuit of short-term aims that we change it fundamentally for the worse; that we make it no longer the treasured place it was. In most places, municipal land use planning and zoning hasn’t yet addressed the spectrum of differences between the poles of wildlife conservation and open space commoditization on the privately held lands that are crucial for the future of Life.

Public Land Management is the answer. Developing policy based on informed consensus is the method of accountable public institutions. Public institutions –those entrusted with the knowledge and organizational structure to make long-term decisions– are obliged to consider what is best for all citizens in their decisions. Private Land Trusts don’t deliver better conservation results than public land use institutions. Private Land Trusts have developed a certain expertise in generating positive PR even as they obscure their decision-making processes, rely on focus groups instead of sound science in the act of attenuating or refusing community input. Public land agencies have centuries of legal precedent, procedural and environmental know-how, and long-standing, forward-thinking, public-minded mandate. They are not as easily subject to behind-the-scenes deals and ecological equivocations in response to in donor whims. Public trust agencies must adhere to open processes and regulatory application of sound science to protect wildlife and public lands. They must balance short-term interests in recreation and sustainable development with long-term protection for the health of the land and future generations.

 

It’s a shame in our era of manufactured austerity –when tax cuts are showered on the well-to do while roads crumble, wars get financed, and back-room deals trump common sense– public land use agencies are starved of funding for the short-term illusion of a civil society done on the cheap. Dollars that flow towards privately-controlled Land Trusts should be re-directed towards making our democratic public land management agencies better and stronger. Parallel conservation organizations aren’t what’s missing. We need to invest in our shared public future: of ecologically sound conservation. It really matters to generations and generations of happier, healthier children and well-adjusted adults who feel at home in their world.

 

Special thanks to Wes Harman for input and editing.

Surpassing Sustainability? Natural Areas Visitor Use in Northern Santa Cruz County

The Situation

Our community has done a relatively good job of preserving nature and building a tourist economy, but with no end in sight to development pressure and wild lands feeling the pinch we as a community have nature tourism sustainability issues it’s up to us to face and manage. In the current configuration around 20% of Santa Cruz County has been set aside as parks, most of that managed by State Parks but with many other locations falling under the purview of a patchwork of public and private managers. This extensive park system allows us to enjoy diverse and healthy wildlife populations, increased property values, recreational open space, and clean ground & surface water that can only flow from unpolluted drainages. The 8+ million tourists that visit Santa Cruz County each year are a substantial driver of the economy –bringing jobs and tax revenue to our community– and yet, each of the 3 realms of sustainability – social, economic, and environmental – are already facing unprecedented strain, with even greater challenges clearly identifiable in the very near future. There is an urgent need for action.

Socially, both parks users and parks neighbors are facing a crisis of expectations. Visitors do not find the amenities they expect of open space areas; instead they find few restrooms, no interpretation, degraded and dangerous trails, and parks in a humiliating state of neglect. As neighbors with a long-timer’s perspective our experience of the natural areas around us is quickly changing with jammed parking areas, increased motor vehicle traffic, more users of more types, and the inevitable trash, graffiti, emergency response, and noise issues becoming more frequent and more intense. Longtime residents, where able, increasingly adjust their lives to avoid interactions with crowded tourist weekends. Those who live adjacent to public open spaces are more frequently picking up trash and calling law enforcement or for emergency response assistance. The impacts on our community are random and incur real costs, all the while being totally preventable.

Economically, we don’t have a good understanding of costs and benefits of open space users on our local economy. Certainly, many businesses embrace maximizing tourism to improve their profits. But, the tax revenue that nature tourism brings doesn’t seem to be enough to maintain our vehicle access & amenities at parks and hasn’t increased either trash or restroom services. We grimly consider how many more tourism-related accidents our emergency services can accommodate before negatively impacting response time for residents. Parks budgets have not kept up with the increased demand for interpretation, enforcement, trail management, or stewardship activities; local tourist taxes have for the most part not been allocated to our community’s natural attractions, and parks entrance fees are vastly insufficient in the rare cases that they are collected at all.   

Ecologically, our area is rich with globally-significant treasures all of which are threatened by increased use. Our rich predator community — understood by biologists to be a key indicator of ecological health– is only holding its own because we have at times been careful to maintain areas with fewer human impacts. Mountain lions, badger, ringtail, bobcat, coyote, and fox all are important to the ecology of our natural areas and each species requires careful planning to ensure sufficient habitat and that human use of those habitats does not disrupt them. Increased visitation also threatens our rare and endangered birds, fish, and amphibians through poaching; introductions of weeds and disease; as well as mere regular behavioral disruption.

Solutions

How do we create a more sustainable future for natural areas visitation in Northern Santa Cruz County? First and foremost, there must be a more comprehensive natural areas visitation plan across the landscape. Such a plan would address all of the social, economic, and ecological issues raised above. Currently, there are 11 entities operating in various levels of natural areas management isolation. Each time one of those entities proposes a new public access plan, there would be benefit from a more holistic analysis and plan for regional visitor use sustainability.

In addition, and in the meanwhile, there are two other important elements to create a more sustainable public access program: scientific rigor and public accountability. Public access managers are not able to adapt their management to social, economic, or ecological thresholds without good data; without good data, much will be lost. And, without a means for the public to hold them accountable, public access managers will be unable to comply with their civic agreements. Both of these elements require advocates strong enough to allow public access managers to reduce use as necessary and until data exist to support any level of access. Public engagement in natural areas management will be fostered through regular public reporting including convening of community meetings where there is evidence of both the standing of and responsiveness to our community.

Killing Santa Cruz’ Greenbelt

Fellow citizens of Santa Cruz, we have done so much good for the environment. We are transforming our city into a bicycling mecca, and our entire region will soon be powered by mostly renewable energy. Hundreds of volunteers work hard to keep our many beautiful beaches accessible and clean. We recycle and conserve water at unprecedented rates. Our culture strongly supports organic agriculture, and we purchase local and organic foods at a plethora of organic grocers and farmers markets every day of the week. And, we have supported leaders who found the funding and partners to protect thousands of acres of parks and open space across our lovely hills.

So why is our community welcoming the destruction of the City of Santa Cruz’ greenbelt?

The City’s Greenbelt has been a great environmental accomplishment. For a while, our City was circled by open space, and we nearly connected the pieces – from Natural Bridges State Beach to Antonelli Pond up to the Moore Creek Preserve and onto UCSC’s meadows, across Pogonip, down into Henry Cowell and Sycamore Grove, up onto De La Veaga Park, and down the creek to Arana Gulch and the Harbor. We worked well together to make that happen. Different people had different goals for supporting our Greenbelt: improving property values, protecting water quality, preserving nice views, protecting wildlife, creating recreational opportunities, limiting urban sprawl, and giving our children natural places to learn and grow.

Setting the land aside has been the easiest part of reaching our greenbelt goals. But, the greenbelt is relatively new – it is in its infancy – and Santa Cruzans are proving poor stewards.

Neighbors complain that greenbelt areas are messy homeless encampments, harboring unsavory elements and even criminals. Trail erosion, pavement, fires, and trash in greenbelts pollute our streams. The pleasant views of the greenbelt are being transformed though crowds of users, buildings, recreational infrastructure- fences, roads, signs, and parking lots- all of which is destroying wildlife habitat and scaring away what critters are left. For those who would enjoy the parks, planners with little capacity are trying to provide for all types of recreation, assuring degradation of the quality of all recreational experiences. The greatest number of those who would use the greenbelt for generations to come are those seeking peaceful, passive, family recreation. That potential is rapidly disappearing – our children’s children will have to travel further from home to enjoy quiet nature experiences, healthy wildlife, or clear-running streams.

How did the Greenbelt end up in this mess?

Organizational and individual leadership and capacity has been lacking to preserve and steward the Santa Cruz Greenbelt. The agency responsible for oversight of the greenbelt is the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department; its mission is ‘to provide the best facilities, recreational cultural and parks programs.’ The agency is understaffed and mostly focused on safety, aesthetics, and maximizing recreational development. Greenbelt conservation then falls to nonprofit advocates- friends groups and larger environmental organizations. Pogonip Watch and Friends of Arana Gulch are important. Volunteers with the California Native Plant Society work hard to raise funds, educate our community, pull invasive species, and are focused on a few mostly long-term conservation issues. But, they can’t do enough. The local chapter of the Sierra Club has had difficulty addressing much local nature conservation as well, and greenbelt issues have divided the group.

Meanwhile, well-funded and organized special interest groups are succeeding in transforming the greenbelt to benefit a small fraction of our community. A passionate bicycle transportation community along with lucrative mountain bicycle businesses are succeeding in carving up the greenbelt, criss-crossing it with high-speed recreation and transportation corridors. Organizations hoping to make some small improvements with homelessness issues are converting 9 acres of Pogonip’s wildlife habitats to agriculture; they hope also to have a permanent homeless encampment there, as well. Sports enthusiasts are working to transform still more of Pogonip to ballfields.

These special interests join the City of Santa Cruz and most other regional leaders who seem to believe that more is better when it comes to extractive use of natural areas, including the Greenbelt. Here are three bars of their collective public relations tune:

  • The greenbelt works best when it serves the maximum number of people and types of uses.
  • Legitimate use of the greenbelt drives away unsavory use.
  • If we don’t maximize use of the greenbelt, people will stop caring about preserving nature.

These three statements are false.

We need to support organizations and leaders that will expose these falsehoods and work to preserve the greenbelt for future generations.

To solidify our commitment to a greenbelt that supports wildlife, clean water, and passive recreational enjoyment, our greenbelt areas need to be protected by conservation easements enforced by third party organizations. Only then can our greenbelt be protected from the special interest groups which will inevitably garner political support until nothing is left.

 

The Monument-Worthy Birds of Cotoni-Coast Dairies: An Analysis

Introduction and Background

Obama’s Proclamation giving National Monument status to Cotoni Coast Dairies included protection for an interesting list of birds: a challenge or a nose-thumbing to preservationists? We don’t know, but in this essay I present both perspectives. First, a reminder that experts presented the President with a science-based white paper suggesting a list of sensitive natural resources worthy of protection by his Proclamation; most local conservation organizations wrote letters supporting this proposal. The white paper included 7 species of birds that are protected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but not protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)…and so, without mention in the Monument Proclamation, might not be protected on BLM lands:

  • American peregrine falcon –  Falco peregrinus anatum– CA fully protected
  • Bryant’s savannah sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus – CA Species of Special Concern
  • Ferruginous hawk – Buteo regalis – California Watch List (wintering)
  • Grasshopper sparrow – Ammodramus savannarum – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Northern harrier – Circus cyaneus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Olive-sided flycatcher-Contopus cooperi – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Short-eared owl –Asio flammeus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Tricolored blackbird – Agelaius tricolor – CA Threatened
  •  White-tailed kite – Elanus leucurus – CA Fully Protected (nesting)

The white paper also included recommendation for recognition of species that are federally protected as long as they are on California BLM’s sensitive animal list:

  • Burrowing owl – Athene cunicularia – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA Species of Special Concern
  • Golden eagle – Aquila chrysaetos – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA fully protected

And, experts mentioned two other notable bird species that frequent the property:

  • Red-tailed hawk – Buteo jamaicensis – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Short-eared owl – Asio flammeus – IUCN Status: Least Concern

At first glance… the Proclamation was a moderate success for bird conservation- experts proposed 11 bird species for the Proclamation, and the President’s Proclamation included 9 bird species. But, the Proclamation included just two of the species experts proposed: the white tailed kite and peregrine falcon. Besides the kite and falcon, the other species listed by the President are common and widespread enough to not warrant any conservation concern. Here are the other 7 birds listed in the President’s proclamation, along with their listing status:

  • American kestrel – Falco sparverius – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Black swift – Cypseloides niger – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Cooper’s hawk – Accipiter cooperii- IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Downy woodpecker – Picoides pubescens – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Orange-crowned warbler – Oreothlypis celata – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Tree swallow – Tachycineta bicolor – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Wilson’s warbler – Cardellina pusilla – IUCN Status: Least Concern

Optimism: A Presidential Challenge?

An optimist might consider the list of birds in the President’s Proclamation could be seen as a challenge to biologists, preservationists, and BLM. The President might have been truly insightful, providing protection for species common enough across the property for scientifically sound analysis of the impacts of varying levels of future visitor use. Only when there are enough nesting attempts of a bird species can we compare nest success in areas with and without visitors, or between areas of varying visitor use types/intensities.

With all of the biota listed in the Proclamation, BLM is required to provide protections in their management plans, setting scientifically-based preservation targets, and monitoring the status of these resources over time. Establishing preservation targets for species will involve developing various hypotheses, such as:

  • What is a minimum viable population size?
  • How many individuals are necessary to maintain their ecological functions?
  • How many individuals are necessary in various parts of the property to ensure that the public has an opportunity to view them?

It is likely that at least some of these birds are common enough across the property right now, when the property is seeing very little visitor use, that experts can inventory their densities and then notice change over time in response to varying management decisions. This would not be the case with more uncommon species.

I should point out that this optimistic viewpoint is difficult to completely uphold because the President did not include the expert’s suggestion of olive-sided flycatcher in his Proclamation: this is a species common enough on the property to meet the criteria outlined above.

Pessimism: A Presidential Nose-Thumbing?

The pessimist might consider it a purposeful snub by the President when he ignored most of the birds recommended by experts for inclusion in the Proclamation. He might have various reasons for snubbing the experts.

For instance, in recent Santa Cruz County history, and with the Monument Campaign in particular, we have seen political leaders leveraging and emphasizing the divide between pro-access, maximum use, recreation advocates and conservation advocates. If the pro-access, maximum use advocates had leverage with the President, they may have advised that inclusion of the conservation community’s recommendations as something to ignore.

An additional and perhaps additive possibility is that the President’s advisers were opposed to preservation of grassland habitat on the property, possibly because of the near necessity of using livestock grazing to maintain that habitat. Despite a growing scientific consensus, some maintain that California’s coastal grasslands are largely ‘unnatural’ relicts of human management, evidenced by their ‘natural’ succession into mixed coniferous forests. And, while fire is sporadically used to maintain California’s coastal grasslands, livestock grazing is more common. Many of the bird species that experts recommended for inclusion are dependent on extensive grassland habitats; some may even require livestock grazing to maintain structure that is conducive to nesting success. The reader is no doubt cognizant of some of the environmental community’s opposition to livestock grazing on conservation lands, and this philosophy could well have been in play when advisers helped the President to draft his Proclamation. None of the birds included in the President’s Proclamation rely on grassland habitat.

A final additional and perhaps additive possibility is the Presidential adviser philosophy that the protection of grassland dependent birds might interfere with maximizing visitor use of the property. Grasslands on the property offer the easiest opportunities for access to the many visitors desiring expeditious photographic opportunities. And so, perhaps the President’s advisers refused protection of grassland birds in order to more readily allow for maximum visitor use.

Concluding Remarks

The future will help inform the prevalence of the optimistic or pessimistic interpretation of the President’s motivations for naming the Monument-worthy birds of Cotoni Coast Dairies in his Proclamation. With luck, we may be able to have conversations with the President’s Proclamation advisers to learn, first-hand their rationale. And, we may gather more clues in the advocacy of Monument Campaign organizers and others during the planning process for the property. We will share our discoveries to help science-based conservationists better engage with similar situations in the United States. And, we will use what we learn to improve our strategy moving forward with preserving the sensitive natural resources of Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Postscripts

  1.  One reviewer suggested an alternative possibility for the President’s advisers largely avoiding the experts’ list of sensitive bird species: the advisers may have not recognized the credibility or legitimacy of the source of information.
  2. Another reviewer pointed out the irony of the Proclamation recognition of indigenous peoples and yet the lack of inclusion of those peoples’ iconic birds: eagle and hummingbird.
  3. Bird experts point out that the President’s inclusion of American kestrel was cogent because of a regional decline in nesting, a phenomenon that isn’t explicable but warrants attention.
  4. Bird experts also point out that the President’s inclusion of black swift is curious because the species has never been known to nest on the property, and nesting areas anywhere nearby have long been abandoned.

Monument Proclamation for Cotoni-Coast Dairies Adds Significant Protections for Biota

The President’s Proclamation adding the Cotoni-Coast Dairies to the California Coastal National Monument has created protections for many biota, helping to guarantee a balanced approach between public access and preservation. The property’s managers, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), had previously demonstrated disregard for all but federally listed species of plants and animals, which are few on the property. The Proclamation now obligates BLM to manage for 24 species as well as 13 biotic communities that are not otherwise federally protected.  The Proclamation guarantees some public access for the property only after the completion of a management plan that is ‘consistent with the care and management’ of these resources.

The following non-federally protected species (24) probably would not have received attention by BLM had this Monument proclamation not included their mention:

  • Wilson’s warbler
  • Orange-crowned warbler
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Black swift
  • Tree swallow
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • American kestrel
  • California vole
  • Dusky footed woodrat
  • Black-tailed jackrabbit
  • Gray fox
  • Bobcat
  • Mountain lion
  • Mule deer
  • California buttercup
  • Brown-headed rush
  • Redwood sorrel
  • Elk clover
  • Madrone
  • California bay
  • Monterey pine
  • Knobcone pine
  • Douglas fir
  • Coast live oak

 

The following biotic groups/communities (13) must now be protected and managed for by BLM:

  • California sagebrush
  • Coyote brush scrub
  • Amphibians and reptiles
  • Bats
  • Red alder forests
  • Arroyo willow forests
  • Riparian areas
  • Riparian corridors
  • Wetlands – in riparian areas as well as meadows and floodplains
  • Grasslands
  • Scrublands
  • Woodlands
  • Forests

The following federally listed species (4)were also mentioned in the Proclamation:

  • Tidewater goby
  • Steelhead
  • Coho salmon
  • California red-legged frog

The following species (2) are listed in the Proclamation and are also listed by BLM California as requiring protection on BLM lands. These species might not have been protected in perpetuity, though, as that BLM list changes with administrations.

  • White tailed kite
  • Townsend’s big-eared bat

Saving the Coastal Prairie on the Santa Cruz North Coast, Thanks to California State Parks Ecologists

On Tuesday, December 27th I hiked onto the Gray Whale section of Wilder Ranch to see the prairies where the smoke was coming from back in October. I first visited these meadows in the late 1980’s while the property was privately owned; cattle were grazing the meadows, and there were abundant native grasses and wildflowers. Santa Cruz preservationists fought hard to protect the property from a proposed housing development, it went to State Parks, which removed the cows and took many years to start managing the prairies, which were starting to disappear to weeds, shrubs, and trees. Luckily, things were to change…

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Postburn strikingly green meadows.

This past October, I knew that big plume of smoke I saw while driving on Highway 1 meant that State Parks was continuing their work at maintaining the meadows that I love so much. Fellow ecologist Jacob Pollock and I hiked from Twin Gates on Empire Grade down the Long Meadow ‘trail’ and into the strikingly bright green resprouting native grasses and wildflowers growing from the charcoal blackened ground. We found many types of native grass and a few wildflowers in the burned areas. Purple needlegrass, California’s State Grass, dominated the burned area, its dark green, rough leaves now 6” long and ubiquitous- a plant every square foot! These bunchgrasses promise a beautiful spring of silvery-purple flowers swaying 2’ high in the breeze. Patches of California oatgrass were less plentiful in the burn area than in the adjoining unburned area. This is the wet meadow loving indicator species of coastal prairie, and, in the many years after grazing and before the fires, it’s bunches grew taller to get to the sun- these tall bunches are susceptible to fire, but some survive.

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Fire recovery of California oatgrass

Patches of the leaves of wildflowers dotted the meadow and promise much more in the months ahead. Most abundant were sun cups, purple sanicle, and soap plant all long-lived perennials with nice flowers. Sun cups will be the earliest to bloom, maybe as early as late February, with simple, 4-petaled yellow flowers. Purple sanicle will be next to bloom in earl April with it’s small, purple spherical clusters of flowers. Soap plant blooms in late spring with evening blooming, white flowers that attract a variety of bumblebees.

Besides the obvious revitalization of the meadow plants, we marveled at other aspects of the handiwork of State Parks’ expert ecologist land stewards. Unlike many of our area’s meadows, there wasn’t a single French broom plant, a super-invasive non-native shrub that obliterates meadows, overruns trails, and is a major fire hazard. A many year program with State Parks partnering with volunteer groups has controlled that and other weed species at the park. We also saw dead coyote brush both in and out of the burn area- this native shrub can completely overrun meadows, closing bush-to-bush canopy in 15 to 35 years, depending on the soil. State Parks killed the coyote bush to maintain the prairie, and then burned the skeletons of the bushes so that there are now wide opened expanses of meadows, which are attractive to hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats, and prairie-loving songbirds like meadowlarks. The ecologists also sent the fire into the adjoining and invading forests, maintaining the sinuous coast live oak ecotone that so beautifully frames the meadows.

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Fire maintains prairie ecotone

Today, I’m celebrating environmental heroes- 2-3 State Park Ecologists who manage over 18,000 acres in Santa Cruz County. They are motivated and hardworking. They need more support, more staff, more funding- please tell your State Assemblyperson/Senator! Without their dedication, our prairies would disappear. Thank you!

June 2017 Addendum: Portia Halbert sent me this photo (from State Parks Ecologist Tim Reilly), taken recently. The unburned portion of the coastal prairie in Long Meadow turns out this year to be dominated by Italian thistle, an invasive plant, whereas the fire from last fall seems to have more-or-less obliterated the species in the adjoining meadow. Thistles are especially bad this year in many meadows that haven’t been well stewarded. This discovery, that fire might help with thistle invasion, is a complete surprise to me- it deserves some careful scientific investigation! Long meadow italian thistle