Coastal prairie

It’s Lupine Time

In the local prairies, it is an especially prolific lupine blossoming year. Do you have a favorite place to visit lupines? The most prolific, bright, large flowered annual lupine in our area is called sky lupine, because when it is in full bloom in large fields, it looks like someone turned the world upside down. The scent is heady- it smells purple. For those of us who grew up smelling purple in grape Kool Aid or various artificially flavored grape bubble gums, it makes sense that sky lupine smell purple. In good years, I am able to go to my favorite lupine patches at just the right time when acre upon acre are giving off that scent and making extensive mats of lupine colors.

Lupinus nanus, aka sky lupine, an annual native wildflower that grows best without grassy competition

Lupine Diversity

Lupines are pea family plants. Look carefully, and you’ll recognize that sweet pea shaped flower. Lupines typically have flowers in a spike of tightly packed whorls with older flowers turning to seed pods at the bottom and new flowers opening at the top. Lupine seed pods look like pea pods. Sky lupine pods explode on warm days pitching seeds far from the mother plant.

Sky lupine flowers and seed pods

Sky lupine isn’t the only lupine around, there are many lupine species in Santa Cruz County. It might make a good treasure hunt to try to see them all. According to Dylan Neubauer’s Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County, California (every naturalist in the County should have this), there are sixteen lupine species in our tiny county. Sky lupine is the only one to make a big show in the grasslands.

A very modest lupine, Lupinus bicolor, aka ‘miniature lupine’ another of the 16 species of lupines in Santa Cruz County, California

Who Eats Lupines?

Italians eat lupines! Strains of white lupine, Lupinus albus, have been cultivated for food throughout Europe. But you have to grow the right strain- some strains are very toxic! In fact, most lupines are toxic…

Here’s a challenge: find sky lupine leaves that are being eaten by a butterfly or moth caterpillar! In researching this essay, I explored the possibility that some beautiful butterfly larva fed on sky lupine. Nope! Lupines famously have some potent toxins. Some species of lupines poison cattle, though I’ve not heard that livestock owners are concerned about sky lupine around here. There are some butterflies and moths that feed on perennial lupine bushes locally, but none that we know of that feed on sky lupine.

Masses of Lupine propinquus popped up after the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire at Molino Creek Farm

Lupine Pollinators

It isn’t a burden to sit in a sky lupine patch to watch for pollinators. You’ll quickly realize that bumble bees love lupine flowers. And, if you look at those bumblebee legs, you’ll see the distinct yellow orange sky lupine pollen color – they collect big globs of it.

And yet, sky lupine doesn’t need a pollinator, it can self-pollinate. But sky lupine flowers make more seed if they get pollinated by bees. The species has an interesting adaptation- some tiny hairs that prevent self-pollination at first; these hairs wilt with time, allowing self-pollination if all else fails.

Sky lupine mixing it up with California poppy- a common combination and always lovely

Planting Lupines

You might be tempted to plant sky lupine- certainly expensive wildflower mixes contain this species and display its color on the fancy seed packets. However, its not that easy. Sky lupine seeds are tough and unpredictable to germinate. Friends have been sending me pictures from places they’ve never seen sky lupines before- the seeds have been in the soil for decades waiting for the right year to germinate! Check out the seeds, sometime- they are beautifully marked with a shiny, waxy seed coat. The seeds are hard as rocks, meant to last years in the soil.

There are many different types of sky lupine, each adapted to its own microclimate. So, if you really really want to get some sky lupines growing, get to a patch nearby and get local seed- collect the pods as they start to dry. Place the drying pods in a paper bag in the sun and wait. Soon, you’ll get to hear the pods exploding in the bag and you’ll know that you got some good seed. Make sure that the pods and seeds are nice and dry before storing them until next fall. As the first rain storm is predicted, cast the seeds around where you want sky lupine…rake them into the soil if you can…and wait- sometimes for years!

Lupinus albifrons, silver bush lupine, in the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve- post 2020 fire flush

Lupine Places

Back in the early 1900’s, many regular Santa Cruz citizens would enjoy Spring wildflower trips to the North Coast grasslands to collect wildflowers. They would bring bouquets home with them and garland their hair and clothes with colorful displays. Now, with long mismanagement of many of those grasslands, there are few wildflower patches left. Anyway, if you do find wildflowers, you’re not supposed to pick them anymore. We ought to leave them for whatever remnant populations of rare pollinators might be around, waiting for us to figure out how to better manage the prairies.

Locally, two places to visit sky lupines come to mind. It used to be that the Glenwood Preserve in Scotts Valley had good sky lupine displays, but I haven’t had a report this year. A little drive to the south, and spring always brings great sky lupine displays in the grasslands and oak savannas of Fort Ord National Monument. There’s something particularly appealing to me about the large patches of sandy grasslands full of lupines surrounded by gnarly short coast live oaks at Ft. Ord. Those sky lupine patches are frequently large enough to get that lupine smell, experience that upside down world with the sky on the ground, and thousands of bumble bees bopping around the flowers.

-I originally published this post at Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog

The Early Winter Prairie

This is a slightly edited reprint of my recent column at Bruce Bratton’s online weekly, to which I strongly suggest you subscribe.

Each season life in the coastal prairie changes in hue and character. The many inches of rain and the cold nights fashion the winter’s prairie now turning bright green with life that is gradually emerging from quiescence. Most annual plants have germinated; both annuals and perennials are growing slowly, the sward just 4 inches tall. The first flowers are blossoming, swales and pools abound with water, gophers throw muddy balls out their desperate breathing holes, and frost ices leaf edges, wilting tender new growth. Newborn calves follow their hungrily grazing mothers far to find enough food. Recreational trails through the prairies are frequently stirred muddy messes, destroying life while eroding ancient soils onto the few remaining prairies; bicyclists proudly sport their muddy equipment and clothes. Some signs of early winter prairie are ancient, while others are quite new.

Pop Goes the…

The first native coastal prairie wildflowers are related to broccoli and celery. Popweed and peppergrass are in bloom, relatives of broccoli. These are a tiny plants on shallow soil or along trails and the sparrow-grazed edges of shrubs…or on last year’s badger or gopher mounds. They have little white flowers with 4 petals that seem to twinkle almost like glitter brightening the prairie. After flowering, popweed makes elongated pods that dry and then ‘pop’ sending seeds further than you might think possible from such a small plant. The U.S. gave popweed to the rest of the world…as a pest! You are probably more likely to encounter both of these plants in sidewalk cracks or (popweed) in potted plants in town. I’ve had the unpleasant experience of getting popweed seeds in my eye more than once, a victim of the barrage of flinging seeds from one of these weeds hiding in a pot that I was moving in my nursery.

Who Spilled the Yellow Paint?

The other very early prairie wildflower is starting to show color. It is called ‘footsteps of spring.’ It has the botanical name Sanicula arctopoides – that last word of its name being a botanical pun: “arcto” for bear and “poides” for foot: barefoot (harr harr!) footsteps (guffaw!) of spring … chuckle-chuckle go those goofy botanists. The name seems right somehow if you think Spring leaves footprints when she arrives: the first really bright thing is this plant- the entire 8” across flat plant turns a surprisingly vibrant yellow framing similarly yellow clusters of flowers. These wildflowers tend to make patches on shallow-soiled ridgelets and outcrops in the prairie. And so, Spring seems to have left footprints with her arrival as she danced from ridge to ridge and across rocky pathways to awaken the prairie from its moist green wintery slumber.

Prairies as Wetlands

Many people are surprised that many of our prairies are wetlands, but if you wander out there now, you’ll become a believer. Coastal Terrace Prairies are on flat ground, mostly along the ancient wavecut and uplifted coastal terraces within a few miles of the coast. Housing and agriculture cover most of the first terrace, the one right above the ocean, but there are extensive prairies on the second, third, and fourth terraces. Look uphill and inland of Highway 1 on the North Coast, for instance. Being flat, coastal terraces don’t drain well and so are apt to have long periods of saturated soil, which is a key attribute of wetlands. In some places, there’s water pooled across the soil surface, but mostly the soil is just so wet that only plant species adapted to wetlands can survive. Walk across these areas and you’ll find shimmering rivulets snaking among the grasses downhill to add water to creeks. Along the edges of these squishy grasslands are seeps and springs oozing and gushing with plentiful water now and remaining green late into spring. In mima mounds and on rocky areas on the terraces, you might find vernal pools- small ephemeral ponds with chorus frog or toad tadpoles, festooned with curious alga and teeming with zooplankton.

Grassy Carpet

Looking broadly across the prairies, grasses are mostly what you see, but slimy things are hiding underneath. Perennial grasses, many of them million-year natives, are waking underground with only the slightest sign in their leaves; their tiny leaves are green, but their new white roots have already grown inches into the surrounding soil, quickly claiming as wide an area as possible. They compete against quicker-growing annual grasses, most of them here for just a few hundred years; these get tall faster and shade natives, inhibiting many native plants from establishing from seed. Without something like the ancient megafaunal grazing regimes, the non-native annuals create a (relatively) towering canopy protecting slugs and snails from bird. Under the grassy protection, mollusks devour the nutrient-rich native annual wildflower seedlings before they stand a chance.

Cows = Flowers

In some places, cattle graze the prairies, maintaining some semblance of the evolutionary disturbance regimes that coastal prairie diversity requires. Betting on a better yearling market, some local cattle ranchers set the bulls free among the heifers at a time that makes for calves right now. This is a difficult time for raising a calf – despite the slow growing lush grasses, there’s very little protein in those leaves. To make enough milk, the mothers must constantly graze, cropping the prairie short. Flocks of birds follow the cattle for the food they expose along the way. Research UCSC Professor Karen Holl and I have performed over the past many years has shown that cattle grazing in coastal prairie creates more abundant and more diverse native annual wildflowers than adjoining ungrazed areas. Cattle grazing, cow trails and the lightly driven ranch roads that accompany livestock also make for excellent habitat for the rarest of beetles…the Ohlone tiger beetle.


The Ohlone tiger beetle is emerging from its burrows now, bright metallic green-blue carapaces like finest jewels of our local prairies. This species is only found in a handful of grasslands near Santa Cruz. On sunny, warmer days, it forages for invertebrates along open trails in only the most diverse coastal prairies. Those sunny warm days also attract mountain bikers who cruise so swiftly along the trails – including miles of trails that are not sanctioned by the landowners – as to smash innumerable of these endangered insects. Just last week, a colleague visited the Mima Meadow at UC Santa Cruz to find many smashed, most probably killed by fast-moving bicyclists. The carcasses were on a trail not sanctioned for bicyclist use and even in an area the University, as a legal mandate from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has set aside expressly for beetle conservation. If court cases from Florida are any precedent, the University could be held liable for the death of a federally protected endangered species…and penalized. Perhaps that’s what it would take for the University to enforce the protection of this area.

Muddy Mess

Perhaps one could understand a University’s difficulty in managing natural areas, but what about our State Park managers? Many of the coastal prairie trails at Wilder Ranch State Park once had Ohlone tiger beetles, but State Parks destroyed much of that habitat by dumping tons of gravel to ‘harden’ the trails as a ‘solution’ to allowing recreational access during the muddy winters. Parks staff subsequently decided to manage a small remnant area (successfully) for this endangered species. Even so, coastal prairie trails are a muddy mess these days, and use only stirs up that mud, loosening it so that it washes off into the surrounding grasslands. Those extra nutrients spur weedy growth and destroy wildflowers. Meanwhile the incising and eroding trails serve to drain the surrounding wet meadows, an alteration that also degrades the habitat. Shame on users and managers alike for destroying eons of evolution and a legacy for future generations! If you see the (rare) ‘trails closed’ signs…which are almost always (if present) defaced and thrown aside…please prop them back up and go for a forest walk, instead.

Rain Awakes the Prairie

– from my 10/27/21 column at the highly recommended Bratton Online site

The rain is awakening the prairies; it is also time we awoke to the preciousness of these grassland habitats. Already, enough rain has fallen to wet the ground and trigger seed germination in the local meadows. Perennial flowers and grasses have also quickly flushed with new green shoots. The rains have brought migrating winter wildlife, increasingly threatened because, each year, there are fewer acres of grassland to which to return. It is because native peoples tended prairies that we have any prairies at all in our region. Now, together with indigenous peoples, we are relearning how to restore meadows. With attention and intention, we may one day witness the restoration of healthy populations of badger and burrowing owl living in flowered-filled meadows across the Central Coast. For this to succeed depends on more people sharing more coastal prairie wisdom. With that wisdom, together we can build and pass on new stories to future generations (and new arrivals) so that we might maintain grasslands and their many associated species.

Meadow Showers

Rain is soaking in, darkening the rich prairie soil with newfound moisture. Green patches of seedlings first appear along trails, on gopher mounds and other areas with less thatch. Soon, seedlings will also emerge from under the thick skeletons of prior years’ dead plants. Inhale the moist, cool air slowly, and you may detect new rainfall-induced scents. The first that strikes me is the pungent smell of mouse pee. Grasslands are thick with rodents and, for six months, mouse urine has been drying and concentrating on the soil surface. Now, that nutrient source has been re-wetted and is being soaked into the root zone, and it smells strongly throughout meadows. Beyond that scent, there is petrichor, the complex ‘fresh rain’ smell made up in part by compounds related to the scent essences of both cedar and beet root. With the new rain, I detect another smell…wet hay. When rain first falls, there’s a strong smell of newly moistened hay, and that scent turns quickly and sharply mushroomy. After a week of the first big rains, if you grab ahold of a thick mat of dead grass and pull- it will easily peel from the soil surface only clinging to a little soil. It will be held together with what look like bright white roots. These are fungal threads, soon to be better evidenced by their more familiar “fruiting bodies” – especially the familiar grassland types…puffballs and other fairy ring mushrooms. As if anticipating the quickly emerging life, new bird species arrived in the meadows just prior to the rains.

The Grassland’s Wet Season Birds

I had travelled a hundred times through one particular and expansive grassland and was startled to be reunited one morning with my favorite grassland bird: the meadowlark! These birds are almost as big as robins and have long stout pointy bills, yellow undersides and have long streaks combining yellow, brown, and black on their upper bodies. Their songs are loud and distinct – a signature noise of grasslands throughout the United States. Meadowlarks nest, eat, and sleep in wide open prairies. The flock I encountered that first day of their return was about 40 birds. Last I counted, three weeks into their winter stay, this tribe remained around that number. My bird guidebook’s range map suggests that western meadowlarks reside year-round around here, but that’s a national map evidently without fine enough scale for our particular rsituation. This local meadowlark group must nest elsewhere, in the spring and summer. In winter, our meadowlark clans join another very special winter-only prairie bird: the burrowing owl. Burrowing owls don’t dig, but they live in holes. Every winter, they surprise me as they flush from different kinds of holes: ground squirrel burrows, road culverts and agricultural pipes. When UCSC’s Seymour Center rat Terrace Point was still mostly surrounded by open meadows, burrowing owls could easily be seen in ground squirrel burrows on the berms piled up when someone was kind enough to try to hide the buildings. Those berms have been since bulldozed. UCSC also rousted burrowing owls from their last local nesting location when they paved the ‘remote’ parking lots. Given the chance, UCSC will continue paving over the increasingly endangered burrowing owl meadow habitat. Get it while you can, Regents! Your actions will literally pave the way for burrowing owls to become so rare they must be protected as endangered species by the State and Federal governments…saddling private landowners with even more regulatory burden. Meanwhile, we are lucky to have this owl, with tall yellow legs and huge, cute eyes; they can be found in the winter at UCSC and across the North Coast’s grasslands. Look for it vigorously bobbing its whole body while staring at you from quite a distance while it guards its precious sleeping hole.

Upland Newts??

The recent rains also bring another grassland critter to our attention: newts! Hiking over the freshly greening grass, I glanced into the mouth of a gopher hole: surprise! Looking back at me were the golden cat eyes of a rough skinned newt. Hands forward, this critter is like Dracula awaiting sun set to mosey out off its underground lair. That night, with the rain pattering down, it walked half a mile across the meadow, before sniffing out another unoccupied hole for the next day. Nocturnally travelling with uncanny directionality it joined an increasingly large group of its brethren, creating a river of newts, some of which made it across the road before sliding down the bank into a large breeding pond. Newts love the dry grasslands- that’s where they live most of the time, foraging all summer long in the cool darkness of rodent burrows. We think of them as stream or pond organisms, but mostly they are grassland creatures.

An Abbreviated Grassland Management History

Our local grasslands and their associated wildlife owe their presence to thousands of years of tending by native peoples. Without that tending, there would have been no ‘pasture’ for the invading old world cultures to graze livestock on. Indigenous cultures honed complex management activities to steward grasslands species. They used prescribed fire in small and large patches, at varying times and intensities to favor their desired outcomes. They cultivated plant species without our modern (gross) tractor tools.  They enjoyed a legendary favorite prairie feast that we can relate to involving prairie grown greens- salads full of diverse, freshly gathered tasty leaves and flowers especially from clovers. Their meadow tending created new cultivars and species. Plants provided food, medicine, basketry materials, clothing, tools, art, and so much more. Their management activities not only focused on plants but also wildlife management. Many of us would dearly love to have seen those prairie gardens.

After the Fall

After the genocide of the indigenous peoples, ranchers were responsible for maintaining open grasslands. Ranchers still manage many of the grasslands, but many are increasingly owned by public or private open space managers. Most recently, we have been moving towards relearning how to keep our prairies healthy. California native grasslands are one of the top ten most endangered ecosystems in the United States. More coastal prairie (grasslands in the fog belt) have been lost to pavement (‘urbanization’) than any other habitat in the USA. And coastal prairies are the most species-rich grasslands in North America. There are 80 plants species that only live in California’s coastal prairies. One third of all rare plant species in California are found only in grasslands. There are many plant and wildlife species in our local grasslands that are already recognized as endangered, and many more qualify for inclusion on state or federal endangered species lists.


Amah Mutsun stewards are relearning alongside many others how to steward prairies. Far up the North Coast, the Amah Mutsun have been working with State Parks to remove shrubs and trees that have invaded ancient meadows. Elsewhere, State Parks has long had a prescribed fire program to restore prairie habitats. While the City of Santa Cruz effectively destroyed the meadows at Arana Gulch by fragmenting them with roads, City Parks staff are experimenting with prairie management regimes including grazing. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working hard to restore and maintain the Scotts Valley grasslands at Glenwood Open Space Preserve. For decades, weed warriors with the Ken Moore’s Wildlands Restoration Team, the California Native Plant Society and the Land Trust have been responsible for rescuing meadows from weeds, especially French broom. We are making great progress and learning a lot. Grassland restoration is extremely rewarding because you can so quickly see a positive response. But, we must do more…

Please discuss some of this essay with someone while its fresh in your mind, say in the next week. Without more awareness, we will have no grasslands to restore and poor badger and burrowing owl, meadowlark and newt won’t have homes anymore.

Pogonip: Imperiled, Once Again

I will post a series of notes here about the quickly emerging proposal to move the Homeless Garden Project to the centerpiece meadow at Pogonip Greenbelt. Their originally designated place, near the entrance to the open space at Golf Club Drive, has lead contamination that the City is going to clean up, at taxpayers’ expense. But, sensing an opportunity to take Center Stage, Homeless Garden proponents and their friends in High Places in the City, are now pushing putting a 10-acre farm, complete with 8′ fences, parking, etc., right smack in the middle of the big meadow, Santa Cruz’ last Big Meadow.


Thanks to all who have already stepped up to help protect Pogonip’s beautiful Main Meadow. We will need your continued help in the months ahead to protect our Greenbelt. In the few short weeks since the announcement of a proposed plan to locate the Homeless Garden Project on the Main Meadow, much has been accomplished:

Many of you submitted excellent comments in writing and verbally to the Parks and Recreation Commission and City Council raising a wide range of important concerns

Groups including the Sierra Club, the Santa Cruz Bird Club, and the California Native Plants Society, as well as several local scientists, submitted detailed comments citing significant environmental issues·       A new group called Friends of the Greenbelt (FOG) has formed

A land use and CEQA attorney has been retained to ensure a full public environmental review process is conducted if the project moves forward 

As expected, last night the City Council approved the staff recommendation to allocate $100,000 in city budget funds to continue analyzing the potential to develop a 9.5 acre farm in the Main Meadow, including 6000 square feet of buildings, an expanded road, and other infrastructure- all to support a greatly expanded footprint for the Homeless Garden Project. 

The Council directed staff to also continue to assess the feasibility of the Homeless Garden Project moving to its already approved location, the lower meadow site near Golf Club Drive where lead contamination from historic skeet shooting was discovered. Notably, at the Council meeting last night, city staff confirmed that 4.5 acres of the Golf Club Drive site is not contaminated. This represents an area that is an acre larger than the Homeless Garden Project’s current site on the Westside. In other words, the Homeless Garden Project could proceed with plans to move to their already approved site close to Golf Club Drive and still grow the size of their operation. This option would preserve the Main Meadows as required by the Pogonip Master Plan. 

The City plans to host outreach meetings to gather community input in November and January. 

What’s next and how can you help? 

Please join Friends of the Greenbelt! If you want to become a member, just send me a note and I’ll add you to the roster. There’s no additional commitment and we won’t share your name. In the future we will share opportunities for public comment as the process moves forward. We would also like to host field trips, gatherings, and we may share other greenbelt information to share via that group.  

Tell your friends. Everyone in this community supports the mission of the Homeless Garden Project and many may not realize the significance of developing one of our last coastal prairie meadows and ignoring adopted city plans and policies designed to protect habitat and biodiversity. Talk to your friends about why it is so important that the Homeless Garden Project develop on a different site and not in the heart of the Greenbelt. Tell your friends to join Friends of the Greenbelt. 

Talk to city officials and the Homeless Garden Project. Make time to talk as directly as you can to our representatives- the Parks and Recreation Commissioners and the City Council and to the Homeless Garden Project Board of Directors. Share your concerns and urge them to pursue an alternative site to the Main Meadow of Pogonip. 

We have made a big difference already and together will continue building the momentum necessary to give the Upper Main Meadow the strong voice that it needs if it is to remain such a beautiful, wildlife friendly place for future generations.


Hi Friends- Exciting news! Our newly founded Friends of the Greenbelt has retained an attorney to represent us and strengthen our opposition to the Poor Idea to consider placing a 10 acre private farm in the middle of the centerpiece of our beautiful greenbelt.

Letters Needed for Upcoming City Council Meeting (9/28)

Please consider writing a letter/email/note and commit to asking 5-10 others to do the same…before this Friday September 24…to ensure that the letters are read by councilmembers before the meeting. Now is an important time to act.

The City Council will decide at its upcoming September 28th meeting whether or not to move forward with the next step of placing a 10-acre private farm in the middle of the main meadow at Pogonip. Email the Council at: the meeting is set to begin at 11 a.m. on this coming Tuesday Sept 28, but the agenda has not been posted publicly and would be at this site

Many people do not know…the much-beloved Homeless Garden Project was slated to get tucked into the corner of the Pogonip greenbelt near the entrance to Golf Club Drive (aka “Lower Main Meadow’), but they found lead from a historic skeet shooting range there, so…in a hurry to get the farm moved to the Pogonip from its long-time Westside home (where BTW they are welcome to stay) … instead of waiting for the City to clean up the lead … they are pushing for a short-term solution, and a greatly expanded farm in the middle of the vast and beautiful meadow (aka ‘Upper Main Meadow’) that is the centerpiece of our greenbelt: right in front of the historic clubhouse.

This new 10-acre farm will be fenced- excluding the public and wildlife- and the ancient carbon-rich prairie soils will be tilled, releasing lots carbon to the atmosphere. The road to that part of the greenbelt will be widened, utilities sent up the hill, many buildings constructed, parking lots, lights, increased fire danger and more difficult to protect infrastructure, further into our wildlands.

This wild place, reachable on foot, bike, etc., by many of all ages, incomes, and situations and a place of peaceful solace for humans and non-humans alike, will be forever changed. The view of the meadow is woven into our psyches. It is how we feel home. Others, many generations from now, should be able to experience that feeling. Coyotes and hawks, endangered beetles and bats, they have already lost so many of their places.

Below, I’ve placed some of the talking points others have used. If you think of others, please let me know.
Also, please send me a copy of what you send…if you also give me your permission, I’ll post the letters on a publicly available website to illustrate the breadth, determination, love, and thoughtfulness of the opposition.

We have already made great strides- they thought that this would be easier. Together, we can turn this around…find the Homeless Garden Project a great new home and save the heart of the Pogonip at the same time.

Let me know how I can help. – Grey
Here are some talking points to make in your note to the City Council:

The process has not been transparent: the public has had insufficient notice of the public process.    Suggestion: better notify the public about this process, give us more time to comment, put up bright flagging and ‘story poles’ for us to see the dimensions of what is being considered.

The City shouldn’t waste funding: there are other priorities for Parks    Suggestion: as outlined in the recent Parks Master Plan, the City should focus on priorities such as more accessible playground for children, addressing trail erosion, creating habitat conservation and restoration plans, restoring habitats and removing invasive species.

The City already spent a lot of time and paid a lot of money to for the Pogonip Master Plan as well as for the public process and environmental review of that Plan. Hundreds wrote to protect this meadow at that time. The environmental review clearly stated that it was infeasible to put the Homeless Garden Project in this location because of many serious constraints. Suggestion: none of the previous constraining conditions of the Upper Main Meadow could have changed; if anything, those constraints have increased with time.

The Upper Main Meadow is critical habitat for the Federally endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, habitat for many protected raptors and songbirds, contains rare mima mounds, is covered with threatened coastal terrace prairie, and has extensive wetlands protected by the State and Federal governments. These constraints are insurmountable and damaging these resources is not what Santa Cruzans should do with their greenbelt lands. The City has been unable to mitigate for the damages to endangered species at Arana Gulch, so how do we know they could at this location?

Continuing the process to consider this project will create rifts in our community when we have more constructive things we can do together.

The expansive, open Upper Main Meadow is an important visual resource, with views that define Santa Cruz.

There are no other places for such peaceful passive recreation in close proximity to the City. This meadow is irreplaceable in that way.

This proposal places infrastructure further into the wildlands, increasing fire danger, increasing damage to natural systems from toxic burning buildings, and making it harder for firefighters to protect the lives and property at that location.

Tilling ancient grassland soils irreparably releases greenhouse gasses that cannot be captured in those soils in the original amounts, ever again.

The site would be transferred from current public recreational use to private agriculture use, fenced from the public.  

The funding used to purchase the property was provided by the California Wildlife, Coastal, and Park Land Conservation Act of 1988, allowed State Parks disseminate funding to the City of Santa Cruz with its application. The City’s application asked the state to purchase 614 acres which “consists of six open grass areas” and 60% forest, and including a sycamore riparian forest. This application does not include provision for developing the property into private agricultural endeavors such as the Homeless Garden Project:

We have been provided no evidence that the Homeless Garden Project has to move anywhere, any time soon. We have also seen no evidence that they need more space to serve more homeless people.

There are better, viable alternatives: they aren’t getting ‘kicked off’ of the Natural Bridges location they currently occupy and they might very well negotiate for a very long term mutually beneficial solution at that location with Ron Swenson’s proposed Ecovillage which is still under serious consideration; the Lower Main Meadow (once cleaned up, which the City has committed to doing), and; other sites closer to town that are being redeveloped and/or have abandoned businesses. These alternatives will allow the Homeless Garden Project a quicker solution.

Here’s my letter, sent 9/24:

Dear Council,

I write to urge you to halt the process of funding and analyzing the potential to move the Homeless Garden Project farm, buildings and infrastructure to a new site in and around the Upper Main Meadow in the City’s precious greenbelt public park, the Pogonip.

There are many, many already obvious reasons that the Upper Main Meadow is not suitable for the proposed development, so spending further public resources on this exploration is not a good idea. Recently, the City spent considerable resources writing, reviewing, and gaining public input into a Parks Master Plan, which identifies many pressing priorities for Parks – this proposed relocation was not one of those priorities. In addition, not long ago, the City invested public resources into the Pogonip Master Planning process: after expensive analysis and extensive consideration, the resulting plan clearly states that it was infeasible to place the Homeless Garden Project farm and infrastructure in the Upper Main Meadow. Common sense and an honest conversation with any objective and knowledgeable planner would lead to the conclusion that none of the constraints identified previously would have changed by this time. At time of the Pogonip Master Planning process, the vast majority of the public opposed developing the main meadow. Given the scope and foreseeable impacts of the project, reconsideration for this use of the Upper Main Meadow would most reasonably require analysis, preparation, presentation, and public process of a major amendment to the Pogonip Master Plan, a lengthy and costly proposition that would have little chance of success while spending and very limited and considerable public resources that should be aimed at already defined City priorities. You must ask how to spend resources most wisely to benefit the largest number or most important to serve people.

And yet, you do not have a choice in this matter. The State funding for the purchase of Pogonip requires that the property be used as a public park, maintained as open space for recreation and conservation values. Perhaps because of kindness or oversight, this issue was not publicly- or well-visited during prior consideration of the placement of the Homeless Garden Project at the Pogonip. However, be assured that, should you decide to do anything but stop this process at your 9/28 meeting, the issue will now be expertly explored, which could endanger the currently slated Pogonip location of the Homeless Garden Project while placing the City in a higher level of scrutiny by State oversight overall for its use and management of the property.

The visual and recreational values of the Upper Main Meadow are paramount. This meadow is the core of what is ‘open’ about this open space. The vistas afforded from and across this beautiful meadow have long been important to the people of Santa Cruz and our many guests. The views relax us, nourishing our souls. Many generations have enjoyed these vistas, their eyes wandering across these open spaces, glimpsing pouncing coyotes, following gliding hawks. Such views are becoming scarcer by the decade, and Santa Cruzans fight hard each time one is threatened. Future generations should be able to enjoy the same views, which increase the value of our property. I and many others enjoy passive recreation. As the recent Parks Master Plan documented, walking and hiking are the predominant recreational activities of Santa Cruzans. These activities entail passive, peaceful observation of nature. Developing the proposed 6-city-block-sized farm in the middle of this meadow would irreparably damage core visual and recreational values of the Pogonip. Developing the thousands of square feet of buildings, parking lots, night lighting, and widened roads would destroy the overall feeling of this place, and would markedly reduce the peacefulness that we now enjoy there. Peacefulness, the ability to let our eyes relax across large landscapes, and passive observation of nature – these are well-documented aspects of raising healthy children and leading healthy lives. The ability to pursue such health and well being at the Pogonip, in such close proximity to so many, is critically important for all of Santa Cruz’ citizens. Not all citizens can afford to get in their cars and travel to more distant locations for such healing.

 The natural constraints of the proposed site have been well documented by the City, using public resources, at a prior time – they are considerable. The site is covered by coastal prairie, one of the top 10 most endangered ecosystems in the United States, having been largely destroyed by previous development including much of Santa Cruz. This prairie is habitat for a number of protected animals including the Federally endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, which is critically imperiled and for which the City Parks Department recently declined to cooperate with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s offer to fund and implement pressing restoration activities. There are also species of protected songbirds, hawks and owls that use the meadow for foraging and may nest in the vicinity of the proposed project. I am trained to recognize such resources, and much of the proposed farm site contains jurisdictional wetlands- wet meadow habitat that meets the criteria under Federal and State protection laws. To effectively delineate the wetlands at this site would require extensive monitoring of the level of soils saturation through ‘normal’ rainfall years: this could take years of monitoring given the current predictions of the continuation of drought this winter. Should the City move forward consideration of converting this site to agriculture, the City would need to demonstrate the feasibility of mitigating impacts to wetlands and coastal prairie habitats. As a professional restoration ecologist familiar with that potential, I am notifying you that I am not aware of appropriate sites for mitigation (replacement in kind at any ratio) of the destruction of coastal prairie wetlands of this sort. And, I am not aware of science that would support the feasibility of coastal prairie restoration. In addition, tilling ancient grasslands, which hold vast quantities of soil carbon, releases much of that carbon into the atmosphere. This impact would require analysis and mitigation; research has demonstrated that it is not feasible to replace that same amount of carbon through restoration.

As decision makers, you are obviously in a difficult situation. The City has a history of poor treatment of the Homeless Garden Project. It first sold the Pelton Street property out from under the HGP for only $2 million, funding long since spent and an amount that pales to what the City and HGP are now spending on this process. That embarrassing situation led to the promises by a small group of powerful decision makers to ‘make good’ for the HGP by promising them City-owned land and a ‘permanent’ home. Even such promises are obviously empty as they can be contested in a democracy with changing popular ideas and rules about sole-source contracting, especially on public trust lands to private organizations. Over the many ensuing years, it is not evident that City planners have worked at all with the property owner and HGP to secure a development plan at the current site that would allow the Project to remain where it is. Most recently, the City agreed to a long-term lease to the Homeless Garden Project at the ‘lower main meadow’ at the Pogonip but discovered it was offering a site with some soil toxicity issues. Santa Cruzans have long supported both the Homeless Garden Project and environmental conservation. We don’t want to have to make a choice between the two. The choice before you allows you to stop the division that will grow and grow quickly in our community about this difficult situation. Already, in opening this process with little and very poor public notification, the City has sown the seeds of unhappiness: we are all torn.

And yet, the choice you are contemplating is unwarranted and unnecessarily dramatic: there is no case for the need and there are clear alternatives. As a professional adult educator, I suggest that we have been presented no evidence of a need to expand the acreage of agriculture for the HGP to meet its mission. Indeed, the kind of help they offer their target populations is not acreage-based; they have long operated with small acreage, as have similar projects around the world. If they have training, therapy, or learning objectives and programs to support larger acreage, the documents to support those are not in public evidence. Moreover, the HGP has presented no evidence of the rumored/suggested pressure from donors for a short-term or Pogonip-based solution. And still, City Parks staff have said the City will clean up the previously slated Pogonip location for the HGP. Even if that site turns out to be infeasible, neither the City nor the HGP  has presented a case supporting the need for the Project to move from the site that they currently occupy; in contrast, the owner actively advertises their desire to have such uses at that site in perpetuity and in close partnership with the eventual homeowners there- guaranteeing the kinds of interactions the HGP advertises as essential to their programs. If none of the aforementioned alternatives work, the need for redevelopment of parcels in and around downtown is increasingly obvious and should be explored as a location for such a farm…on riverine soils in an area that is otherwise unwise to develop housing and businesses due to earthquake liquifaction and periodic flooding concerns.

I urge you to stop this now, for the good of our community and for the wildlife – the non-human creatures that do not have voices that you can hear. Let us work together to find a real solution to help the Homeless Garden Project to meet its goals. And, let us respect our previous processes for planning and funding at the Pogonip. If not, I will do everything in my power to help to rally a growing network of smart and resourceful people to stop this ill-advised scheme.

Many thanks,