parks

Teach Your Children Well

Five shovels, five rakes, and ten of us sweating and smiling as we worked to restore trails in UCSC’s Upper Campus Natural Reserve. For a few years in the mid-1990s, UCSC undergraduate volunteers joined me, Campus Reserve Steward, one Saturday a month to reverse the harm that hundreds of mountain bikes were causing. We spent the most time along 7 Springs Trail and the Interpretive Trail. Both trails were off limits to bicyclists and clearly signed; they still are. These are very sensitive ecological areas replete with wetlands, springs, and highly erosive soils. They have been set aside for teaching and research, visited by classes and sites of long-term forest research. While we worked, we frequently encountered bicyclist after bicyclist, some skidding to avoid hitting the volunteers. Our team was trained and eager to inform the bicyclists about the trails being closed and why. More than half of the bicyclists were aggressive and unfriendly, unwelcoming to such an interaction. We were yelled at, called all sorts of names, and there were occasional threats of violence, and even spitting. I was thrown to the ground and stepped on once by a particularly aggressive individual. Our work to close the trail was regularly and expertly vandalized and signs frequently defaced. This is a dominant culture of mountain biking. These instances are not outliers, the behavior far too common. I have been hearing similar stories from many people for years. Once, I told a person with his son that I would call a ranger if they jumped a gate headed into a closed, sensitive natural area. He responded, “I AM A RANGER!” And I recognized him as one of the head rangers for State Parks…and off he went, a fine example for his son.

Givers Vs. Takers

I recommend reading Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael; one of the things I recall from the book is a characterization of humans as being either “givers” or “takers.” Santa Cruz County has been fortunate to have a historic giving culture. A very large percentage of the County has been set aside as parks or is stewarded by large private landowners who take very good care of their land. There is little area for urban sprawl, but now we are facing the next biggest threat: natural areas recreation, one of the top threats to biodiversity on the planet. Leading the assault are trails advocacy groups, some of which have been at this for decades. There will apparently never be enough new mountain bike trails for the funders of these groups. These groups and others like them around the world are being funded by industry through organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association. Mountain biking trails-building volunteers working for these advocacy groups are spending their free time expanding corporate profits while repairing a small fraction of the damage they’ve collectively caused with their thrill-seeking sport. These are what Ishmael would call ‘takers.’ Together, mountain biking (aka ‘trails’) advocacy groups and the outdoor recreation industry are pressuring every public land management agency in the Bay Area to expand mountain biking trails in an apparent bid to turn every inch of natural area into a high-speed playground, maximizing profits at the expense of the wildlife and the quiet walks once enjoyed by families with small children, bird watchers, and contemplative hikers. On this subject, someone urged me to consider Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

The Corruptors’ Rule: Keep Them Stupid

I suspect that a fraction of those building new trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies innocently think they are doing the right thing. The groups organizing these events certainly won’t educate the volunteers about the dubious nature of their work. They won’t share with them the long and expertly crafted critiques of the park’s planning process by the region’s leading biologists. They won’t tell the volunteers already riding mountain bikes on the trails that a broad coalition of conservation groups oppose using the trails before a biological baseline is collected. They won’t tell the volunteers that their sponsoring group has, without expertise, testified in contradiction to conservationists during the planning process in an apparent bid to gain points, and a sole-source trail building contract, with the BLM. The volunteers, knowingly or not, have become active participants in the commodification of nature. So, they are “takers.”

Our Chance

Conservationists (aka “givers”) point out that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Cotoni Coast Dairies to collect a biological baseline before trail use commences. With this baseline, we can better understand how trail use affects wildlife, plant communities, soils processes, and the spread of invasive species. The property has been very lightly visited by humans for more than 100 years. Because the property is designated as part of the California Coastal Monument and as part of the federal National Conservation Lands network, there are extensive policies that support and even require such a baseline…this level of policy support is absent with any other conservation land in the County. Do the trails building volunteers know that, through their work, they are supporting BLM in shirking critical land conservation responsibilities?

Snap!

I have put these arguments to volunteers of trails groups working at Cotoni Coast Dairies and have been reminded of a series of fallacious arguments that have been trotted out for decades. The most common statement is: “It’s a done deal, trails were approved and are under way, get over it!” This statement ignores the ongoing and active appeal to the planning process by a coalition of conservation groups. And, even without such an appeal, the statement overlooks the need to manage trails forever and land management agencies’ responsibility to adaptively manage trails to avoid impacts to protected natural resources and user conflicts that would favor certain user groups (such as mountain bikers).

Avoid the Trap

In a bid to trap the unwary, some of the leaders of the trails advocacy groups have suggested that their groups are ‘conservation’ groups. If you are confused, ask the leaders of these groups about what is ‘enough’ and what is ‘too much?’ For instance, when will there be ‘enough’ mountain bike trails? What specific metric would indicate too much soil erosion on a given stretch of trail? What, specifically, is too much user conflict- such as how much displacement of families with small children who fear their 3-year-olds getting hit by mountain bikes (like one person recently reported to me)? How specifically will we know when there has been too much wildlife loss due to natural areas recreation? If the trails advocacy group truly had a conservation platform, they would have answers, created through methods of carrying capacity analysis and they would be able to offer threshold limits of acceptable change (‘enough’ or ‘too much’). I have long interacted with these groups, and this is where I see evidence favoring ‘malice’ instead of Hanlon’s razor ‘stupidity.’ With this kind of experience, one might discover which groups are primarily interested in the commodification of nature, and are, thereby ‘takers.’

Past Evidence

In the 1990’s, one of these trails advocacy groups began their ugly but organized, well-funded campaigns to expand mountain biking trails in this region. I was at the table when the group negotiated the opening of the U-Con trail from UCSC to Henry Cowell. They promised volunteers to close and keep closed the myriad of unsanctioned trails bleeding tons of sediment into the San Lorenzo River; they said that they would post volunteers at trail heads to “self-enforce” closure. They did no such thing. I was also there when mountain biking representatives showed up at the first Gray Whale Advisory Committee meeting, having worked with State Parks for a year to prepare detailed plans for an extensive network of new trails through that property (now part of Wilder Ranch State Park) without any understanding of/interest in the extensive areas with sensitive ecology and erosive soils. Because of their intransigence at coming to agreement with Parks and the Committee, there is still no long term trails management plan and no plan for protecting critical sensitive species. A group consulted with me when Nisene Marks State Park General Plan was being drafted and mountain biking advocates were aggressively advocating for more mountain bike trails, in contradiction to permanent deed restrictions against such use….wasting extensive State and private resources and, once again, needlessly dividing our community. More recently, I countered a mountain biking group publicity campaign that sought to educate the public falsely about the ‘need’ for more mountain bike trails because of the purported paucity of such in the County. After correction, they walked back the campaign and it subsequently disappeared. These situations are, in my opinion, more evidence of ‘malice’ rather than ‘stupidity.’

We are Winning

Despite all of this, the ‘givers’ are winning, pushing forward protections for Nature in parks around Santa Cruz. We realize that the vast majority of us want healthy wildlife AND access to natural areas where we can recreate without fear. We reject the politics of division that those whose object is the commodification of nature so enjoy. Together, we won protections for Nisene Marks State Park. We expanded protections prohibiting mountain bikes in extensive wilderness areas of Castle Rock State Park. We created extensive Natural Preserves at Wilder Ranch State Park, thwarting miles of new mountain bike trails. We have (thus far) maintained prohibitions against mountain biking on single track trails at UCSC. A coalition of conservation groups has recently made great headway in improving the poor recreational planning at Cotoni Coast Dairies. With community support, the San Vicente Redwoods conservation coalition is enacting the most progressive recreation and conservation adaptive management regime our region has ever seen. Expanding awareness even forced one mountain biking advocacy group to change their name to seem more PC. And soon, we may have Congressional representative Jimmy Panetta instead of Anna Eshoo- a massive step forward in leadership to better manage the impacts of natural areas visitors to our communities and to wildlife. I have been fielding so many requests to help on these issues that I can’t keep up. Together, we are turning the tide: there is hope that future generations will be able to enjoy peaceful strolls and see sensitive wildlife in our natural areas, after all.

Your Time

Meanwhile, when you consider how to spend your outdoor volunteer time, focus your attention on groups that know how to help you to truly become a ‘giver’– groups like the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and the California Native Plant Society.

-this essay originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Recreation vs. Conservation in Natural Areas

We face a quandary for which there are many solutions: the northern region of Santa Cruz County is one of the nation’s top biodiversity hotspots which is increasingly facing one of the largest threats to biodiversity – recreation within conservation areas. Globally, the coast of California is recognized as one of the most important crisis areas where natural areas tourism impact overlaps with critical conservation areas called biodiversity hotspots.

Biodiversity Hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots have been scientifically catalogued in precise ways to direct conservation funding and activities. These areas have particularly high numbers of species limited to small geographic areas, correlating with large numbers of endangered species. Areas with numerous endangered species in different groups receive higher hotspot scores: Santa Cruz County has many endangered species in three groups: ‘herptiles, arthropods, and plants,’ and so is one of only two counties in the nation to receive the highest hotspot score. Similarly, with a larger lens than county boundaries, the San Francisco Bay Area, including northern Santa Cruz County, is recognized as one of the top three biodiversity hotspots in the country. The rationale for using biodiversity hotspot indices for conservation prioritization is so widely accepted that this measure has become the focus of the most funding of any other conservation initiative, a total of $750 million up to 2010. Our region has long benefited from such largesse, including the generous funding to set aside areas like the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies and POST/Sempervirens Fund’s San Vicente Redwoods conservation areas. And yet, purchasing of land for conservation purposes only begins the process of conservation, which will last many lifetimes. Fortunately, there are many strong protections in place for these areas that help to guarantee that they will long be managed primarily for biodiversity protection.

Wildlife Protected at Cotoni Coast Dairies

There are a host of guarantees for biodiversity protection at the Cotoni Coast Dairies property. In 2017, Obama’s presidential proclamation making the property a part of the California Coastal Monument there are protections for such a breadth of ‘Objects of the Monument.’ Monument designation carries with it mandates for very careful planning, inventory, and adaptive management to assure natural resource protection. In addition, the property has been designated as part of the most protected lands in the Country: National Conservation Lands. In addition, BLM maintains and regularly updates lists of ‘special status’ plants and animals to guide protections on their lands. For those interested in mandates for BLM management for biodiversity on National Monuments, I encourage perusal of their Manual 6220. Using one ‘Object of the Monument’ as an example, the 6220 Manual requires that BLM inventory the dusky footed woodrat on the property and, in collaboration with experts at its National Conservation Lands Office, include in its property-wide science plan specifics about how managers will monitor and adaptively manage the property to assure the species’ protection. Regulations protecting biodiversity on the nation’s highest value conservation lands well reflect the majority of citizen’s interests in protecting wildlife, even if it means personal sacrifice. This is good news for conservation in natural areas because of the natural conflict between recreation and conservation.

Recreational Use is Contrary to Wildlife Protection

There has been much published about the negative impacts to wildlife of recreational use in natural areas, but here are a few illustrations of types of negative impacts. The following species are listed as “Objects of the Monument:” gray fox, bobcat, and mountain lion. Predators such as these three species are well recognized as extremely sensitive to recreational use in natural areas, leading to decreased density and abundance of these types of animals. Researchers working in the Santa Cruz area have noted that mountain lions are substantially sensitive to noises from humans, which reduce their use of recreational areas and lead to changes rippling through the rest of the wildlife community, including increased numbers of mice and potential increased frequency of Lyme disease. But, mammalian predators aren’t the only types of wildlife to be disturbed by recreational use.

The Monument Proclamation also calls out protection for Wilson’s and orange-crowned warblers, downy woodpecker, tree swallow, Cooper’s hawk, and American kestrel. Burrowing owl, golden eagle, tricolored blackbird, and white-tailed kite are also listed as protected on BLM’s special status animals list for California. Some bird species have been shown to be especially ‘flighty’ in the face of recreational use, requiring study and specific trail design to adequately buffer distances to avoid impacts. While the effects on specific species varies, some species can be negatively affected by the mere presence of humans, so, unless specific studies can ascertain effects, scientists suggest that avoiding new trails in natural areas is the best measure for conserving sensitive birds. Grassland birds, such as the burrowing owl, are particularly sensitive to recreational disturbance, perhaps because it is so difficult for these species to hide. There are also studies that would suggest care must be taken to avoid recreational disturbance to species like the California red-legged frog, deer, and native plants.

BLM’s Dilemma

BLM managers of Cotoni Coast Dairies face the many dilemmas of managing land for conflicting visitor uses alongside the conflict between recreational access and nature conservation in an especially sensitive ecological area.  The varying types of recreational users run the gamut from mountain bikers who use trails for the physical thrill of staying upright with speed and obstacles…to more scenery- and/or exercise-oriented mountain bikers and hikers…to more passive recreational users such as wildlife viewers…to photographers and painters…to restorationists…and scientists of natural history. Each user group conflicts with the next and the ones further apart with their expectations conflict even worse. I have not seen a plan by BLM to accommodate or monitor such conflicting uses, which will lead to what is called displacement, mainly of families with children and more passive natural areas users. Instead, BLM managers have shown a personal and strong affinity with the mountain biking community, which is also the agency’s closest ally in advocating for and developing recreational trails designed for their use on the property. On the other hand, BLM managers have turned away from engagement with passive users such as wildlife viewers, restorationists and scientists of natural history. Without welcoming this engagement which would have made up for their professed lack of such capacity, BLM managers are now moving forward with little understanding of the distribution and abundance of species, including those protected by statute. The evident BLM managerial-mountain biking community conflict of interest should be a great concern of those of the public who are concerned with biological conservation.

The Collaborative Management Solution

We should be advocating for an alternate way forward where BLM public engagement staff serve as facilitators of solutions-based approaches to the conflicts between users and between recreational use and natural resource conservation. The first step would be for BLM to adhere to its policy requiring a science plan informed by a baseline inventory of the Objects of the Monument and other special status species; this plan would include a carrying capacity analysis and an adaptive management framework to assure protection of the resources. All of those steps could be done collaboratively with scientists and volunteers as is outlined in BLM’s policy guidance. There have been offers for substantive financial resources to assist with this planning. Instead of hiding its scientific studies as it does now, BLM would proudly share what science it has gathered on a public interactive website. Once completed, the science plan could then be the focus of collaborative management of the property including all interested parties working together with the common goal of conservation of biological diversity while providing recreational access to the maximum extent possible. We are lucky to have a coalition of many groups working to make this vision real, including: Rural Bonny Doon Association, Friends of the North Coast, Sempervirens Fund, and Davenport North Coast Association. Your support of those organizations will help greatly.

-this post originally appeared last week in my weekly column at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com

The Landscape We Need

Imagine you are a mountain lion, a badger, or a burrowing owl making your way around our region. Curiously, people often say, ‘I can’t imagine,’ but I contend that our imaginations are more powerful than that. We can imagine a lot if we have enough information to work with and give our minds the room to roam. We can put ourselves in the place of other species if we want, but only if we can face the pain that such empathetic contemplation may bring. We have left wildlife so little, but we have the power to restore healthy populations of wildlife for future generations.

Big Clever Cats

We have the great fortune to share this landscape with wild lions. To put yourself in the lion’s mind, imagine being a young male learning to walk from Aptos to Scotts Valley, getting across roads, keeping away from people, trying not to make their dogs bark, and staying under constant cover of forest. That young lion will also be learning, by scent, where girl lions are and where other murderous males have claimed territory.

Cat Map

Lions know how large to guard territories against one another to keep sufficient food for their families. Fresh deer are needed, one a week for each mature lion. A human hunter would be challenged to keep that pace up; it takes a lot of roaming. Mountain lions move under cover of trees, they shy away from moving around in the open if they can help it. They travel tree filled canyons, wooded ridges, and trails through the forests. To them, those places are like our road network- they must make mental maps as quickly as their young minds can do it, and those maps must keep receiving layer after layer of new information – especially where other lions prowl.

Badger

Two weeks ago, I was very pleased to find many badger-dug burrows in grasslands along the North Coast. Badgers look at the landscape in the opposite way that a mountain lion might. Where lions see woodlands as their comfy place, badgers prefer grasslands – maybe in part because of the lions in the forests! To imagine moving around the landscape like a badger, think about walking from the grasslands above Watsonville to the grasslands along the North Coast by staying mainly in grasslands, each night digging a burrow to sleep in, finding enough gophers and ground squirrels to eat along the way, getting across roads and never being seen by a human. That’s some tough going!

Burrowing Badgers

The burrows I saw were not fresh, and I couldn’t find a den. The badger foot tracks had been washed entirely away by a prior pouring rain. Probably this was a wandering individual, who kept moving after staying for a few weeks. Males disperse widely – even through forests. Someone was surprised to see a photo of a badger on their wildlife camera in a north coast redwood forest a few years back. I haven’t heard of anyone finding a badger burrow in a forested area.

Like vampires, badgers must be underground by daylight. Digging burrows is best done in sandy soil. And so, badgers’ mental maps include not only the network of grasslands, but also the subset of grasslands with homey sandy places where they can easily dig for food or make burrows.

Santa Cruz Badgers: Gone

There used to be badgers near Santa Cruz, not that long ago. They still occasionally happen through. When UCSC’s Chris Lay compiled local badger sightings and analyzed this species’ local disappearance, he concluded that roads explained badger demise. Roads are a big challenge to badgers. The frequent median barriers popping up on local highways have been important in saving human lives, but to badgers they are sure death. Conservationists in Great Britain, where badgers are held in perhaps higher esteem than here, have gone to great lengths to make sure badgers are now able to cross highways – laying down fences to guide badgers to the safety of underpasses.

Burrowing Owls

Burrowing owls probably see the landscape much like badgers- their homes are also in grasslands. Unlike badgers, though, burrowing owls navigate landscapes on the wing, so maybe roads aren’t so lethal. These wide-eyed, cute, bobbing, yellow-legged owls also used to frequent the meadows near Santa Cruz, but the last nesting colony was paved over by the administrators of UCSC. Now, burrowing owls are wintertime visitors only, travelling from their summer nests in inland grasslands. I wonder if burrowing owl families that once nested along the coast remember their coastal habitats and have been leading one another back to the warmer coastal grasslands each year? 

Owl Trip

To imagine a burrowing owl flight to the coast, you’d be starting probably in the grasslands east of San Jose. As the nights get chillier and shorter, something in your burrowing owl mind makes you want to fly towards the coast. One long flight across the buzzing Silicon Valley city scape blanketed by nasty air pollution and you might land in one of the few remaining grasslands on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains…. or you might keep flying all the way to the coast. This flight would be different than most of your flights all summer long, which have been much shorter. While you are taking this long flight, you keep alert to the increasing threat of peregrine falcons…listening for the alarm calls of other birds. As you get towards the coast, you feel anxiety as each year the available habitat has been reducing: will you find a place with good cover for the winter?

Coastal Burrows

A month or so ago, I went to UCSC’s East Meadow to see burrowing owls but couldn’t find any sign of them. I looked for the owl’s wintertime homes, but they were gone: the many ground squirrel burrows in the East Meadow are gone and I couldn’t find any. In fact, there were no ground squirrels AT ALL! Anyone know what happened to them? Please let me know if you do. Long ago, UCSC administrators destroyed the last burrowing owl nesting area in the County, and more recently they destroyed the burrowing owl wintertime burrows at Terrace Point, so I’m suspicious about this new loss. Now, the UCSC wintering owls must join their friends to hide in culverts or pipes along the North Coast for their winter homes.

Linkages

“Progressive” Santa Cruz is working on its first project expressly acknowledging the need for wildlife movement across this landscape, but much more is needed, and we can all help. Informed by much science, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working on creating a wildlife tunnel near Laurel Curve on Highway 17. To work, the land on either side of the tunnel must also be wildlife friendly. This corridor is in a wooded area and designed especially for mountain lion movement…maybe badgers can find it, too! Further South and East, groups are making great progress at protecting the wildlife movement corridor between the Mount Hamilton Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains through the Coyote Valley. This corridor relies on existing bridges under Highway 101 and also envisions some improved crossings over the Monterey Highway, which has median divider in many places. Badgers need this corridor to get to our region, but many other wildlife species could use this corridor- maybe even tule elk! These efforts need our financial support. We can also help wildlife movement by supporting better planning for protected wildlands, such as opposing the Homeless Garden Project’s newly hatched plan to move into the Upper Main Meadow of the Pogonip…or the seemingly continuous push to increase the numbers of trails crisscrossing parks. I hope you will take some time to imagine how your favorite species of wildlife travels across what’s left of this highly fragmented landscape… and how you can help restore the landscape we all need.

This essay reprinted from the one I original published via Bruce Bratton at BrattonOnline.com

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.

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

Unbalancing Act: park planners threatening wildlife by appeasing the masses

Here on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast, parks managers aren’t using the normal tools to help them balance recreation and wildlife conservation.  There are numerous proposals for new wild land park access points, trails, campgrounds, parking lots and the like.  Meanwhile, miles of unplanned, ‘illegal,’ uninvited trails from dozens of ad hoc trail heads proliferate, unheeded.

To manage parks correctly, parks managers would normally go through a planning process that includes understanding the current situation, planning for specific goals, and monitoring to see if they got it right.  Park planners start with studying both the wildlife (types, distribution) and likely recreational visitors (expectations).  The results of these studies inform a ‘carrying capacity analysis’ – how many of what kind of human recreational use can occur in a particular area of conservation land without too deleteriously affecting a given set of natural resource goals.  The analysis details thresholds of acceptable change, which sets in motion a monitoring program so that managers can adjust visitor use accordingly.

Limiting wild land visitor use to protect wildlife is a lot like hunting and fishing regulations that have been succeeding well in restoring game species.  Fishing and hunting regulations require good information on how many fish or game can be caught while maintaining or increasing a population.   Regulatory agencies set the regulatory limits of “take” and monitor both the amount of animals reported to have been killed as well as the populations of the animals still alive, adapting regulations on a regular basis to maintain healthy populations.  Hunting and fishing regulations can change yearly. Sometimes, there are moratoriums on “take” of a certain species.

Despite the parallels in theory and efficacy, in actual practice there is divergence between hunting/fishing and management of park visitors, especially here in Santa Cruz County.  Whereas hunting and fishing regulations are widespread and accepted in U.S. culture, Santa Cruz County’s wild land recreation culture hasn’t experienced controls of visitor use, with a couple of exceptions.  The endangered snowy plover and elephant seal both have seasonal closure, prohibiting recreational visitation to the beaches that are critical to their survival:  two of umpteen species protected on a miniscule percentage of our park land.  This is not for want of policies that mandate better park management.

There are many policy mechanisms obligating wild land parks managers towards more effective recreational visitation management.  For instance, California State Parks is required by law to perform a carrying capacity analysis (Pub. Resources Code 5019.5) for all of their parks.  And yet, such analyses have yet to be implemented using modern biological or sociological principles.  Instead, State Parks’ plans contain arbitrary zones grading from high to low recreational use radiating out from the most convenient park entrance.  Likewise, BLM is required to balance recreational and environmental goals and to monitor and adjust visitor use as necessary.   Santa Cruz County Parks and all other parks managers must protect sensitive park locations by limiting use to interpretative activities under the California Coastal Act.  Despite these regulations, between the disinterested public and “slippage” in agency interpretation/implementation, we see little evidence of professional management of recreational use in Santa Cruz County’s precious parks.

What you can do

Each and every time a new access proposal comes forward, ask the organization responsible what they will be monitoring to assure that recreation isn’t causing too much wildlife disturbance.

Wildlife conservation and wild land recreation are conflicting goals

We called her Bella, member of a North Coast coyote pack.

Wild land recreation conflicts with healthy wildlife populations, endangering future generations’ ability to enjoy the nature we currently experience and the services that ecosystems provide.  Wild land recreation here refers to passive recreation – mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, etc.  The severity of impacts from these activities on wildlife vary depending on the numbers of people and the species of wildlife.  Here, I focus on vertebrates, though we should be concerned with invertebrates, as well – some of what follows applies to the many species of endangered insects in our wild lands.

Santa Cruz County’s wild lands support diverse vertebrate wildlife – many have been declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation.  Wild land parks are important to the survival of especially wide ranging carnivores such as  American badger, ring tailed cat, gray fox, bobcat, long tailed weasel, and puma.

These predators are essential to supporting wild land ecosystems and the services those ecosystems provide including the water we so rely upon.  If future generations are to enjoy the beauty of redwood and oak forests maritime chaparral and coastal scrub, and coastal prairies and wetlands, all depends on these predators.  Widespread and poorly planned wild land recreation is posing increased threats to these predators in Santa Cruz County.

The impacts of wild land recreation on wildlife have been well and extensively scientifically documented, including in our region.  The diversity and abundance of wildlife decline in parks with recreation as opposed to parks without recreation.  With more recreation, these impacts increase.  Deer flee 200 yards when approached by recreational mountain bikers in parks.  Bobcats and badgers decline in recreational parks and especially den only far from recreation.  While some species of birds become accustomed to recreation, others do not and will not forage or nest close to recreational visitors in parks.  A frog very like our California red-legged frog has been shown to decline in proximity to recreational use of parks.  In sum, because of the wealth of evidence, wild land recreation has recently been recognized as one of the greatest and growing threats to wildlife across the entire world.

WHAT TO DO

If you care for future generations’ ability to enjoy what we have today, speak up against the widespread proliferation of recreational access to wild land parks.  There are many such proposals in Santa Cruz County, right now.  If you consider giving to private, not-for-profit land trusts, consider giving only when they have proven that they are setting aside lands for wildlife, primarily.  If you or your friends recreate in wild lands, stay on marked, planned trails- not the miles of unmarked, ad hoc trails created mostly by mountain bikers in our State Parks.

Public ignoring biodiversity in parks – Business & politicians taking advantage

crowded beach

‘crowded beach’ © Mark Notari

Wildlife conservation is a public priority, but Santa Cruz citizens sleep while politicians and business leaders threaten to deprive future generations of opportunities for the wildlife experiences we have today.

National poll data indicate that 70% of Americans self identify as ‘conservationists.’  Although there is no local data, you would expect an even higher percentage for our progressive community.  In the past 35 years, the public has supported a cadre of local conservationists in just the first steps of conserving wildlife of our county – progressive land use restrictions and large scale protection of open space.  Unfortunately, the public have checked out, abandoning the crucial next step in protecting wildlife – protecting our parks from being loved to death.

The beaches and parks our community has protected are now threatened because they are global tourist destinations.  Politicians and business leaders are maximizing short term profit by packing in as many recreational visitors as possible, threatening wildlife.  Any of the public still paying attention is being duped into believing that any amount of recreation in our open spaces is harmless.  Every organization owning/protecting open space is increasingly opening their lands to a flood of people; their websites, news releases, tours, and talk swell with pride of new “access.”

Flooding parks with throngs of visitors will drive wildlife from lands that were originally protected for conservation.  This is unfair to future generations, who will experience the trees, but not the diverse and alive, critter filled forests we are so lucky to have today.

WHAT TO DO?

As you hear about proposals to increase numbers of recreational visitors, numbers of trails, ‘access points,’ parking lots, etc., I hope you will ask “what do biologists say about impacts to wildlife?”  If you, like me, feel like we probably have enough and it is time for better planning for the wildlife, speak out where you can.  For instance, against a National Monument designation for our North Coast.  And, please, vote for politicians that seek biologist counsel as much as they listen to business leaders.