parks

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.  For instance, miles of proposed trails on the San Vicente Redwoods property- proposal due soon.

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

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‘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.