Public trust

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…

dsc_0156

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.

dsc_0162

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.

dsc_0148

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

Rare Biota of Santa Cruz County’s North Coast

By request…a list of the rare biota of Santa Cruz County’s North Coast. The sheer number of rare biota is both a gift and a challenge for us.

How many species do you need to live?

Plants

Federally or State protected plant species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast
Common name

Status

Latin name Notes
Ben Lomond spineflower

Federally endangered

Chorizanthe pungens var. hartwegii Mostly on inland sands, but also on some shallow soils in the Major’s Creek drainage
San Francisco popcornflower

State endangered

Plagiobothrys diffusus Moist meadows

 

Santa Cruz cypress

Federally threatened

Hesperocyparis abramsiana Mostly on inland sands, but also recently found in the Scotts Creek watershed; outliers expected elsewhere
Santa Cruz wallflower

Federally endangered

Erysimum teretifolium On inland sands
Robust spineflower

Federally endangered

Chorizanthe robusta var. robusta
White-rayed Pentachaeta

Federally and State endangered

Pentachaeta bellidiflora

The following table uses California Rare Plant Ranks, as follow:

California Rare Plant Rank Description of rarity
1B Plants Rare, Threatened, or Endangered in California and Elsewhere

 

2B Plants Rare, Threatened, or Endangered in California, But More Common Elsewhere
3 Plants About Which More Information is Needed – A Review List

 

4 Plants of Limited Distribution – A Watch List

 

Biologically imperiled plant species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast
Common name

Status

Latin name Notes
 
Ben Lomond buckwheat

CRPR 1B

Eriogonum nudum var. decurrens On inland sands
Bent-flowered fiddleneck

CRPR 1B

Amsinckia lunaris
Blasdale’s bent grass

CRPR 1B

Agrostis blasdalei
Bonny doon Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos silvicola Mostly on inland sands
Brewer’s Calandrinia

CRPR 4

Calandrinia breweri
California bottlebrush grass

CRPR 4

Elymus californicus

 

Only a couple of populations in our county
California falselupine

CRPR 1B

Thermopsis macrophylla Coastal prairie
Choris’s popcorn flower

CRPR 1B

 

Plagiobothrys chorisianus var. chorisianus Moist meadows, scrub
Dylan’s leptosiphon Leptosiphon ‘dylanae’ An undescribed species only in Bonny Doon, possibly extinct in the wild
Gairdner’s yampah

CRPR 4

Perideridia gairdneri ssp. gairdneri Moist meadows
Harlequin lotus

CRPR 4

Hosackia gracilis Moist meadows
Hoffmann’s snakeroot

CRPR 4

Sanicula hoffmannii
Johnny nip

CRPR 4

Castilleja ambigua  ssp. ambigua Moist meadows
Large flowered star tulip

CRPR 4

Calochortus uniflorus Moist meadows
Marsh silverpuffs

CRPR 1B

Microseris paludosa Moist meadows
Marsh zigadenus

CRPR 4

Toxicoscordion fontanum Only one population known in our county
Michael’s rein orchid

CRPR 4

Piperia michaelii
Mt. diablo cottonweed

CRPR 3

Micropus amphibolus
Ohlone Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos ohloneana Fewer than a few dozen plants exist
Pinus radiata

CRPR 1B

Monterey pine North Coast includes the Año Nuevo population one of a handful of wild stands; genetically distinct
Point Reyes horkelia

CRPR 1B

Horkelia marinensis Moist meadows
San francisco blue eyed mary

CRPR 1B

Collinsia multicolor Swanton area
San francisco campion

CRPR 1B

Silene verecunda subs. verecunda
San Francisco wallflower

CRPR 4

Erysimum franciscanum Coastal dunes
Santa cruz clover

CRPR 1B

Trifolium buckwestiorum
Santa Cruz County monkeyflower

CRPR 4

Mimulus rattanii  ssp. decurtatus
Santa Cruz Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos andersonii  Shaded areas
Santa cruz microseris

CRPR 1B

Stebbinsoseris decipiens
Santa Cruz Mountains beardtongue

CRPR 1B

Penstemon rattanii  var. kleei
Schreiber’s Manzanita

CRPR 1B

Arctostaphylos glutinosa
Vanilla grass

CRPR 2

Hierochloe odorata Forest understory

Animals

Federally or State protected animal species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast
Name

Status

Latin name Notes
American badger

State Species of Special Concern

Taxidea taxus
Bald eagle

State endangered

Haliaeetus leucocephalus
California red-legged frog

Federally threatened

Rana draytonii Breeds in ponds, but uses large areas for movement/summer refugia
Central Coast population

Coho Salmon

Federally endangered

State endangered

Oncorhynchus kisutch Returned for first time in years in 2015 to North Coast streams.
Central Coast population Steelhead Trout

Federally threatened

Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus
Golden eagle

State Fully Protected

Aquila chrysaetos
Grasshopper sparrow

State Species of Special Concern

Ammodramus savannarum
Mount Hermon June beetle

Federally endangered

Polyphylla barbata inland sands
Northern harrier

State Species of Special Concern

Circus cyaneus
Northern spotted owl

Federal candidate

Strix occidentalis caurina
Ohlone tiger beetle

Federally endangered

Cicindela ohlone
Peregrin falcon

Federally threatened

Falco peregrines

 

Ring tailed cat

State Fully Protected

Bassariscus astutus
San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat

State Species of Special Concern

Neotoma fuscipes annectens
Southwestern pond turtle

State Species of Special Concern

Actinemys marmorata pallida Bask in ponds, nest in adjoining grasslands

 

Tidewater goby

Federally endangered

Eucyclogobius newberryi In brackish lagoons
Tricolored blackbird

State Species of Special Concern

Agelaius tricolor Listing petition in process
Western burrowing owl

State Species of Special Concern

Athene cunicularia We have only wintering birds left- they nest inland.
White tailed kite

State Fully Protected

Elanus leucurus
Biologically imperiled animal species on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast

 

Common name Latin name Notes
Ben Lomond rain beetle  
Doloff’s cave spider Meta dolloff Caves
Empire amphipod Stygobromus mackenziei Caves
Empire isopod Calasellus n. sp Caves, undescribed
Empire pseudoscorpion Fissilicreagris imperialis Blind, cave adapted
Empire roothopper Cixius n. sp Caves, undescribed
Laguna cave cricket In one cave, only, undescribed
Puma

 

Puma concolor Not clear if Santa Cruz mountains population is viable in the long term
Santa Cruz black salamander Aneides flavipunctatus niger Only a very few observations
Santa Cruz kangaroo rat Dipodomys venustus venustus Only viable population potentially at Henry Cowell- extinct in Bonny Doon?
Santa Cruz pseudoscorpion Neochthonius imperialis Blind, cave adapted
Santa Cruz rain beetle Pleocoma conjugens conjugens

Habitats

Coastal Commission protected habitats – “Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas” (ESHA)

  • Coastal scrub/rocky outcrops
  • Coastal prairie
  • Wetlands
  • Shreve oak forests
  • Maritime chaparral
  • Riparian habitats

 

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

elephant pict

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Special thanks to Wes Harman for input and editing.