UCSC

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

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.

OTB

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.

Relearning

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.