Earth Island News
Restoring Imaginations to Reclaim Land
The price of Southern California’s population explosion and pavement expansion has been paid, in part, by wetlands. During the last century, more than 90 percent of the coastal wetlands of Southern California have been lost, depriving the coastal environment of natural water purification systems, homes for birds and wildlife, and open spaces for recreation, research, and education. Pockets of wetlands, abandoned “puddles” devoid of habitat and wildlife, struggle to survive an onslaught of sprawl. Historical photos and maps show that Southern California was once home to thousands of acres of tranquil coastal lagoons, pockets of thriving vernal pools, and ribbons of creeks flowing from the mountains to the ocean. Today, those same areas are a maze of blacktop, concrete, strip malls, and subdivisions.
Still, wild places persist, sometimes just steps away from major freeways. One of those places is in downtown Los Angeles, where Nidia Garcia, the outreach director for the urban forestry organization North East Trees, works to restore natural ecosystems. Garcia says most city residents have no idea where their drinking water comes from, where the closest river flows, or the name of the watershed in which they live. “[They] honestly believe that this [restoration] is something that can only occur out in ‘real’ nature, like they might find on a family trip to Yosemite,” she says. “So in order to bring people to accept the changes that are occurring within some of these urban cores, they may first have to understand that nature has and always will be all around them.”
Courtesy Restoration Initiatives
Standing on the edge of the 101 Freeway in L.A., looking out on one of the busiest intersections in California, the term “wildlife corridor” does not immediately come to mind. There, where the 101 merges with Interstate 5, Jason Pelletier of North East Trees points to a patch of grass barely visible through the concrete interchanges and whizzing automobiles. “See there?” he asks. “We have seen coyotes using that piece of land.” This is how restoration conversations start in Southern California: See that scrap of land? See that abandoned railroad yard? See that concrete ditch? Someday, those brown scraps of weeds and earth will once again be thriving lands full of water and life.
The alchemy of restoration relies on that power of human imagination. To turn a concrete culvert back into a stream requires, first of all, a leap of vision. In confronting the patterns of industrial development, the biggest challenge is restoring the human community’s respect and appreciation for natural communities. The physical work is the easy part: Remove the invasive species and the dams, prepare the soil, plant the native species, and reintroduce the fish. The more difficult and complex task involves educating the local neighbors about the importance of helping nature to thrive amid the heavy human footprint.
Beyond the restoration of the physical landscape, work must be done to restore the human consciousness.
Involving Local Residents
Mauricio Gomez, one of the newest project directors in Earth Island Institute’s network, is part of the movement trying to restore that human bond with nature. His project, South Coast Habitat Restoration, works mainly to remove stream barriers that prevent steelhead trout from accessing their traditional spawning grounds. Throughout his years spent doing restoration work, Gomez has relied on developing relationships with local landowners.
Working with the Storke Ranch homeowners’ association in Goleta, Mauricio restored vernal pools on the subdivision’s property, creating much needed wetland habitat that had been destroyed over the last 50 years. The key to the project’s success was directly involving local residents, who learned a lot about their native environment and the value of wetlands.
In a more tricky collaboration, Gomez worked with owners of a large avocado farm along Carpinteria Creek to remove steelhead trout barriers along portions of a stream that passed through their orchard. He admits such partnerships are challenging, complicated by fears some landowners have about allowing government agencies to gain access to their properties. Gomez says that having a non-profit involved “facilitates this process as we [South Coast Habitat Restoration] do not have regulatory authority and it is in our best interest to work proactively with those landowners and educate them about the importance of restoration.”
Indeed, this kind of collaboration is the future of restoration, at least in Santa Barbara County, where a majority of restoration takes place on private property. Gomez’s project allows landowners to receive direct assistance in fundraising, permitting, and project management in a completely voluntary arrangement. Gomez has found it to be “extremely rewarding to work with these landowners and gain their support to pursue restoration on their property.” This spring, for the first time in five years, adult steelhead — which are listed as an endangered species — have been spotted in Carpinteria Creek.
Creating the New Leaders of Restoration
For the last 10 years, Shara Fisler, executive director of San Diego-based Aquatic Adventures, has been working to educate young people about the value of habitat restoration. Working with youth groups of all ages, incomes, colors, and languages, Aquatic Adventures creates learning labs by researching local habitats. One of Aquatic Adventures’ most visible programs combines 2,000 volunteers on both sides of the US/Mexico border to work on the restoration of a habitat cut in half by the border fence. Dressed in camouflage, scientists lead tour groups of “Wetland Avengers” on a “Mission Possible” to restore the habitat. There is nothing like hands-on experience because, as Fisler explains, “When you are in a wetland and you understand that a creature can only lay its eggs on a certain native plant, you make the connection that native habitat is essential.”
Marlem Rivera, a sophomore in high school and a student with Aquatic Adventures, shares her story about getting involved in restoration:
“I am in my fifth year with Aquatic Adventures and began in a program where I was mentored by a high school student and learned about the kelp forest. Now, as a high school student, I am a mentor to younger students, acting as a positive role model and teaching what I know about the environment. I am grateful for this because not many Hispanic females my age have the opportunity to explore science and the environment the way I am.”
Courtesy Restoration Initiatives
In a time when “nature deficit disorder” has become something of a national epidemic, encouraging a familiarity with local ecosystems is the first element of a successful restoration project. Before any work can occur, area residents have to be shown that nature is safer than they think. “The number one concern about nature is its dangers, to the point where parents are afraid to even let their children play outside,” says Garcia of North East Trees. “How are we to grow the next generation of naturalists, activists, and environmentalists from a generation who has never, out of this fear, been allowed to run wild and play in creeks and forests?”
In the course of planting trees in urban areas, Garcia has heard concerns about trees she never expected to encounter: They make a mess. They bring too many birds. A falling branch could be an insurance liability.
When asked how to respond to people’s fear of nature, Fisler, Garcia, and Gomez give the same answer: Connect the community to their neighboring environment by speaking directly to people’s interests and needs. “Stewardship,” Garcia explains, “may only occur when people understand their relationships to land use and are able to make responsible decisions and actions that affect natural systems, their habitat, and human communities.” Based on her experience, Fisler says that for the sustainability of the project, “It is critical to have community involvement because they are the ones around for the long term and they provide the ongoing stewardship of the project. ”
Courtesy Restoration Initiatives
In many cases, using the right language is essential for a successful project. In the canyons of San Diego, that means “making canyons safe for kids.” Fisler points out that one of the most invasive weeds in the canyons, Arundo Donax, is a cover for homeless encampments and is also a fire hazard, a big concern in arid San Diego. The weed grows so vigorously that it chokes out the creek and interferes with the flow of water and species. By removing the weed and planting native species, communities reduce several threats at once: They get safer canyons to explore, and they help restore nature to its native beauty and function.
When Fisler explains her work, she is brimming with the pride of having inspired young people, many from low-income households, to “emotionally connect with the concepts of ecology and stewardship. It is a great outlet for them and very empowering because they can make a difference they can see.”
With dozens of precious acres restored by more than 5,000 volunteers, it is a difference anyone can see.
— Ariana Katovich, Restoration Initiatives