As Monterey County's green space continues to disappear under subdivisions and shopping malls, native plants may save the day.
Friday, January 7, 2000
It''s the dawn of a new century, and if crystal ball gazers are correct, Monterey County is poised to undergo an incredible transformation that could forever compromise the unique quality of life here on the Central Coast. Based on projections compiled by LandWatch Monterey County, over the next two decades alone, our population is expected to jump from 386,200 to 537,000, with urban expansion consuming an additional 23,800 acres of land.
For a county that boasts more than 900,000 acres of open space and recreation areas, these numbers don''t sound like much of a threat. But what is at risk isn''t just the vast tracts of unspoiled wilderness that grace our landscape, but the forests and parklands that bound our cities and neighborhoods.
"Our remaining habitat is disappearing and being converted at an alarming rate."Paul Kephart, Rana Creek Habitat Restoration
If you''re the kind of person who delights in the knowledge that steelhead trout still swim in our local rivers, that majestic hawks and eagles still fly in the sky overhead, that deer graze in our yards, and bears scavenge for food in the middle of our shopping centers, then Landwatch''s growth projections are, to say the least, unsettling.
In recognition of how much invaluable habitat has already been lost where our cities and wilderness meet, and the obligation we all share to preserve and restore what remains of Monterey County''s incomparable natural legacy, a coalition of environmental organizations, educators, researchers, and businesses has taken on the challenge of preserving our remaining habitats through the simple act of returning native plants and grasses to the soil.
According to these latter-day "Johnny Appleseeds," it is the planting of indigenous plants and grasses to help preserve and restore native habitats that holds the best, and perhaps only, hope of creating a more equitable balance between growth and preservation for the future.
"Habitat restoration is the equalizer between development concerns and environmentalists anxiously trying to preserve remaining habitat," says ecologist Paul Kephart, who heads the Carmel Valley-based Rana Creek Habitat Restoration, one of the leaders in native plant and habitat restoration here on the Central Coast.
"Because of the massive conversion of native habitat through agriculture and housing, very little of our pristine native habitat remains," Kephart says, "but through habitat restoration we can address environmental concerns and allow projects to go through as long as the impacts are lessened to a degree of insignificance."
While anti-development/"no-growth" proponents might correctly argue that "restoring" a few acres of land is a questionable, and at best ineffectual, response to what is ultimately a political problem, the proponents of habitat restoration argue that an "all or nothing approach" is itself ultimately doomed to failure.
"We can''t have our heads in the sand. We have to address these problems by working with nature," Kephart says.
"Pro or con," he says, "development is here. And because our population will probably double in the next 40 years, you''ll be seeing a great deal of pressure from development and infrastructure. But you''ll also be seeing an interest and the technology to integrate native environments into urban and development landscapes."
A Rose By Any Other Name...Does it really matter from an ecological or aesthetic standpoint what kind of plants are growing, so long as flowers bloom and trees flourish? To paraphrase the Bard, doesn''t a rose by any other name look or smell as sweet?
In point of fact, there is much more to a healthy, sustainable environment than what the eye immediately perceives scanning a meadow, field, or hillside.
Whether we''re talking about the disappearance of indigenous mammals, birds, and insects, or the degradation of riparian ecosystems through flooding and erosion, all are directly, albeit partly attributable to the replacement of perennial grasses and other native plants by non-natives.
"What we''re talking about is species diversity," explains Laura Lee Lienk, director of the Return of the Natives, a habitat restoration and education project sponsored by CSUMB''s Watershed Institute.
"Look at a [non-native] eucalyptus tree, which has no or very few known herbivores, and a [native] oak tree, which is known to have over 1,200 species of insects that utilize oak," says Lienk. "When you have native plant support, there is a whole other network of creatures living in balance with other plants and animals, and what that does is feed a diverse food web."
"There are no natural checks and balances that co-occur with non-native species," adds Kephart, "so they are able to out-compete the native flora that many animals, birds, and insects depend on, which is why we try to control non-native pest plants. And naturally, human intervention has accelerated the process."
About 20 percent of Monterey County''s plant species are non-natives, most of which tend to be weedy, aggressive, and hardy--a triple threat that displaces less vigorous native plants. Grassland plants in particular have been hardest hit by non-natives, with nearly half of Monterey County''s grass species coming from other parts of the world.
What makes native habitat restoration particularly challenging is both the tremendous scope of the problem, as well as the accelerating pace of development alluded to by Kephart.
"For 250 years we''ve been modifying the landscape," says Scott Hennessy, who, as director of CSUMB''s Watershed Institute, has been working on a major habitat restoration project along the Salinas Valley riparian corridor since 1995.
"The Salinas Valley has areas so disturbed and so large it will take decades for a more stable and diverse plant community to get established," Hennessy says. "When you think that it took 250 years to get where we are, it will take us a long time to get the watershed in healthy condition."
The primary culprit in the degradation of native habitats in the Salinas and Carmel valleys is over-grazing by cattle, first introduced by the Spanish. Combined with extended droughts and the introduction of Mediterranean plants for animal fodder in the early- to mid-1800s, invasive plants established enough of a foothold to turn huge swatches of land from perennial to annual plants.
In Big Sur and other coastal habitats along the Monterey Peninsula, non-native exotics such as ice plants, French broom, and pampas grass introduced as ornamentals, and dune or roadcut stabilizers have now overtaken natives.
"We have here very little left that is not manipulated by cows or mowed under for housing," says Mark Stromberg of Carmel Valley''s Hastings Natural History Reserve, a leader in ranchland and native habitat restoration research.
"As we go to a suburban landscape, people have a choice what do on their parcels," says Stromberg. "The benefits of native plants as an alternative to non-natives and traditional lawns is substantial."
Getting it Right the Second TimeIn recognition of the problems engendered by the loss of native plants, and the numerous benefits derived from re-introduction of native plant species, a host of restoration projects are being conducted throughout the county that show definite signs of creating an improved quality of life for human and non-humans alike.
From the Big Sur coastline to the watersheds of the county''s major riparian corridors, from the golf courses being built on the Peninsula to the wineries of Carmel Valley and South County, numerous grassland restoration projects are underway. The hope is that, ultimately, energy and water use will be reduced, erosion and runoff will be minimized, and wildlife diversity in areas sorely hurt in recent decades by poor planning and land-use practices will be enhanced.
"Converting to a native landscape from traditional turf and landscaping saves energy and uses up to 60 percent less water," says Kephart. "Traditional turf produces five tons of vegetative biomass annually that must be mowed and hauled off. Out of that five tons, approximately 80 percent is water."
Some of the impetus behind the expansion of habitat restoration projects can be attributed to more enlightened development and planning practices by county and state agencies. In order to get a development project approved, whether a single-family home or major subdivision, the government often requires native plants to be used.
Working With NatureIn ranching, row-crop agriculture, and grape growing, native plants are being used extensively to reduce erosion, attract beneficial insects to reduce pesticide use, and increase productivity.
For Bernardus Winery''s Todd Kenyon, native grasses are becoming a central component to improved vineyard management.
"We''re in the process now of planting most of our Marinus vineyard with different blends of native perennial grasses, using seeds from Rana Creek," says Kenyon, who notes that the specific growing cycle of natives blends perfectly with the requirements of grape plants.
"The cycle of native grasses is opposite of the vines," he says. "The grasses go dormant in summer, and when the vines go dormant in late fall to early winter, the grasses are waking up."
Given the steep terrain on which most Carmel Valley vineyards are planted, Kenyon says that native plants'' deeper root systems provide significant benefits.
Plus, according to Stromberg, the deep root systems provide similar benefits to ranchers and traditional row crops.
"By using perennial grasses, ranchers are converting old fields and dramatically improving the water cycle," Stromberg says. "Because the root system holds the soil well and water infiltrates deep, there is not as much runoff and siltation from fields."
For adjacent streams and rivers that host populations of steelhead trout, Stromberg says the conversion to native plants is leading to dramatic improvements.
Erosion control and road stabilization were the primary factors that led CalTrans to hire Rana Creek to restore the steep and barren hillsides along Highway 1 in Big Sur that have been stripped bare from heavy winter rains.
With mounting concern over the impact of erosion from Highway 1 to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, not to mention the chronic difficulties of keeping Highway 1 open during the winter rainy season, Rana Creek has been hydro-seeding extensive sections of the road with a program Kephart says is becoming the model of restoration for CalTrans throughout the state.
Healthy Natives, Healthy RiversSome of the most critical environmental work in native plant restoration is being conducted along the riparian corridors of the Salinas, Carmel, and Big Sur rivers. In terms of controlling erosion and floods, protecting steelhead fisheries, and re-introducing bird species, native plants are the prime tools in use.
"Some 95 percent of riparian habitat has been removed in California through residential and industrial development and farming, and the significant loss of riparian habitat is essentially one of reasons birds are having such a difficult time," says Jim Davis, executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Society.
Under the direction of VWS, more than 5,000 native trees and shrubs were planted to help restore 90 acres along the Big Sur River at Andrew Molera State Park.
"The area had been cleared for a dairy farm and there was essentially little regeneration of native plants in the area," explains Davis. "We spent four years restoring and planting about 250 redwoods, along with 18 different species of plants. Everything that was planted came from the site, from acorns to willow slips, cottonwoods, sycamores, and a variety of berries.
A tree in a meadow, says Davis, is a lot like a reef in the ocean. "It attracts bugs, birds, and wildlife, and provides increased habitat for birds." The effort is a big deal for Andrew Molera, which has been named a globally significant bird area--one of 250 in the world listed by the American Bird Con-servancy and National Audubon Society.
Because birds are an important indicator of how well a restoration project is doing, the VWS has been monitoring bird populations at other projects, including an effort at the mouth of the Carmel River.
Since 1995, CSUMB''s Watershed Institute has been overseeing a major project that includes working with the ag community to stabilize levees and riverbanks with native plants, and to restore and enhance the riparian corridor along the Salinas River itself with native plants.
"A lot of the plant material we use, like cottonwoods and willows, is what we''re able to salvage from the river channel itself," explains Hennessy.
Central to the Salinas River restoration project is the eradication of non-native, giant bamboo plants which have been wreaking havoc along the flood plain of the Salinas River.
"The bamboo is a huge problem. It is very fast growing and very aggressive," says Hennessy. "It grows from the roots and when there is a flood it is broken up and re-invades other areas downstream. It out-competes all natives for space and is not a good erosion control plant. When it gets established in a channel it forms sandbars which exacerbate flooding problems.
For Hennessy, one of the prime benefits of native plant restoration beyond erosion control is improving the habitat for steelhead. "Natives benefit fish because they shade the river. When you don''t have a good healthy river there is not enough habitat for fish to hide and they are exposed to more predation."
Planet ClassroomIn order to develop a broader and deeper appreciation of the role of native plant habitats in creating a healthy ecosystem, many local educators are taking a proactive role in schools and communities throughout the county.
At Carmel Middle School, science teacher Craig Hohenberger is developing a far-reaching education program to instill in students a better sense of environmental stewardship.
"What percentage of kids these days interact with nature?" Hohenberger wonders. "We''ve seen a movement away from our archetypal roots--that love and affinity for nature. Even adults don''t understand those connections and threads with this habitat."
With a budget of $160,000 and considerable assistance from Rana Creek and the Carmel Unified School District, Hohenberger anticipates having his project up and running by the spring.
On a 10-acre site donated by Carmel Middle School, Hohenberger will feature several native plant test and demo gardens featuring coastal scrub, vernal pool, grassland oak, woodland savannah, and riparian habitat plant communities, all of which should attract numerous bird species to the school for students to study. The site will also include a greenhouse and shade shed, a classroom, lab, and a small museum.
"I want the community to see a microcosm of our beautiful watershed and to try to inculcate that love for nature," says Hohenberger. "Being able to handle plants and birds will provide kids an opportunity to do that, to bring a balance back."
A program of education and outreach even broader than Hohenberger''s is being conducted by the Return of the Native program at CSUMB''s Watershed Institute. According to Laura Lee Lienk, the program has numerous restoration and education programs underway throughout the Peninsula and Salinas area, all designed to enhance a better understanding and appreciation of native plant habitats.
The institute''s major program is restoring Fort Ord''s public lands in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, the California Native Plant Society, and the Garden Club of America.
Over the past four years, about 30,000 native plants have been planted annually, including many perennial grasses grown in 10 greenhouses maintained at public schools throughout the county, at the institute itself, and from seed banks from site-specific plants on Fort Ord. The former base''s maritime chaparral plant community, says Lienk, is one of only two in California, making it, in and of itself, an endangered ecosystem.
"It''s real critical in trying to maintain the genetic integrity of a population," Lienk says, "otherwise you run the risk of diluting the coastal gene pool."
Other projects sponsored by the Return of the Natives program include restoration work at Natividad Creek Park in Salinas, Toro Creek, the Moro Cojo Slough, and the new Moss Landing Marine Lab. Return of the Natives has also been providing summer internships for high school students to work in greenhouses, preparing plant cuttings, gathering seeds, transplanting, and eradicating weeds.
A Blossoming FutureBecause native habitat restoration projects are in their relative infancy, much still has to be learned before an area can be successfully restored. There''s a lot more to it than just throwing a bunch of seeds on the ground and watching them grow. It''s a complex process requiring extensive prep work and monitoring.
"We use a lot of material from the wild and you can''t predict how it will perform," says Jean Ferreira, who manages the Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery located near Moss Landing. Originally started as a hobby by David Packard, whose foundation now provides significant funding to many local restoration projects, the Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery is another key player in the field.
"It''s not automatic natives will do well," Ferreira says. "We often use site-specific wild material, so it''s crucial to plan for exposure, soil, and moisture. We have no idea how it will perform. Genetic variability makes it a gamble, but it''s a challenge we like."
In preparing an area for planting, it''s critical to eliminate competition from non-native annuals. That can require several years of tilling and mowing--and even conducting controlled burns--to eliminate what can amount to thousands of annual seeds in as little as a square foot of soil. After planting, controlling weeds and monitoring the area, which can take five to 10 years, is critical until the native perennials get established.
While it would be naive to think that habitat restoration is the panacea that will counteract all the impacts of development, and that Monterey County will somehow undergo an Eden-like return to the way things were before the arrival of humans, there is reason for hope.
"Our remaining habitat is disappearing and being converted at an alarming rate," says Kephart. "But I''m optimistic we can create a balance based on what I''m seeing in field restoration ecology tied into land-use practices."