Return of the Natives brings environmental education home.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
In 1993, a group of Salinas teachers surveyed their drab campuses and decided they should really look prettier than prisons. When they teamed up with native plant experts at Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing Marine Labs and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the city of Salinas gave them a park to get dirty in.
That habitat management plan for Natividad Creek Park grew into a network of green habitat and recreation corridors in East Salinas, and contracts with a spectrum of local agencies. Now in its 18th year, Return of the Natives Restoration Education Project has brought restored public spaces from Marina to Moss Landing, the former Fort Ord to Carmel River Lagoon.
“Our goal is to bring environmental service and societal service together,” RON Director Laura Lee Lienk says. “Having lots of healthy places for our citizenry is a justice issue.”
RON, the outreach arm of the CSU Monterey Bay Watershed Institute, gets local students of all ages involved in creating native habitats in their communities. It also works to clean up the waterways that drain into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
But the Seaside-based nonprofit has only recently begun working in its own native habitat. Lienk credits RON Education Coordinator Emily Howard, a Seaside resident herself, with the shift.
Last spring, Howard led a parade of little ones from Ord Terrace Elementary School to Havana Soliz Park to plant native California poppies. Then she worked with the city and Save the Whales to add a bioswale to a new stormwater retention basin at Metz Park; the native sedges, brushes and grasses filter polluted runoff before it drains into the ocean. RON’s nearby demonstration garden gives park users a sense of how lovely native landscaping can be, too.
RON’s work at Metz is opening doors in Seaside. The Monterey County Gives! initiative, Seaside Parks Go Native, germinated when Seaside neighborhood groups asked for RON’s help in beautifying their parks. (The city has offered the groups some labor and materials, but it’s short on water and money for the cause.)
Rather than rallying CSUMB’s Service Learning students for a day or two of volunteering, Howard envisioned a workshop to train teams of neighbors in what she calls “the cycle of habitat restoration” – identifying, planting and propagating native species. Each of five teams will design a garden, plant 80 starts in a local park early next year, and learn to grow 200 more at their homes for park planting in 2013.
Lienk sees Seaside’s fragmented parks as critical habitat value for animals like the endangered Smith’s blue butterfly.
“They’re like little lily pads: A bee can fly park to park, and a bird can go park to park,” she says. “And they’re critical politically, because they remind people that we’re part of the environment.”
Howard hopes to leverage grants and donations to bring more natives to RON’s hometown. “There are a lot of motivated people in Seaside,” she says. “We just need the tools to make it happen.”