Saving the world one weed at a time
Words by Leonie Sherman
Photos courtesy of CIR
EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, TWO GUYS WITH CHAINSAWS and big hearts started cutting down invasive eucalyptus trees on Santa Cruz Island. Since then, Channel Islands Restoration, the non-profit they started, has worked on projects on all eight of the Channel Islands, as well as almost a hundred mainland sites. They’ve created three localized greenhouses for native seed propagation, pulled out nearly a hundred thousand invasive tamarisk seedlings in Los Padres National Forest, removed three miles of non-native giant reed that was choking Carpinteria Creek, engaged thousands of volunteers and brought over 2,000 school kids out to the islands. CIR has become the government’s go-to organization for habitat restoration on some of the most sensitive terrain in the Golden State, including Channel Islands National Park, California’s Galapagos Islands.
The Channels Islands, located just 25 miles from Ventura, are best known to ecologists and conservation biologists for the restoration success story of the tiny Channel Island fox, one of the smallest and rarest canines on the planet. Efforts to restore habitat damaged by ranching began with the removal of feral pigs and sheep. But DDT had wiped out the island’s bald eagle population decades earlier. Bald eagles are fishers, but the golden eagles who filled their ecological niche prey on mammals. In the absence of pigs and sheep they began decimating the island’s only native mammal — the Channel Island fox. In 1997 fewer than 200 remained. The National Park Service began a captive breeding program, captured the golden eagles and removed them from the island and released bald eagle chicks. Today the bald eagles have returned, the golden eagles are gone, and over 2,000 Channel Island fox roam the islands.
“When we first started working on the islands, people were mostly focusing on animal restoration, but these invasive eucalyptus trees were spreading and radically altering the ecology,” explains Ken Owen, Executive Director of CIR. Kate Simons, an early volunteer, asked Owen if he’d ever thought about writing a grant to expand the project. “I’d thought about it, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” admits Owen. Simons, who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, knew how to go about writing grants. The first three she wrote were all funded.
“We were basically given an open door to come in and do some good for one of our favorite places,” says Owen. NPS provided free boat transport twice a week, a UC Reserve provided on-island housing and vehicles, and the Nature Conservancy, which owns three quarters of the park’s largest island, provided access and staff time. “We had so much cooperation that we could just go out there with 20 volunteers for four days and take out a thousand trees. Those first grants kept us working on the island for nearly ten years.”
Between 2002, when they got their first grant, and 2008, when CIR incorporated as a non-profit, they removed over 30,000 small eucalyptus trees from Santa Cruz Island. NPS invited them to work on Santa Rosa Island and Anacapa Islands. In 2004, they began a contract on the Navy-owned San Nicolas Island, where they just finished planting three miles of native plants along the path of a new pipeline. And in their spare time they picked up restoration work on the mainland. “All our work serves multiple purposes,” says Owen. “We choose our sites carefully to benefit rare species, but also to reduce erosion.”
One of their most rewarding sites is the San Marcos Foothills, an Open Space Preserve in Santa Barbara County. CIR’s work there centers on protecting Atascadero Creek. CIR volunteers and staff focused on restoring the meadow between the creek and a trail, to act as a buffer and protect the riparian zone. They started by pulling invasive black mustard, castor bean, fennel, and some tree tobacco that was strangling the meadow. Then they planted a mix of seedlings, including California sunflower, three different sages, coyote bush, and giant wild rye. ”At first the natives required careful weeding and watering, but now they are thriving independently,” explains CIR Outreach Coordinator Tanner Yould. “If you go out to where we’ve planted, you can see California quail, scrub jays, rabbits, coyote … the place is just scurrying with life. But on the other side of the trail, there are no animals, no birds, just a field of invasive choking plants.”
“We’re kind of like Habitat for Humanity, but for animals,” Yould continues. “We’re out there, building homes for animals, creating refuges where they can be safe and thrive.” He especially appreciates how direct local action impacts global trends. “We are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction on this planet, where we are losing biodiversity at a shocking rate,” he explains. Previous mass extinctions were caused by asteroids or super volcanoes, but the culprit for this modern iteration is human activity. “Thinking about that mass extinction is totally overwhelming. But then I can go out to Atascadero Creek and see a place we’ve created that directly combats this problem.”
He’s not the only staff member who finds deeper meaning in habitat restoration. Elihu Gevirtz, CIR’s Senior Ecologist, has worked with plants for 29 years and been a rabbi for six. “My work with Channel Islands Restoration is about taking care of creation,” explains Gevirtz, “It’s an expression of my spiritual life.” Almost 40 years ago he visited Los Padres National Forest for the first time as part of a class. “I saw God expressed in nature there,” Gervitz says. “It was the beginning of a journey that led to my studies in biology, time in the back-country and a career in ecology. It also led me back to school to become a rabbi. And now here I am working on a big restoration project in Los Padres National Forest, removing tamarisk. It’s a circular story that extends 36 years.”
For Owen, originally inspired by plants and animals, working with volunteers is an unexpected reward of his job. “We always have such a good time together!” he says with a laugh. “It’s extremely hard work. We have 75 year olds out there with rock bars breaking up compacted soil, dealing with howling winds, but they’re always so satisfied. On the last day they always want to do a little bit more work before they go home.”
“Our staff and volunteers have become like a family,” explains Owen. “We really love each other. Generally we’re all like-minded people, but I’ve had a Trump supporter on my board. We don’t agree on anything politically but he’s a true conservationist. He loves nature and so do I. We’re not just saving the environment, we’re creating a community of people who share a vision and are working towards a better world.”
And he’s finally realized his dream of teaching future generations to be responsible stewards of the planet. In addition to in-class presentations, CIR has taken nearly 2400 kids from low income schools to do service learning projects on the islands. “A lot of these kids from Ventura and Oxnard have never been to a beach before. They’ve never been on a boat before, or visited a national park. These places blow their minds,” Owen says with a happy sigh. ”And then after a tour and a nice lunch they get to contribute. They’re learning directly about how they can save the world, one weed at time.”