An Innovative Approach to Natural Area Restoration

Efforts to take fullest advantage of the land and the bountiful natural resources it provides are usually hampered by governmental regulations and intrusions. This fortunately was not the case with an innovative project launched by Michael Shaw on his 74 acres of coastal property, consisting of rolling hills formed by ancient sand dunes, situated between Santa Cruz and Monterey, California.

Shaw’s intriguing story is related in the June 2002 issue of Ecological Restoration, a publication of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum (“Releasing the Native Seedbank—An Innovative Approach to Restoring a Coastal California Ecosystem” by Craig C. Dremann with Michael Shaw).

The property in question, purchased by Mr. Shaw in 1985, contained live oak woodland, degraded riparian creek bed, grassland bordering the creek, and open grassland; most of which was overgrown with a variety of exotic plants. It had been subjected to several types of land use since the 1840’s, with the valley floor and hilltop being farmed up to 1980 and exhibiting the consequences of heavy grazing, timber harvest, and more recently a storage site for a moving company, a shooting range, and, as might be expected, a dumping area. The tract had been advertised as having a spectacular ocean view, but a trail that had been constructed had grown into a impenetrable thicket of poison oak, thistles and exotic weeds, thus precluding seeing the ocean. The new owner was determined to change the landscape and care for his piece of wild coastal California. He recognized a ray of hope in some of the relic stands of native grasses.

Dremann and Shaw noted that restorationists tend to think and act like gardeners and farmers—weed, plant, then weed again. Rarely do they stop to think that the soil may hold a seedbank of native species, just waiting to be released. Oh, for the wonders of nature. The authors make many excellent points. Many people do not appreciate the potentials and resiliency of the natural world.

In 1992 a five point strategy was derived for promoting native plants. The first was to identify all species of plants, then eliminate weeds, experiment with mowing and clearing, develop an understanding of the functionality and interaction of native plants, and finally when successful, expand efforts. These gentlemen obviously had a good idea of objectives and how to proceed. How often are such exercises neglected?

Shaw recognized that many exotic plant removal projects relied on burning, grazing, or large-scale applications of herbicides. Although appropriate in some instances, these techniques can be indiscriminate, may not eliminate target species, and not end up with desired native plants. A totally different course of action was decided on; the use of self-directed human energy guided by scientific knowledge to remove all unwanted species. The critical reader will automatically start thinking about costs. This was not discussed in the article, but undoubtedly they would be willing to share this information with someone seriously interested in such an approach.

Early on they found that successive invasions of other unwanted plants filled cleared areas. Rather than throw up their hands, it was accepted that removal of each species was a milepost on the way to their ultimate goal—the release of the native seedbank that had been laid down in successive waves. When managed properly the land bloomed forth in a diversity of native plants, they exclaimed.

The importance of solving hydrologic problems caused by improper handling of runoff was recognized and rectified. They referred to such repair as the spinal cord of valley restoration. Prior to this phase 99 percent of the vegetative cover in portions of the valley was exotic velvet grasses, while today 90 percent is made up of native plants.

About half of the property is classed as oak woodland. All of this had become impenetrable due to a maze of brambles and poison oak. Clearing was done by hand, including invasive weeds, some of which were interestingly from a government managed erosion control mix of exotic species. Now there are 50 native plants that did not occur in 1985. In the open grasslands, after removal of undesirables, native needlegrass, lupine, plantain, lilies, and morning glory thrive.

Two plant species in the rare category regained dominance, the coast rein orchid and California bottlebrush grass which reportedly is only found in the coastal San Francisco area from Marin County to Santa Cruz County. In 1996 a fellow of the California Native Plant Society inventoried the property. He stated that native plant diversity was remarkable, with over 200 plant species identified. Overall conversion was from 99 percent exotic to 85 percent native. According to the authors, in the past plant communities were so obnoxious that plastic rain pants were required to walk through them for protection from thistles and ripgut brome. Today, one can walk through the area in shorts and experience “danthonia plants so lush that they are like a pillow with built-in fragrances from the rare, light-pink flowered hedge nettle that grows near them.”

Naturally, the area will require continuous management. They make it clear that you cannot preserve natural areas with benevolent neglect. Plans call for eventually using the property as a nature retreat where people can experience wild California ecosystems.

And, all this came about without government assistance or interference. Shaw was fortunate for, as he notes, “because of the Endangered Species Act, what developer would want to purchase or own land and do what we are doing? Disincentives preclude innovation. It is no wonder that no one else is following this common sense formulation for success.”

Nate Dickinson
July 22, 2002

Email Nate Dickinson: rdickinson@nycap.rr.com

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