Restoring Marin’s Open Space, One Plant at a Time
On a freezing cold day in mid-December, 2010, about a dozen volunteers hiked up the steep half-mile trail that leads from Audubon Canyon Ranch’s cluster of buildings in Stinson Beach up to the Henderson Overlook in the Martin Griffin Reserve. It’s where visitors to ACR—including a steady flow of students—get a clear view of the nesting sites of herons and egrets, one of the area’s claims to fame.
Doug Serrill, ACR’s habitat protection and restoration project leader, gestured like an orchestra conductor while explaining the morning’s work: On a recently cleared hill behind a new viewing platform, grasses were to be planted in one area, tree seedlings in another, and shrubs in yet another. And he gave list-minute instructions about the planting process, including how to fertilize the new plants without encouraging the intrusion of invasive weeds. In all, 700 plants were lined up nearby on this sunny day, with several days of rain in the forecast.
Within minutes, the area came alive with the steady thumping of dibbles (tools used to create holes), questions about the ideal location for certain plants, tips on using various tools, and, not surprisingly, the calls of birds—which the volunteers quickly identified, to their obvious satisfaction.
This project, like others undertaken by ACR on its 28 preserves, will turn this area into a demonstration site, showcasing how Marin’s open space—much of it invaded by non-native plants—can be restored to what it might have been like 100 years ago.
Serrill says that habitats like this throughout Marin have changed a lot over the years, due to waves of invasive weeds, agricultural uses, and the suppression of naturally occurring wildfires, something that leads to the spread of non-native plants.
He explains that while Marin has a strong reputation for preventing development on open space, “the challenge for this century is to manage and restore those ecosystems we have successfully saved. They will be the wild lands of the next century and beyond.”
ACR staff and volunteers are involved in every step of these projects: identifying what to plant, based on what plants and trees have already adapted to a particular environment; taking seeds from those plants, cleaning them, and germinating them in local greenhouses; and then, about two years later, planting the seedlings.
The volunteers go through an intensive training program in these and other activities, including pruning and pest management.
In fact, the volunteers at Henderson Overlook selected the seeds two years ago that have grown into the seedlings they just planted. “It’s very gratifying to come back and see what they’ve become,” says Dave Chenoweth, a Mill Valley resident who’s volunteered at ACR for seven years.
As the morning warmed up, layers of outerwear were removed, the pace of work picked up, and the hillside became greener by the minute.
In one corner, Serrill carefully removed three oak saplings from their special planting cones. “We want at least one to survive sudden oak death syndrome,” he explained. “We know that nearby bay trees are already infected, but we hope one will grow to be a healthy adult tree.”
At one point, three ACR staff members huddled around a plant discovered under the fabric covering the hillside. After a quick consultation, they decided it was indeed native to the area and could stay. Otherwise, it would have become a target of ACR’s Early Detection and Rapid Response program, under which invasive plants are identified and eventually removed.
What do Serrill and others at ACR expect to find in a year? “Not only will we have a healthy stand of shrubs and grasses, but this can become a nesting ground for birds and a source of seeds and berries. Plus, we should have one healthy oak and a whole ton of visitors.”