Santa Catalina project gains ground

You can almost hear the happy plants, preservationist says

January 13, 2002|By Louis Sahagun | Louis Sahagun,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SANTA CATALINA, Calif. - Botanist Denise Knapp was overjoyed when she discovered a patch of a rare rock cress growing in Santa Catalina Island's remote and foggy Wild Boar Gully nature preserve.

The tiny flowering plant had not been seen on the Southern California island in three decades. But it suddenly flourished behind a fence erected two years ago to protect the area from deer and feral goats that used to browse vegetation to oblivion.

"Now, you can almost hear the plants sighing with happiness and relief," Knapp said on a recent weekday hike into the 112-acre preserve where she had found the so-called Santa Cruz Island rock cress plant in April. "I love coming here. It has a unique assemblage of rare plants, it's beautiful and it's slowly returning to its natural state."

The same could be said for much of the 76-square-mile island, whose natural rhythms had been severely altered by non-native animals, ranching and farming.

In one of environmentalism's emerging successes, Catalina's native plants and animals are on the rebound because of experimental restoration efforts. While much attention has been given the removal of feral creatures such as goats and pigs from the island, equally important has been the replanting of native vegetation nurtured in greenhouses and laboratories, and the fencing off of sensitive areas such as Wild Boar Gully.

Peter Schuyler is director of ecological restoration for the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that owns 88 percent of the island and is mandated to return it to its natural state. "We'll never be completely pristine," Schuyler said, "but we want to get rid of the major threats posed by man and [to] repair as much of the damaged landscape as we can. In five or 10 years, we'll be well on our way."

A risk, too

But there is a risk that unforeseen consequences will result from the ecological tinkering.

For example, a successful effort to capture feral goats and ship them to the mainland has resulted in a surge of vegetation. More greenery could pose a fire threat to Avalon, the island's bustling tourism and demographic center with a permanent population of 3,000.

"We are facing a natural system that is always changing - we don't know exactly what's just down the road," Schuyler said. "So we have to be adaptable."

The effects of the conservancy's restoration projects are most evident near its inland headquarters in a broad valley known as Middle Ranch, about seven miles west of Avalon.

Recently, 13 AmeriCorps volunteers erected a 7-foot-high, bison-proof wire fence around a 10-acre portion of weedy former Middle Ranch hayfields. It soon will be flooded with tens of thousands of handpicked and specially mixed native seeds.

"About a year from now, you'll see a 10-inch-high blush of the first chaparral and coastal sage to grow here in half a century," said consultant botanist Lisa Stratton. "Essentially, it will be an island of natural vegetation that will produce its own seeds, which will be carried elsewhere by wind and birds."

Stratton, who did her doctoral thesis on the botany of Hawaii, has high hopes eventually those seeds will overwhelm adjacent pockets of prolific non-native weeds and shrubs.

At the nearby James Ackerman Native Plant Nursery - named in honor of the prominent Long Beach attorney who donated funds for its creation - a cadre of botanists, staffers and volunteers have been nurturing stock plants and cleaning and sorting 2 million wild seeds to be replanted on the island's bald spots.

The nursery's "seed room" is staffer Bruce Moore's realm. Peering through a binocular microscope on a table surrounded by shelves stacked with trays and jars filled with seeds of various colors and shapes, he used long needles to chip the chaff off a tiny mound of barely visible seeds.

"A seed is the end of a biological cycle and the beginning of a new one," he said. "Some are as large as acorns. But some weigh in the thousandths of a gram, like these," he said, holding up a bottle of hand-cleaned Iris-leaved rush seeds.

Half a mile east of Middle Ranch is a field crossed by an arroyo and dotted with bunch grass and shrubs favored by bison. There, conservancy consulting biologist Juanita Constable spends as much as 14 hours a day noting the massive, beady-eyed beasts' every move and grunt.

No easy task

That's not easy. Constable has been chased by the island's main animal earth movers several times. In June, an angry male had her trapped on the roof of her Jeep for several minutes.

Undaunted, she has returned repeatedly with a spotting scope and a satchel containing notebooks, a hand-held global positioning device, a stopwatch and a gadget that measures wind speed, ambient temperature and relative humidity.

"The bison don't take days off or time out, so I don't either," she said, planting the tripod of her spotting scope into the ground near some grazing descendants of the 14 first brought to the island in 1924 for the filming of the silent movie The Vanishing American.

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