A ‘Jaw-dropping’ Effort

Rain or shine, nature-loving volunteers root out invasive species on dunes.

This article, written by Kerry Benefield, was recently published in the Press Democrat.

Point Reyes bird’s beak is growing at Doran Beach where ice plant has been removed.
Native Point Reyes bird’s beak growing where ice plant has been removed. Photo by Jan Lochner

With a brisk tug, Jan Lochner uproots a chunk of green ice plant and pulls it from the sand, exposing its roots.

 Despite the ice plant’s relatively shallow root system, the invasive weed has proven a prickly, stubborn foe to members of the Sonoma County chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

 Ice plant spreads easily, interlocks with itself to create a suffocating mat, choking out sun and any possibility for growth of native plants.

 So five years ago, members of the local native plant group launched a project to rid area beaches and coastal areas of the invasive weed.

 And they haven’t stopped. 

Every Wednesday, rain or shine, this hearty group of nature lovers meets at Doran Regional Park, where they pull large plastic toboggan-like bins out onto the dunes and get to work.
 “It’s so satisfying,” Lochner, co-chair of the chapter’s invasive species committee, said. “It’s immediate reward, seeing the area clear.”

And what an area.

 The group is credited by Sonoma County Regional Parks officials with clearing ice plant from as much as 15 acres of dunes — an area that stretches more than a mile.

 “The amount they have been able to restore by their own drive is jaw-dropping,” said Len Mazur, vegetation management technician with Sonoma County Regional Parks.

 And it’s caught the attention of state and federal agencies willing to fund and support restoration efforts like the one happening organically here.

 In partnership with the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, the parks department, in coordination with the plant society volunteers, is coordinating a removal program followed by replanting with native seedlings. 

“We are working toward that this fall,” Mazur said. “We have all grant funding. We have volunteers on board. It’s a really great program that started with this small group of volunteers.

 “The work that the volunteers are doing out here is really driving that interest from the federal agencies.”

 The ongoing effort is expected to work in conjunction with state programs meant to buoy nesting habitat for the federally protected Western snowy plover.

 The tiny bird — about 2,350 individual breeding adults are believed to exist — has been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1993.

 Nonnative European beachgrass, which the native plant society volunteers have also been removing, have crowded out natural nesting areas for the plover while also giving predators places to hide. 

“Invasive dune grass… provides habitat for predators who predate on native shore birds there,” Mazur said. “It’s skunks and raccoons, cruising through the dunes using the tall vegetation to ambush the nest and eat the eggs.”

 But it’s in the removal of mountains — literally — of ice plant that this small group of volunteers has really made its mark.

 Every week volunteers tote bin after bin of the extracted weed and then create dunes of pulled plants to dry in the sun.

 The drying process takes six months to a year, and when the ice plant is dried and significantly lighter and easier to deal with, it’s taken to compost facilities. 

Ice plant, or “Carpobrotus edulis” comes from South Africa and was introduced in California early last century in order to prevent erosion along railroad tracks and an ever-increasing system of roads, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

 Still more was planted along dunes and on shorelines as a way to keep dunes in place.

 But scientists and environmentalists have come to understand that dunes are meant to move and shift. Stabilizing them runs counter to natural flow. 

“It goes against what mother nature wants, which is moving dunes,” said Alynn Kjeldsen, native plant society volunteer and co-chair of the invasive species committee.

 Kjeldsen, who earned a degree at Sonoma State University in environmental studies and planning, said when humans introduce invasive species, it’s incumbent upon humans to remove them.

 “We as humans have mostly brought these invasive plants to our areas and I feel like it’s only us that can deal with them now,” she said. “And I think that we have a duty to do that.” 

More than allowing dunes to naturally shift, invasive species like ice plant and European beachgrass, crowd out naturally growing native plants that support a broader array of insects and animals, Lochner said. 

“If you have ice plants, you will only have ice plants,” she said.

 “The only pollinator that likes it is the honeybee. Nobody else uses it,” she added. “It doesn’t support the insects and the birds and animals in the same way.”

But on Wednesday, there were clear signs of renewal.

 Wide swaths of dune that used to be choked with ice plant now glow a mild purple where native Point Reyes bird’s beak is growing.

 The flower itself is endangered, but perhaps more poignantly, its growth creates habitat attractive to the snowy plover, creating a key link in a support system for two endangered species.

 And native species, in many cases, grow naturally when given space and light.

As the volunteers made their way to their work area Wednesday, Lochner pointed out all of the areas now lush with native growth. 

“The native plant seed bank is there and given the opportunity, they will come back,” she said.

 Mazur, for one, is grateful a band of self-motivated volunteers are making that regeneration happen. 

“They have restored almost a mile of bay-land habitat single-handedly,” he said. “They are self-organizing, coming out and building a community. I think it’s a really beautiful story.”

 You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.

The volunteers working on the removal of ice plant at Doran Regional Park meet at 9:30 a.m. every Wednesday at the west end of the Cypress Day Use parking lot.


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