Channel Islands habitat restoration reversing damage from eras past
By Alex Wilson 07/25/2013
There’s light at the end of the tunnel for work restoring natural habitat on Anacapa Island, removing invasive iceplant and replenishing native species, after years of strenuous effort.
I volunteered with Carpinteria-based charity, Channel Islands Restoration, laboring on the ambitious project. We sailed to uniquely beautiful East Anacapa with Island Packers Cruises for a day of digging and planting.
Workers at a native plant nursery sprout numerous species, including purple needlegrass and giant coreopsis. They resemble something from a fanciful Dr. Seuss cartoon, blooming with a riot of daisylike yellow flowers each spring. About 30,000 plants have been raised there so far.
It took some care to properly situate plants in the island soil. I learned to unfurl rhizomes that generate roots, which had been growing against the sides of little plastic pots, so that the plants will have a better chance of surviving the exposed and windy environment.
Channel Islands National Park Restoration ecologist Sarah Chaney says all the Islands have been impacted by human uses like ranching and military activities over the years, and iceplant from South Africa spread across Anacapa after Coast Guard officials built a lighthouse and other structures around the 1940s.
“A really invasive plant called red flowered iceplant, Malephora crocea, was planted by the Coast Guard with the best of intentions to adorn the buildings and cover the bare ground after they were built. But it didn’t stay where it was planted, and it proved to be able to overtake native vegetation. It was doing so until it covered probably 60 percent of East Anacapa Island. It was knocking out the native vegetation by crowding it out, by taking all the water,” says Chaney. “So over the years, we’ve used a variety of methods, from hand pulling to scraping on a bigger scale to use of aquatic-graded herbicide. We do that for maximum safety for small creatures like salamanders and snails, which are endemic to the island.”
Chaney says the project has been underway for about 20 years, and volunteers are essential. The iceplant is now almost 95 percent gone. Aside from the rebound in native plants, the project also benefits endemic Anacapa deer mice and birds, including Western Gulls that lay their green speckled eggs on the island, along with Cassin’s auklets, which had stopped living on the island and have now returned.
“The iceplant made a completely flat carpet, sometimes 14 inches deep, that had no light or water reaching the ground, no room for animals to move. Then contrast that with what you see out there, of what we call coreopsis forest, where the giant sea daisy will be shoulder high, and think about what that structure means to perching birds, to the gulls that nest underneath it, to the seabirds who will come in and make burrows,” says Chaney.
Channel Islands Restoration volunteers work on a variety of projects on the park’s five islands and the mainland. They also travel to San Nicolas and San Clemente, which are U.S. Navy bases normally off-limits to visitors. Another project they need help with is the San Marcos Foothill Preserve in the Goleta area. They’ve also worked on habitat near the Santa Barbara Zoo and Oxnard’s Ormond Beach.
Aaron Echols is an invasive plant technician with the nonprofit group and says people love to see the fruits of their efforts. “They get satisfaction helping a good cause. It’s a day of conversation under the sun,” says Echols. “Whenever you’re outside in an environment like this, it’s always good.”