A merry and jolly Friday to all. Please check this weekend’s calendar if you haven’t succumbed to football induced malaise yet.
Proud to have OVLC VIP Brian Stark ITH (In The House, I just made that one up). In anticipation of Saturday’s birthday party for the Conservancy we are taking you on an insider’s tour of the meadow preserve past present and future. Brian has been at the helm since 2010 and was kind enough to share his innermost feelings with the Ramblers. Thanks to Lauren and Elisa for the awesome pictures.
1. How do you picture the meadow in the early 20th century before we started mucking it up?
I never had the chance to see the Preserve before the work started, but the pictures make it look like a forsaken place. The activities going on there were a lot different than the activities people use it for today. Despite its feral look back then, my sense is that the community saw promise underneath the weathered exterior. I like to think of our work as more of an unveiling than a radical change. I think it just looks today more like people imagined it could look all along.
2. What were the main mucking factors? Was it all human? Could it be argued that some of what occurred was a natural progression?
Historically, this property is where rain run-off gathered from all around it. It was the natural place for water to go, which is probably why it wasn’t among the first properties to develop into other uses, and ultimately, it never did. As the land uses changed over the years and the area developed, the agricultural uses began to be pressed onto shrinking lands. Ultimately, the degradation of habitats appeared human-caused, but it’s hard to place all the blame on one land use, such as agriculture, when it was likely precipitated by urban development. Urban impacts also contributed directly to declines as the natural hydrology and drainage of the area was manipulated for drainage “efficiency”.
3. Is it possible to return the property to the original condition? Is that your goal?
Basically….No. The natural hydrology is permanently altered and the areas that were biologically integrated with the property now house a city, so restoring a past condition is just not possible. Today, habitat restoration in general is rarely about returning to a specific past state. What we hope to do is return sustainable ecological function to the site to the extent possible so native plants and animals can thrive in the area. This starts with the soil and moves up in complexity. We are certainly informed by what was on the site historically though, and even recently, as guideposts in our planning for the future. The results we have had over the short time we’ve been working on the site show that it is indeed possible to create functioning ecosystems on previously disturbed areas.
4. When and why and how did OVLC step in?
The Land Conservancy had watched this land for years as various development proposals came and went, often doubting if the organization had the muscle to raise the funds and protect it. One was a sense by some community members that the town was rapidly growing and would soon consume every piece of undeveloped land. People in the Ojai Valley have pretty well-developed relationships with the lands around them. I think that’s why people supported the conservation. The property also had some cultural / historic values as the location of the old Besant school. In addition, the lingering flooding problems on Hwy 33 and at Nordhoff High School drew interest in the site as a place where local flooding protection activities could be accommodated. I think when conservation minded citizens and public agencies responsible for public safety can agree on the value of a project, it bodes well. This may not have happened without the school district and the City of Ojai.
5. What were the goals of the original OVLC plans for the site?
The original goals were really quite simple, keep the property from being covered with condos and convert the site to a place where the community could commune directly with nature in harmony. The opportunity to solve a flooding problem added some gravy to the concept and think it was seen as a mutually beneficial project for just about everyone.
6. What was the state of the preserve when you arrived?
I first came to the Preserve in 2010, and at the time it was hard to see anything under the 6 feet of mustard. I can remember walking into the mustard to see what was inside and I found that, despite the appearance being somewhat feral, that there was indeed a firm building block for restoration in the form of a thoughtful re-shaping of the land, wetland areas, and the introduction of native plants. It took a few months, but we were able to uncover the previous restoration work and these plants responded immediately. In some respects, the hardest work was done before I got here, but it’s been exciting work to help finish off the wetlands portions of the project. Next up are the native grasses and oak trees for the rest of the Preserve.
7. What were your short term goals for the property?
My first goal was to control mustard. This would clear the way for planting and to improve the visual aesthetics of the site. It also reduces some of the less wholesome activities that go on in areas where visibility is limited. We brought back the light of day to the site and then got to work completing the installation of plants in the active project areas. Another high priority was stewarding the earlier restoration areas. A lot of work went into the restoration and defending it from weed was a top priority.
8. Tell us about your obsession with coyote brush, I think you need help….
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, coyote brush is the Kurt Cobain of native plants. A little grungy, perhaps, but quite influential during its short life. It is a pioneer plant, geared for survival in disturbed areas. Think about it, Nirvana formed in 1987 during the hair metal period, and within a few years they killed hair metal. Cobain carved out a niche and made it possible for other guitar bands to grow among the computer generated pop. By 1994, Cobain was dead….seven years after starting Nirvana. By the way, coyote brush lives an average 7 years. Coincidence? I think not. Coyote brush does the same as Nirvana, by colonizing disturbed areas and suppressing weeds (or in Cobain’s case, blasted them out at high volume), thus preparing the site for colonization by other native plants.
9. What projects are underway right now and in the upcoming year?
The work we are just about to start centers on establishing native grasses on the Preserve and to plant the oak trees that will, one day, constitute the oak savannahs and oak woodlands on the Preserve. The areas surrounding the wetlands will all be converted to either valley oak savanna or mixed oak savannas that include the live oaks. We’ll also be seeding for wildflowers, so we hope to get a great spring show going out there. People will see frequent mowing and weeding over the next 3 seasons and it will likely take a few years to make the magic happen.
10. Plants you wish would work in the OMP but probably won’t. Plants that you didn’t expect that are doing well…
I love box elder trees (Acer negundo), But I haven’t seen any growing around here so I won’t be planting them. I like them because they are one of the few California native trees that make fall colors. The evening primrose patch near the vernal pools was somewhat of a surprise for me. I hadn’t used this species for restoration before and I didn’t think we’d get such extensive coverage. I’m told the birds are really digging it
11. I’ve noticed some plots being tended by volunteers, can other people get involved in this?
The plots along the fence line belong to the volunteers associated with the Wildflower Posse. These plots are being weeded by hand, and have been for a year. Their purpose is for use in testing combinations of native grasses and wildflowers to see what species might be the most successful when we expand the project to the full 30 acres. Our volunteers have been exhausting the seed bank in the soil so the test plots will not have weed competition. What if I want my very own plot to plant? Anyone interested in volunteering can give me a call at the office (805) 649-6852. Our volunteer needs will be shifting in the next few months to other activities. I’ll help connect anyone interested with a valuable project.
12. How else can people support the future of the OMP and other OVLC properties?
The OVLC is a member-supported organization, which means we need to raise funds locally for the establishment and management of our publicly open preserves. It might surprise some to know that we actively manage 1,800 acres of publicly accessible lands with nice managed trails. In most years we are able to match our locally raised funds more than 10:1, but it all starts with locals joining the OVLC and making contributions. If everyone that uses our preserves joined as a member, it would go a long way in helping to maintain and improve our trail systems. Another great way people can support the great trail experiences they have on our preserves is to volunteer to help with planting projects or on a trail maintenance crew. Each year, volunteers help us maintain almost 20 miles of public trails and it’s really a big help.
13. Dreams for the future of the OMP?
My primary dream is to have a wildflower show that would draw people from all over the state every year to see it. Related dreams are to have more habitat diversity so we can keep and grow the variety of birds and wildlife we see at the Preserve today, and finally, I’d like to see the long-tailed weasel that lives out there in person. The photo is cool, but I really do want to see it.