Eco groups

Malibu Times, November 19, 2008

Eco groups aim to restore 'balance' to local mountains: Replacing nonnative trees and grasses could reduce fire danger, environmentalists say.

By Melonie Magruder

Two environmental stewardship groups, the Mountains Restoration Trust and TreePeople, have worked together for the past 10 years or so to preserve and enhance the natural resources of the Santa Monica Mountains. Last Saturday, the two organizations gathered about 30 local volunteers to demonstrate restoration techniques and lead a reforestation project that aims to return local mountains to their healthy native condition.

"The introduction of nonnative species to our mountains have seriously damaged the environment here," Kristina Clark, a mountain forestry manager with TreePeople, said. "Along with all the cattle ranching and film studio activity that's taken place here over the past 200 years or so, there's been a lot of land abuse. We are trying to restore the balance."

Peter Massey, a grants manager for TreePeople, said that land restoration was important to preserving value and pegged the collapse of human ecosystems to loss of trees. He likens the current state of deforestation and proliferation of invasive species to what happened to the American mid-west in the 1930s.

"They plowed under the prairie grasses with deep roots that hold the soil down," Massey said. "We ended up with the Dust Bowls."

Accordingly, the project's goal is to replant as many native oaks, using acorns from local trees ("So the gene pool is preserved," Clark noted), and native, deep rooting clump grasses as possible.

On Saturday morning, with Santa Ana winds whipping up dust devils and the smell of scorching brush fires in Sylmar singeing the air, the band of eco-planners met at Malibu Creek State Park for a quick lesson in Forestry 101.

TreePeople's Jim Summers led the group to a large, burned circle off the main parking lot and pointed out surrounding hills denuded of trees.

"One hundred years ago, this valley was a canopied forest of trees," he said. "By replanting native oaks, we are restoring the lungs of this area."

Jo Kitz, a program director with the Mountains Restoration Trust, emphasized the importance of teaching proper forest stewardship to the next generation.

"By introducing a lot of nonnative trees like eucalyptus and juniper to the area, we have a lot of fuel for fire," Kitz said. "Our ecosystem now might be more endangered than the Amazon rainforest. All that pretty yellow mustard you see blooming in the spring? It just feeds forest fires now."

Kitz then set about demonstrating how to replant trees whose acorn seed and tender shoots are delectable nibbles for practically every wild animal in the area.

First, a broad hole must be dug about a foot deep and water poured in to soften the ground. Then, a chicken wire tube about eight inches in diameter is set upright in the center and filled halfway with dirt before three acorns are carefully arranged in the center and then covered with more dirt.

"This prevents the gophers from getting to the rooting acorns," Kitz explained.

Another plastic tube is positioned over the soon-to-be-growing oak tree, topped with plastic mesh, to prevent birds or deer from further destroying the sapling, and it is lashed to a heavy rebar to anchor it in the wind. Finally, clumps of local wild grasses, with root balls that dig down eight feet, are planted around the nascent tree and mulch scattered around to retain moisture.

"We hope to plant about 15 trees today," Kitz said. "In the past 10 years, I would say we've planted 3,000 trees, but heaven knows how many have survived fires and animals. It's an ongoing project."

In addition to big valley oaks and coast live oaks, the Mountains Restoration Trust likes to plant native grasses like purple needle grass, creeping rye or native ragweed, and shrubs like coffee berry and golden currant.

"The husks from this black walnut tree make a very dark dye that Native Americans used on their fabrics," Kitz pointed out. "It's permanent. About 20 years ago, I spilled some on the pavement outside my kitchen and the stain is still there."

Armed with shovels, picks, gloves, water buckets and tiny tubes of sprouting native prairie grasses, the group set to work building the mini-forest.

Boeing industries gave a one million dollar grant for the current project, matched by a similar gift from the Walt Disney Company. With a huge swath of the Southland to oversee, the State Parks department counts on organizations like TreePeople to help.

"We have three permanent staff to take care of 40,000 acres around here," senior environmental scientist Suzanne Goode said. "So volunteers are indispensable."

"A hundred years from now, natural habitats like this will be rare," Kitz said. "We don't want our kids remembering childhoods of playing on asphalt."

More information on the tree planting efforts can be obtained by visiting the Web sites: www.mountainstrust.org and www.treepeople.org.