By Gudrun Kleist
This winter, Channel Islands Restoration installed over 11,000 plants on San Nicolas Island over the course of 50 trips to the island, with the help of 337 volunteers.
Gudrun joined us as one of those volunteers and wrote up her experience for the newsletter of her local chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
From April 12-16, nine Bay Area volunteers spent an unforgettable five days on San Nicolas Island (SNI), one of the eight Channel Islands. At Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station, we were greeted by CIR’s Project Manager Kevin Thompson and Nursery Manager Kelle Green. We were joined by long-time CIR volunteer Robin Birney. Robin had been to the island on many occasions and was very helpful in getting us situated.
After a short flight, we arrived on SNI, checked into our comfortable rooms at the hotel in “Nictown” and were ready to go to work by 10am. Our objective was to plant many of the 11,000 plants grown specifically to re-vegetate a 3-mile stretch along a road that had been severely impacted by a pipeline project as well as by overgrazing. All the plants had been grown in the nursery from seeds and cuttings collected exclusively from the island by CIR’s Nursery Manager Kelle Green and her crew. Cuttings were collected from as many different populations as possible and interplanted to ensure biodiversity among their offspring.
The nursery itself was impressive: long benches covered with many different types of plants from grasses to cactus, an automated watering system, and ant moats on all legs, to prevent introduced pests like Argentine ants from infesting the pots and being spread beyond Nictown.
Adjacent to the nursery is a garden, where Kelle is growing many plants to be used for future propagation. She is especially proud of her healthy little forest of Lycium brevipes (desert boxthorn). In the fall of 2015, cuttings were collected from 10 plants and propagated. They thrived and from these plants, 400 more were grown to be planted for this project.
On our arrival, we were greeted by gale force winds of 40 miles with gusts up to 50 miles, which made the job on our first day difficult. We were issued goggles to keep the sand out of our eyes and we wore most of our clothing layers. Holes needed to be dug (chiseled) deep enough for the top of the root ball to be at least 1.0”-1.5” below grade (deeper is better said Kevin). This helps to prevent the incessant winds from blowing away the soil and exposing the roots and creates a nice bowl to contain the irrigation water.
We saw our first island fox (Urocyon littoralis) that is endemic to all but the two smallest Channel Islands (Anacapa and Santa Barbara). With its expressive face, long bushy tail and weighing only 5 lbs. it is adorably cute. During our stay, we saw several more cute little foxes in their natural environment.
By the next morning the wind had died down to a comfortable breeze, a meadowlark was providing background music with his sweet song and Kevin was using an auger to help dig the holes. We greatly benefited from Kevin and Kelle’s extensive knowledge and organizational skills. We learned to use a simple but effective jig to mark the placement of the planting holes with the first row set back from the road about 8 - 10 feet. The first couple of rows were short plants like grasses and Achillea millefolium that can tolerate the occasional tire or being mowed. This will also allow for better visibility of the foxes; their greatest threat on the island is being hit by a vehicle.
Thorny plants like cactus and boxthorn were planted in the back rows. These are the preferred habitat of the Island Night Lizard (Xantusia riversiana), another cute island native. This species is endemic to only three islands (SNI, San Clemente, and Santa Barbara) and was recently delisted. We were able to see one up close and personal when SNI’s Natural Resources Manager William Hoyer showed us one he was preparing to relocate from Nictown to a more natural environment. We also learned the reason for the BBQ tongs in the toolbox - they make planting a cactus a cinch.
In 4 1/2 days, and together with CIR’s Kevin, Kelle and Robin, we managed to plant almost 1,700 plants including: Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Artemisia nesiotica (Island sagebrush), Chenopodium californicum (California goosefoot), Distichlis spicata (saltgrass), Eriogonum grande var. (San Nicolas Island buckwheat), Frankenia salina (alkali seaheath), Lotus argophyllus var. argenteus (Southern Island silver lotus), Lupinus albifrons (silver lupine), Hordeum brachyantherum ssp. californicum (California meadow barley), Lycium brevipes (desert boxthorn), Lycium californicum (California boxthorn), Opuntia spp. (coastal prickly pear), Stipa cernua (nodding needlegrass), and Stipa pulchra (purple needlegrass).
As a desert island SNI gets an average of only 7” of rain a year; these plants would not survive without additional water. Thankfully, there are fire hydrants at regular intervals along the roads. Our last job was installing a drip system, one dripper for each planting hole. The drip system is hooked up manually to a fire hydrant and run for 45 minutes to an hour, first every 2 weeks and then at longer and longer intervals until the rains (hopefully) start. All the fresh water to the island is supplied by a surprisingly small reverse osmosis desalination plant.
One plant that recovered remarkably well from decades of uncontrolled sheep grazing is Leptosyne gigantea (giant coreopsis). Many areas of the island are covered in a miniature forest of these “Dr. Seuss” plants. Robin told us that flying in after a wet winter the whole island was yellow. Their main bloom season is February, but there was one late bloomer right by the road looking like a big cheery sunflower bouquet. It made us smile every time we drove by.
However, our time on SNI was not only work. We were given tours every late afternoon to see different parts of the island. SNI has one of the largest breeding colonies of northern elephant seals in California with 20,000 animals crowding the beaches in winter. Kevin told us that during the height of the breeding season there is not a spot of sand visible. The bulls and the newly pregnant females had already left for their northern feeding grounds, but there were still plenty of younger seals on several beaches, including the aptly named Bachelor Beach. A few sea lions mingled with the elephant seals.
We saw several examples of CIR restoration projects, including an impressive dune planting. A gully at the edge of Nictown had been planted a year ago with similar plants we were planting. It was amazing to see how much these plants had grown in just one year. We hope ours will look as happy in another year. What a contrast to the landscape at the South side of the island: a badland with deep gullies severely eroded from decades of overgrazing. On our last day, we had the opportunity to spend time at Rock Crusher at the West end of SNI. Here the crashing waves had eroded away the softer rocks leaving columns of dark rocks, creating an almost alien landscape.
We left on the afternoon plane just as the wind was picking up again. We were tired and sore, but also very thankful for the opportunity for such an enlightening experience.
We learned so much from Kevin and Kelle about the flora and fauna of the island and about restoring a badly damaged desert island. It was a privilege to work alongside such dedicated people as Kevin, Kelle, and Robin. Most important, we had a small part in helping create habitat for those cute island critters.
Reprinted with permission from the June 2018 issue of the Bay Leaf, the newsletter of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (www.ebcnps.org).