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To Restore Elkhorn Slough, Ecologists Look to 19th Century

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Elkhorn Dairy Farm, now site of the reserve, in the the 1930s or 40s.Source: Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

Water rationing starts in the city of Santa Cruz on May 1, just in time for spring planting. Landscaping with native plants is one way to reduce the water use in your garden. Ecologists at Elkhorn Slough use history to help them decide which native plants to use during habitat restoration, and their tips can help homeowners choose plants as well.

The trail from the visitor’s center at Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve  leads to an overlook with views of salt marsh, grasslands and woodlands. An old barn with a rusty roof is a one clue that the wild land was dairy and pasture for many decades.

Andrea Woolfolk started working as stewardship coordinator at the reserve about 15 years ago. “I was told that my job was to restore things,” she says. “You stand out in a field of weeds and wonder ‘What do I restore it to?’”

She started gathering historical maps, photos, journals and newspaper articles to get an idea of what the land looked like in the past. That gave her clues as to what plants or habitats might do well in the future. “It could have been a small project,” Woolfolk says. “But it’s become a bit of an obsession, you might say.”

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A land survey of upper Elkhorn Slough, created by A.T. Herrmann in 1898. Blue shows tidal channel; brown shows salt marsh; green represents freshwater areas dominated by tules. Source: Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

And she says it’s become a hobby as well. At first, Woolfolk was captivated by the beautiful maps and arresting accounts. Then she started noticing themes emerging as she gathered more information. “The more that you pull it together, the more these narratives emerge and you kinda can’t stop,” Woolfolk says.

Creating a narrative

Woolfolk pulls out a map from 1869 that surveys the area for Elkhorn Road. Today, that road leads to the main entrance to the reserve, and it provides a way to locate our position in a field behind the overlook. The map shows that the land where we are standing used to belong to a man named Wescott.

Wescott held a big 4th of July party in 1869 that merited an article in some local newspapers. Woolfolk reads from the article in the Castroville Argus: “The choice of location was very good, a gentle roll of land studded with the grand old oaks. They give California hills the appearance of noble parks.”

The story in the Pajaronian gives a little more information about the land. “The ground is clean and shaded by wide, spreading oaks and nearby is a spring of pure water,” Woolfolk reads. The reporter estimates there’s room enough for over 100,000 people.

The articles also mention dancing on a green sward, which is an old-fashioned way to say meadow. Based on those descriptions, Woolfolk learns that the land used to be covered in a mix of grasses and oaks.

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A painting of Moss Landing, looking south to Castroville, painted by Leon Trousset in the 1870s. The original hangs in Our Lady of Refuge Church in Castroville.

Decisions, decisions

Ecologists at the reserve aim to restore grassland using locally collected seed. Bree Candiloro, stewardship specialist at the reserve, tends a small plot of native grasses that includes blue wild rye, California brome, and California oak grass.

The seed from these grasses will be used to restore habitat across the estuary from the overlook. Historical information tells the ecologists that the targeted area used to be grassland, but Woolfolk says they don’t know exactly what species grew there before. “We’re starting to test which grasses take the best,” she says. “The ones that take the best are the ones that we’ll use the most.”

Planting guided by history can be done with smaller parcels of land as well. Woolfolk and Candiloro have collected resources on a website  so that individual land or home owners around the Monterey Bay area can learn about the past ecology of their property. “Knowing where you are, knowing the land, [and] knowing what was there will assist in choosing the right plants,” Candiloro says.

Benefits from landscaping with native plants include reduced water use as well as increased native insect and plant diversity. That kind of landscaping, even if just on a little postage stamp of property, is still making a difference if you’re doing it within the context of the best thing for the land, she says.

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