The fragrance of lupin fields and hum of native bees across The Preserve this Spring is a powerful reminder of the resilience of the natural world. Spending a few minutes soaking in the sounds, colors and scents of the season reaffirms what an extraordinary place this truly is. The Preserve lies at the heart of the Central Coast, one of the planet’s great biodiversity hotspots. We are blessed to live within – and help care for – one of only five places on Earth to support a Mediterranean climate. This ecological abundance adds to our lives in many ways. Taking a walk through The Preserve’s wildflower fields, it is easy to be transported to another place and time. With over 400 species of wildflowers alone, there is enough beauty and diversity to keep us enchanted for a lifetime.
Day in and day out, the Conservancy team cares for the health of the Wildlands and Openlands, engaging and inspiring the community to connect with the land and lend a hand. Sustaining biodiversity is just one of many benefits of these collaborative efforts. Emerging medical science tells us that spending quality time in natural areas brings countless health benefits, as well as social, spiritual and psychological well-being. Here at The Preserve, it’s not just about nature, it’s about people in nature. The most exciting moments of our day (aside, perhaps from the occasional glimpse of a mountain lion) come from working in partnership with Preserve landowners and staff. Through our shared vision and values we can make a difference and continue to build a thriving conservation community.
The Santa Lucia Preserve’s sweeping grasslands are experiencing a rebirth – tiger salamanders are returning to our ponds and burrowing owls once again harry rodents on Peñon Peak and the Mesa. Wildflowers, native grasses and a broad array of wildlife grace our hills and valleys in higher numbers, and the song of meadowlarks and other grassland birds can be heard from the Potrero to Black Mountain.
This is not by accident. Soon after arriving in the fall of 2011, I asked the Conservancy’s science and stewardship team ‘what keeps you up at night?’ Their answers were swift and concerning: “Our grasslands are becoming overwhelmed with thatch, woody weeds and brush, and we are losing important indicators of ecosystem health, like burrowing owls, golden eagles and tiger salamanders.” I also reached out to Preserve landowners, asking the same question. A similar response was shared: “What’s happened to our scenic vistas? Our rolling hills used to be emerald green in the spring and golden throughout the summer and fall. Now they are grey year-round. Where are our wildflowers? Where are our hawks?”
The scientists and landowners were raising the same alarm, using different words to express a shared concern.
Through 2012 we consulted experts and developed an ambitious plan, and in the spring of 2013, the Conservancy took the first big step toward grassland recovery by launching an innovative Conservation Grazing program with the support of the Community Services District (CSD), Ranch Club and Preserve landowners. We developed a remarkable “portable” system for moving goats and cattle across the landscape to restore natural processes once provided by grass fires and long-lost native grazers. In this initial phase of the program we concentrated on clearing thatch, reinvigorating grassland soils, slowing brush encroachment and preserving picturesque vistas.
Over the past six years we have collected scientific data and monitored the results closely, consulted with regional experts on next steps and observed a resurgence of native grasses, wildflowers and raptors. Today, land managers from across the continent are coming to see the results of our work, quiz our staff and learn from each other. This May, we also shared our findings with Preserve landowners, recognizing their important role in this program and highlighting our continued commitment to our partnerships in grassland recovery.
As exciting as these early results may be, we are just getting started. Weeds and brush encroachment continue to plague our scenic vistas and sensitive habitat areas. Grazing is a valuable tool, but it isn’t the whole solution. It is time to take another big leap forward in this grasslands renaissance: this past January, the Conservancy Board of Governors approved a 5-year, $2,000,000 Grasslands Initiative focused on aggressive weed management and expanded grazing and mowing. Together, we will build on the foundation we’ve created to ensure the recovery of our mutually beloved grasslands.
The Conservancy’s first-ever 5-person seasonal weed crew is taking the fight to the field. In their first three months, the crew has already assessed and treated 350-acres of invasive weeds throughout The Preserve’s grasslands. Our key partners, Preserve landowners, are also stepping up in a big way, with terrific results. Several of these individuals are celebrated in this newsletter.
Our momentum continues to build. So far this year, we’ve initiated nine new Openlands Partnerships with landowners, and more are signing up each month. Conservancy and Preserve staff are also collaborating closely and meet regularly with the CSD and Ranch Club teams to compare notes and coordinate weed management efforts. More broadly, we are partnering with CalFIRE and Monterey Regional Fire District to explore bringing prescribed fire back to The Preserve in 2020 – another powerful tool for habitat recovery and to improve fire-resilience and community safety.
This spring’s regional superbloom is a spectacular wildflower year by any measure. We’re thrilled that our past and current grasslands restoration efforts have allowed us to participate in this lovely natural phenomenon, showcasing our partnerships and how they connect us to each other and to the land. It’s not too late to grab a friend or neighbor and go for a wander through our magnificent grasslands. New wildflowers are still emerging in our grasslands, woodlands and forests. As you soak up the natural beauty and nurture your connection with nature, we hope you feel a sense of peace, wellbeing and renewal. Please continue to share these experiences with us by posting photos, asking questions, and connecting through our bi-monthly newsletter, Instagram, Facebook, and our new website. We love to see and share the benefits of being part of an extraordinary conservation community, here at The Santa Lucia Preserve.
BY CHRISTY FISCHER