Sunday, November 8, 2015

Photo Essay: The Wildflowers, Oaks, and Rare Pines of Santa Rosa Island

On the Channel Islands—including Santa Rosa Island, where I got the chance to spend four days volunteering for the National Park Service—the climate can be so variable and unpredictable that the wildflowers get confused.



Case in point: there were some California poppies that had sprouted their orange and yellow blossoms in October, because the weather made it seem to them like it might be February.



But there's another wildflower on Santa Rosa Island that has to work a little harder: the island phacelia, a variation on the purple wildflower that I'd seen amongst the poppies in the Antelope Valley during spring.



It turns out that our voluntourism wasn't just about hard labor, but also science. Biologists, botanists, and ecologists working for the NPS or the USGS have been figuring out ways to bring native plants back after being torn apart by the sheep, cattle, feral pigs, deer, elk, and horses that once roamed—and chewed up—these fields over the last 250 years.



But it turns out that phacelia thrives in soil that's been somewhat disturbed—but just not too much. So one of our jobs was to rake the field where the phacelia is supposed to grow, clearing out all the dead grasses, and disturbing the soil just enough to maybe allow the rare wildflowers to sprout up.



The native plants aren't the only endangered species on the island. There's also the island fox, which was brought back from near extinction through a captive breeding program. The last of the captive foxes were released back into the wild in 2008.



And now, you can't leave your shoes or your pack out unattended because, as we were constantly reminded, "the foxes will get it." Apparently they'll not only steal your lunch, but also your stuff. And they're not shy around humans—they won't run away as you approach, which we saw first-hand when we were hauling our yard equipment back to the trucks. Arms full of scissors and tarps and a rake, I couldn't scramble for my camera when I finally spotted one of those adorable foxes—the only one I saw over the course of my trip.



Pretty much the entire shoreline of Santa Rosa Island is protected, surrounded by a total of 11 marine reserves, including our lunch stop, Carrington Point. Santa Rosa Island was once the site of quite a bit of abalone fishing, an industry the Chinese established in 1860. But, like all the other natural resources at Santa Rosa, the abalone was overfished, and harvesting was outlawed—ending the industry. Now, fishing and commercial harvesting are only allowed in two conservation areas.



The focus of our four-day trip, however, was on the flora—not the fauna. And some of the work was utterly backbreaking, blistering the tender tissues between fingers even through heavy duty work gloves.



At one point, the 4WD trucks that were carting us volunteers around the island stopped abruptly in the middle of a debris-filled road on a hill. "We're here?" we asked. And so began the task of taking bags woven out of coconut husk fiber, filling them with rocks, and hauling them into the flatbed of a truck.



This was one of those moments when you think to yourself, "I chose to do this?!" Hauling sacks of rocks is the kind of thing you see chain gangs do in old movies. It feels akin to indentured servitude.



But then, in the oak grove near the top of Radar Peak (where the old Air Force station was, also known as Signal Peak), we could see what the rock bags were being used for: to trap and divert flooding waters to reduce erosion and foster growth of new plant life (which would hopefully anchor the soil so it wouldn't blow or wash away so much).



This oak grove was what brought us to the island. It was the elusive "Cloud Forest," named because of the fog that rolls in when the air and temperature are right, and that gets trapped in the trees, creating rainforest-like conditions.



The regular exposure to high moisture in the air is what makes so much moss grow around the trees....



...and so much lichen grow on the tree trunks.



It's hard to imagine what these hillsides must've looked like when the Chumash were here, before the Russian furriers came, before the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries brought measles, before the ranchers were given the island as part of the land grant system.



Using limited materials (like repurposed fence posts that we pulled up from old ranch boundary lines) and somewhat makeshift engineering and hydrology principles, we were trying to right nearly two centuries of environmental wrongs. We amateurs were pounding fence posts, fitting together cut pieces of wood like a jigsaw puzzle, and trying not to staple-gun ourselves before we lost the light of day.



At least we stayed long enough to see the fog start to roll in.



At other times, working on the island felt incredibly civilized, intellectual, and even nurturing. I could imagine living here in the housing, where Park staffers typically stay for eight-day stretches.



I wanted my daily office to be the Foxpital, where scientists bring foxes for regular physical examinations and testing to make sure they're healthy and disease-free.



I found it so meditative to dig my gloved hands into the soil, irrigating it with a hose, turning it over in a wheelbarrow like a giant vat of cake mix or bread dough.



I loved planting the tiny seeds harvested from the fallen cones of bishop pines, trying to grow new seedlings. It was the first time I ever felt like I could be giving life to something. I've never felt closer to our planet, and I could not imagine experiencing the Channel Islands by any other means.



I was also going through a massive allergy attack, though it didn't occur to me that it might be the pine seeds (as I get sneezy around sappy Christmas trees) until I reached the grove of a different evergreen: the Torrey pine.



It was our last assignment of our trip, and I was not about to miss out on anything, so I braved the forest and dove into those tree branches, collecting mature needle samples....



...from cone-bearing trees...



...and got sap all over myself.



But my nose was already running non-stop, and this was my chance to get up close and personal with the rarest pine species in the country, which only grows in two places: here on Santa Rosa Island and in La Jolla, CA.



Hence why the scientists are keen to study them.



Santa Rosa island is so incredibly diverse, from oaks, pines, and cypress to Island red buckwheat, Island red paintbrush, Island monkey flower, and everything in between.



No one really knows what the island looked like when the Chumash were here, before they were killed off or driven out. But give it a few years, and if we're careful, and we work hard, maybe we'll be able to return the island close to its natural condition.

As our volunteer leader said, "Humans are the biggest invasive species there is."

I have to think our restoration project is doing more good than harm, but I wonder what would happen if we could just leave something alone, for once....

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Island the Ranchers Left Behind
Photo Essay: Wildflowering at Poppy Peak
Photo Essay: Torrey Pines Beach Trail's Unstable Cliffs
Photo Essay: Dangerous Bluffs