This is an essay by Ryan McHenry, born and bred in Santa Cruz County. McHenry is a biology graduate from UC San Diego. He plays music, surfs and runs. He recently ran from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.
(In the following essay, all information concerning tarplant populations by year and the history of Arana Gulch is summarized from the Santa Cruz City Council’s “Arana Gulch Master Plan” report from the city council’s website. All quotations are words or phrases I found interesting and are directly from the report.)
The Santa Cruz tarplant. It’s endangered. How endangered? In 1994, the total population count of tarplants in the Arana Gulch recreation area behind the Santa Cruz Harbor was zero. Zip. But, in 1996, an accidental fire cleared the fields and allowed apparently dormant seeds to reemerge. That year, there were an estimated 12,000 plants on the 67.7 acre city owned land. Problem solved?
To answer this, lets take a look at the history of Arana Gulch and the tarplant. Arana Gulch is a coastal prairie and wetland, used until 1988 as a place to graze dairy cattle. The cattle worked synergistically with the tarplant. As the cattle munched, cleared, and trampled the non-local grasses that compete with the tarplant for space (often times more successfully) it opened up room for tarplants to sprout. In addition, the tarplant has a sticky yellow flower (hence the name) that spreads its seeds by sticking to passing animals and traveling with them until they drop off somewhere else. When the cattle were removed, tarplant populations declined and invasive grasses took over.
The county estimates that the pre-1988 population of tarplant hovered around a healthy 10,000 plants in Arana Gulch. Post 1988, when grazing ended, numbers rapidly declined until ’94 when the county purchased the land for 3.4 million (a steal!) and someone took a count of zero tarplants. At this point, the county laid out its plan for the field including housing and a new school but NOT saving tarplants.
If the county had had its way, Arana Gulch would have already been lost and none would be the wiser. However, the land had been designated a “greenpatch” at some point between ’88 and ’94, meaning that development here is regulated by no less than seven administrative bodies. Thus, it was decided and made official in 2006 that Arana Gulch and the tarplant needed saving despite the fact that in 1997, the plant numbered 65,000 after another controlled burn (or 6.5 times the population of the cattle grazing days).
Lets jump to 2013 and why I care. One sunny afternoon sometime in November, as I was on my usual run through the Seabright area and into Arana Gulch, I was stopped in my tracks by a sturdy looking chain link fence and a tractor that stood in uniform blockade of my trails. I suspected this meant bad news, as my quiet running spot looked to be on its way out. I thought the city was to blame, though it turned out to be a bit more of a spectacle.
Sometime between 1994 and 2013, the Santa Cruz City Council, California Coastal Commission, the Department of Parks and Recreation, Santa Cruz Zoning ordinance, and the enforcement team for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among others, combined their respective tangle of regulations to come up with a plan. They named it the “Arana Gulch Master Plan”.
It goes something like this: defend the gulch acreage by paving an 8 foot wide “multi-use pathway” through the grassland in accordance with the ADA that shall serve as public access for “outdoor observation”. All “unauthorized trails” are to be closed off and the usual rules put into place (dogs on leashes, no smoking, no sleeping, etc) and enforced by patrol, citation, and “any means necessary”, including the construction of a permanent fence to confine gulch users to the cement pathway. “Monitoring of pedestrians” (wheelchairs included) for environmental impact will also come into effect, as well as the active removal of non-local species, which includes almost everything in the gulch other than the tarplant (like oak trees and eucalyptus). Next, “sustained funding” will need to be established for longterm tarplant management.
Once this overall layout is achieved, Parks and Rec can step in and make available for all a trail brochure (a map to an area small enough to see all the way across), signs outlining “trail etiquette” (how to use a trail), and signs for wildlife viewing that can be upgraded to “vandal proof”, should that be necessary.
So lets recap: To save a plant that thrived in conditions where non-local grasses were trampled, stomped, and eaten, and that also relies on moving grazers to spread its sticky seeds we’re going to block people from trampling and stomping non-local grasses while also giving the seeds a place to stick to and travel by. In addition to enacting this seemingly backwards conservation method, we will then ban humans from the gulch in every way except “observation”, establish new rules and a patrol to enforce them, spend money erecting sign posts for trail etiquette, vandal proofing the signs, establishing a long term funding source for a long term tarplant monitoring team, remove non-local species including oak trees and eucalyptus, and of course lay down an 8 ft cement pathway in compliance with the ADA over a spot that used to be a natural trail, all under the oversight of at least 7 governing bodies.
This is our proposal to rescue an endangered plant that we have already saved, twice? Is the better answer not clear? In 1996, the Santa Cruz Tarplant population in Arana Gulch goes from 0 to 12,000 after an accidental fire clears the grassland. A controlled burn the following year brings the population up to 65,000 individuals. Heck, the county-issued report on Arana Gulch mentions similar results between 2000 and 2006 from simply MOWING the grass. This simple act is on hold, however, to allow proper implementation of the “Master Plan”, kicked off in 2006 by 1.5 million dollars in Federal aid. During this period, the plant has once again declined.
I’ve got a two part solution: first, pay someone to mow the fields once in a while, I’d bet we could find a local company to do the task once every year for a fraction of what we currently pay Parks and Recreation to maintain the land. And second, allow public access: people moving through the grass will allow the seeds to spread. Problem solved. I’ll take my 1.5 million in monthly installments. Why would we do anything else?