Towards Multidisciplinary Landscape-Scale Restoration

Introduction to SERCAL 2013, Spring 2013 Ecesis, Volume 23, Issue 1

Millions of dollars are spent each year on ecological restoration projects in California. A large proportion of this money comes from mitigation, where the primary goal is to improve ecological functioning on a site to offset losses elsewhere. More than ever though, restoration projects are being funded by federal, state and local government programs that have a much wider range of goals. These projects are expected to not only provide ecological benefits, but other tangible benefits to the people who live within the landscape as well. 

One of SERCAL’s pre-conference field tours will focus on the Ventura River watershed and the many restoration efforts underway. Map: www.ovlc.org.

One of SERCAL’s pre-conference field tours will focus on the Ventura River watershed and the many restoration efforts underway. Map: www.ovlc.org.

Happily, when we restore ecosystem processes as part of ecological restoration projects, many of these other benefits are easily achieved. For example, restoring wetlands usually has water quality and flood protection benefits for neighbors and entire watersheds. Restoring riparian habitats along creeks and rivers, especially where levees are set back or removed, is an excellent way to provide flood protection. Restoration of natural habitats may often naturally lead to expanded populations of rare and threatened species. Restoring resilient coastal habitats, including beaches, dunes and salt marshes, is becoming an important part of preparing coastal communities for sea level rise. Further, restoration sites are increasingly seen as opportunities for recreation and education, especially in urban areas. 

Almost every restoration project, be it large or small, surely has incremental benefits of many types. However, if restoration programs are to achieve truly ambitious large-scale multidisciplinary goals, the future must lie in coordinating projects within much broader landscapes. My goal with this year’s conference is to highlight (via presentations and field tours) some of the integrated landscape-scale restoration efforts going on in the Ventura and Santa Barbara region as examples where this approach is being developed or is already underway.

The Santa Clara River drains the second largest watershed in southern California. The main stem and a major tributary (Sespe Creek) are un-dammed and the river maintains a broad and dynamic floodplain, making it one of the most natural and ecologically important waterways left in the state. The California State Coastal Conservancy (SCC), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Friends of the Santa Clara River and several other groups have been working together on the Santa Clara River Parkway. The overarching goal of the program is to preserve and restore the natural hydrologic and geomorphic processes along the river. The focus on ecosystem processes leads naturally to a comprehensive program that includes advocacy (fighting new levees), acquisition (including purchases and easements in frequently flooded areas), restoration (including levee removal), research (including historical ecology, hydrogeomorphology and restoration techniques), education and public access. Ultimately, the parkway will have myriad benefits for people living within the watershed — including improved water quality, flood protection and recreational opportunities — all the while sustaining the natural processes that support diverse riparian and aquatic habitats and rare and endangered species.

The Ventura River (see field tour page 4) is the next major drainage to the north of the Santa Clara River and has a watershed about one-seventh the size of its neighbor. Most of the watershed lies within the rugged wilderness of the transverse ranges. Matilija Dam, which now holds back more sediment than water, lies on a major tributary, Matilija Creek. After emerging from the mountains, the river runs through the communities of Ojai and Ventura. A group of non-profits, including Surfrider Foundation, the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy (OVLC), and the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy (VHC) have teamed with local governments and state organizations (including the SCC) to protect and restore the natural resources of this river. Again, the overarching goal is a focus on restoring natural hydrologic and geomorphic processes on a watershed scale. The flagship project within the watershed is the slated removal of Matilija Dam, which will be one of the largest dam removal projects yet undertaken in the US. Advocacy groups are working hard to assure that the removal is done in a way that maximizes ecological and social benefits. This includes the idea of restoring the “sandshed” to assure, among other things, that Ventura’s sand-starved beaches naturally become replenished. OVLC and VHC are working to acquire and restore properties in and along the river. Education and outreach programs are changing the way the local communities view the river, especially in Ventura where the river bottom, long accepted as a de facto homeless camp, is now being cleaned up and restored with considerable community involvement. 

Moving a little further north (and west), the south coast of Santa Barbara County is a hotbed of restoration activity. The region is home to two important estuaries, numerous small watersheds that support southern steelhead, and some of the last coastal open space left in southern California. A strong environmental ethos within the community (some say the environmental movement started here after a 1969 oil spill) has led to widespread local support for conservation and restoration. Ecological restoration work in this region, which began in the 1980s out of UCSB, represents a large diversity of projects in a wide range of habitats. Local government organizations and non-profits are working together to design and implement restoration programs that include watershed-based planning with significant landowner engagement, public education and community involvement. The result is an increasingly integrated approach to restoration that benefits natural ecosystems, rare species and people living within the watersheds.

Chaparral is one of the quintessential/iconic plant communities of California and is dominant in the hills above Santa Barbara. For decades, chaparral throughout southern California has been cleared in the name of recreation, grazing, and reducing fire danger. Vast tracts of chaparral have been type-converted to weedy herbaceous communities dominated by non-native species. A shift is underway as land managers are realizing the many benefits chaparral provides as habitat and to the health of watersheds as well. A regional effort is underway to reverse this type conversion and restore vast tracts of chaparral. The effort will require broad collaboration between land managers, scientists, restoration ecologists and conservation organizations to not only determine effective restoration techniques, but to change public opinion on the benefits, and not the danger, of this important ecosystem. 

Sea level rise is one of the greatest challenges facing coastal ecosystems and communities throughout California. How will our existing estuaries, such as Mugu Lagoon, change as sea level rises? Most ecologists predict that intertidal habitats will migrate up-slope as inundation frequencies increase. The lack of transition zone and upland habitat around most of our estuaries will mean salt marsh habitats may be largely squeezed out. This impending loss highlights the need for integrated regional planning of coastal restoration projects that will provide a range of habitats even as sea levels rise. There will also be intense pressure to protect adjacent infrastructure from flooding, further threatening the integrity of natural systems. Ormond Beach in Oxnard (with undeveloped adjacent uplands) and the Los Cerritos Wetlands at the mouth of the San Gabriel River (with many acres of remnant salt marsh and uplands) provide opportunities for large-scale restoration with sea level rise adaptation at the forefront. These projects, which are still in the planning phases, are examples of how individual restoration projects can serve the ecological goals of a much larger region.

In addition to these focused topics, the conference will explore a wide range of upland, wetland and riparian restoration programs throughout California with a spotlight on multidisciplinary activities that are leading to more integrated approaches to implementing successful ecological restoration. After a hiatus last year, SERCAL will once again feature a poster session and — new for 2013 —an oral session featuring student research in restoration. We’ll feature several walking tours of restoration sites on and near the UCSB campus during the conference to allow everyone to get out and stretch their legs and enjoy a little bit of the beauty that the campus has to offer. All in all, a very full schedule that represents the wide range of the restoration activities ongoing in the Santa Barbara and Ventura region and throughout California.

California is a very good place to be a restoration ecologist. The cynical amongst us might say that this is because we humans have done so much damage to natural ecosystems here that we might expect exceptional job security. While being an ecologist and being cynical arguably go nicely hand in hand, I find reason for great optimism as well. As society becomes more and more accepting of ecological restoration as a tool for not only improving natural ecosystems, but improving the quality of life of humans, there is an increasing opportunity to do larger and more meaningful restoration projects than ever before. As restoration ecologists, we have a new challenge then. We need to look far beyond the borders of our projects to understand how the rest of the landscape effects our work, while at the same time understanding how our work effects the surrounding landscape in increasing ways. This will mean an increased emphasis on landscape-scale restoration programs that work in integrated ways to achieve wide-ranging goals. I hope this year’s SERCAL conference (our 20th!) will provide a forum for a wider diversity of ideas and projects than ever before while highlighting some of the inspiring and cutting-edge approaches to using ecological restoration as a tool for sustainable management of our natural and human resources. — by Matt James, Principal at Coastal Restoration Consultants, Inc., and President of the SERCAL Board of Directors and Chair of this year’s conference in Santa Barbara