Students embark on ambitious ecosystem project

April 7, 2011 7:40:19 PM PDT
A Caltrans project that required cutting down more than 100 native oak trees has led to an ambitious restoration project in Sonoma County. The plan is to do more than just replace trees, they are trying to restore an entire ecosystem at the Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen.

Little native grasses are part of a big dream.

"Today we are planting hopefully 10,000 grass plugs," says Jeanne Wirka, Boverie Preserve biologist.

It's the latest round of planting in a long-term effort to turn an old ranch and vineyard back into a native oak woodland. The project is happening because Caltrans decided to widen this intersection on Highway 12 in Glen Ellen. That meant cutting down 117 oak trees. In exchange, state law requires Caltrans do something to benefit the environment. In most cases they just plant more trees. But this project goes a lot further.

"What we negotiated with Caltrans was instead of just counting trees, let's use the funds to actually restore the woodland," says Wirka. "So it's oaks and the understory and other species."

Caltrans is paying $450,000 to restore eight acres of the Bouverie Nature Preserve just south of that intersection.

The volunteer planting crew is from Sonoma High School.

"It's interesting working outdoors and I like it," says 16-year-old Leo.

"It's really nice because we get to help out the community, and nature is like part of us," says 16-year-old Anna.

Last year, the students planted acorns that are now little trees growing inside tubes for protection.

"These tubes are four feet high, so you can see it's about four feet and four inches which is really good for a valley oak," says Wirka.

They're also working on what will grow under the trees.

"We're putting in native grass because the not native grass has taken over," says 15-year-old Alexandra.

To many of us, one type of grass may look the same as another, but there are big differences critical to the ecosystem. "Over here is a native grass species that grows in oak woodlands, it's called blue wild rye," says Wirka.

Native grasses have deep roots that stabilize soil and help water penetrate, but all over California grass with the wrong kind of roots is taking over.

"This plant right here is a really nasty weed," says Wirka. "You can see it's really tough, it's hard to pull out."

That's a big deal because 90 percent of the state's rare or endangered animals rely on native grassland for some part of their life.

"They are one of the most damaged, most destroyed plant communities, and there's very few actual good quality native bunch grass habitat left in the state of California," says habitat protection leader Doug Serrill.

Part of the Caltrans money is being used to put in the plants now. The rest will be used for the future. And in case you're counting, the day we were there the students did manage to plant all 10,000 grass plugs.

We congratulate the Sonoma High School students for all their great work.

More information:

The replanting project at the Bouverie Preserve is called Project GROW, which stands for Gathering to Restore Oak Woodlands. For information on how to volunteer or visit the preserve, visit http://www.egret.org/visit_bouverie

Project GROW is a joint undertaking of:

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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