A flatbed full of native shrubs that will compete with exotic plant species in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Some of these shrubs were planted by ÒEcohelpers,Ó a student outreach program that brings inner city youth to assist park rangers in their duties. (photo by Nubia Calvo)

SM MOUNTAINS — These hills are under attack by foreign invaders. Fending off exotic plants, global warming and development are some of the challenges facing the park rangers stationed in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Luckily these rangers have some back up — students. Through the Parks as Classrooms program, which was launched in 1992, 50,000 students from around Southern California visit the Santa Monica Mountains each year. The objective is to introduce national park resources to students and teachers nationwide.

The relationship between the students and rangers is symbiotic. Students from the inner-city, some who have never been in nature before, learn about their local ecosystems. The rangers in return have new foot soldiers in the battle against non-native plant species.

“The kids love it because most don’t get to come to the mountains at all,” Jamie Hawkins, a special education teacher from Joaquin Miller Career and Transition Center, said. “It’s about seeing their world and being aware.”

The Santa Monica Mountains park rangers have a simple motto.

“To preserve for the future while allowing enjoyment,” Park Ranger Barbara Applebaum said.

Threats to wildlife

Park rangers are trying hard to maintain a balance between private development and the inter-connectivity of the various ecosystems in the Santa Monica Mountains.

However, “humans are serving as barriers,” Park Ranger Ray Sauvajot said. “That’s a theme across national parks.”

The Santa Monica Mountains is essentially a fragmented mosaic of roads, highways, houses and private property that severs the open space, Sauvajot said.

It’s especially important to maintain the connectivity between these spaces because of global warming. As temperatures change, plants must move with rising temperatures to higher elevations, Sauvajot said. For certain bird and lizard species, their genetic makeup has changed because of their isolation.

For larger carnivores, a wide range of movement is necessary for their immediate survival. Mountain lions have a traveling range that spans over the whole recreation area, Seth Reily, a park ranger who tracks carnivores, said. Recently, Reily has observed an alarming trend: mountain lions are killing each other more often, possibly because of restricted movement.

When looking at a map of the Santa Monica Mountains, there are small channels where wildlife can move freely into larger areas. Some manmade creations such as U.S. Route 101 sever these connections completely. Through radio tracking, a mountain lion was recorded crossing the 101 at Liberty Canyon for the first time a few weeks ago.

Caltrans might punch a hole through the freeway at the Liberty Canyon exit so wildlife can travel more fluidly, Reily said.

Park rangers hope to coordinate the various government agencies to keep these channels open and connected. The Santa Monica Mountains, Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains might become one park under the “Rim of the Valley” bill that’s under review now, Sauvajot said.

“Native species will survive by increasing their resilience by eliminating exotics and increasing inter-connectivity,” Sauvajot said.

Back to the future

The National Park Service will further strengthen its effort to preserve the Santa Monica Mountains’ authentic bio-diversity by educating Southern California youth.

The park service coordinates various programs at all different schooling levels to get kids into nature, while having them plant native shrubs to try and fight off the exotics.

“It’s a reasonable activity because it’s meeting curriculum,” Sauvajot said. “It’s not just a field trip.”

Students learn about the 800 native plants and 300 non-native plants in the Santa Monica Mountains. Out of 300 non-native plants, 19 are considered a significant threat to the area’s original plant species.

During the late ‘80s schools started teaching more towards strict curriculum because of standardized testing, Applebaum said. These programs incorporate biology, environmental science, language arts and math curriculum requirements that help time-starved teachers.

Park rangers want to teach students about ecosystems and animals in their own proximity that aren’t taught in school.

The Santa Monica Mountains are considered a Mediterranean biome, a rare ecosystem that encompasses only two percent of the Earth’s surface. Despite this, many environmental science lesson plans only teach problems facing tropical rain forests, Applebaum said.

“We’ve never had a benefit concert for the Mediterranean biome,” she said.

Besides helping out teachers, introducing students to wildlife and nature benefits the national parks.

In the past, outdoor recreation in the national parks was dominated by white society, Ron Sundergill, director of the national parks conservation association, said.

“Now we’re doing a phenomenal job of bringing minority youth into the parks,” Sundergill said. “If parks are going to survive it has to be relevant for everyone.”

The National Park Service wants more future voters caring about environmental issues.

“These are the masses … . We’re loosing the battle,” Sauvajot said. “They’re not going to give a hoot about ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] and Yellowstone.”

The youth programs try including lots of low income schools, Applebaum said. For a lot of inner city youth it’s their first time gardening and observing wildlife, Park Ranger Antonio Solorio said.

The park service helps out low income schools by paying for transportation. Through the Recreational Transit Program, the park service covers the $100 it costs to get students to a national park. Many schools couldn’t otherwise participate because national parks aren’t covered by an approved list of places the Los Angeles Unified School District will pay to take their students, Hawkins said.

Last Wednesday, a group of approximately 20 Miller Career students helped park rangers plant shrubs through the “Ecohelpers” program. This is a student outreach activity where pupils plant native shrubs that will compete and eventually kill off non-native species.

Rangers cleared a plot of land at the base of Zuma Canyon in Malibu for the student helpers. Surrounding the plot was a large expanse of non-native grass that consumed the surrounding area. The students planted pots of native shrubs in groups of three. These clusters will compete with this exotic grass and perhaps kill the invaders one day.

Rangers hope that some student helpers will become full time park service workers.

“A lot of youth think this is just done on a volunteer basis,” Solorio said.

If students get hooked in elementary and middle school by park rangers, then they can apply to become assistant field researchers in high school. Over the summer, six students in the Southern California area can receive a week-long, paid internship to assist park rangers in the field.

This is a lot better and more rewarding than flipping burgers or stocking shelves, Solorio said.

It seems the students are starting to understand the importance of nature. On a recent outing, Applebaum said her students encountered a group of mallards.

“The kids behaved and didn’t throw anything at the ducks,” she said. “They are really getting the stewardship message.”


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