Seven-year-old Mairenee delicately places the tiny coastal dune plant into the sand with care not to damage its fragile roots. In her eyes one can see determination, admiration, and even hope in returning this small patch of earth back to its natural state.
Mairenee joins more than 30 of her classmates on a spring morning at Monterey State Beach as part of the Return of the Natives volunteer brigade, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to dune restoration run by California State University, Monterey Bay.
The mission of Return of the Natives is to bring nature closer to people, and people closer to nature, through hands-on experiences. "Our biggest goal is to get people out in their community, helping with habitat restoration, helping clean up their local parks - giving them that [feeling of] ownership that where we live is a very special place," said Marina Maze, program coordinator with Return of the Natives Restoration Education Project.
Return of the Natives began with a group of elementary school teachers in Salinas in the early 1990s that set out on a mission to make schoolyards more beautiful than prison yards.
Isaura Rochin, a third grade teacher at Santa Rita Elementary, was one of those teachers. In 1998 she introduced a group of 40 third graders to the Watershed Institute at CSU Monterey Bay. Back then, funding was scarce, and cuts in funding for field trip transportation proved challenging for teachers hoping to connect students with their natural world.
“As a lover of our planet and its ocean I feel passionate about teaching students to appreciate and care for their environment,” Rochin said. “During their trips the students develop a curiosity of animals, birds in particular, because they get to use binoculars for the first time to observe them.”
Rochin says her school is surrounded by low-income, high-density apartment complexes with high levels of crime and gang activity. “Many students feel the streets around their homes are unsafe,” she said. “Field trips like these get the children outside in a safe environment and spark a curiosity of the outdoors.”
Maze asks Mairenee and her classmates whether this is their first trip to the beach. Hands dart into the air. For many of these students, this is their first time seeing the ocean waves and breathing the ocean air.
Mairenee emphatically nods when asked if she’s enjoying her morning of planting at the beach. “I like that we’re helping save the plover! They can run so fast while they’re finding food. We’re going to help them have more food with the plants. But it’s sad that there are less of them than some of the other animals.”
As part of the Return of the Natives program, college students and volunteers teach the children about the western snowy plover, Smith’s blue butterfly, and other plants and wildlife that they are helping by planting coastal dune plants at Monterey State Beach. The Pacific coast population of the western snowy plover and Smith’s blue butterfly are both protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Shawn Milar is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the lead federal agency for the protection of threatened and endangered fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats. Through the agency’s Coastal Program, Milar works with landowners to implement voluntary habitat restoration and conservation projects in the greater Monterey region.
Milar has an intimate knowledge of the natural resources issues and challenges within the Monterey community. By establishing partnerships with local agencies and organizations, like CSU Monterey Bay and the Return of the Natives, he leverages resources to support habitat conservation planning and carry out on-the-ground restoration.
Milar explains that the dunes of Monterey Bay once reached up to a mile inland in places, with numerous small streams entering the bay. Estuaries and lagoons created by larger streams and river systems provided a mosaic of flooded habitats and mudflats, prime habitat for western snowy plovers and a myriad of fish, wildlife, and plant species.
“With the dune system being much deeper, the native plants would have been numerous and uninhibited by non-native invasive plants. Buckwheat plants, the plant necessary for Smith's blue butterfly egg-laying, would have been numerous and wide reaching, providing a much larger area for the butterfly to inhabit,” he said. “Nesting plovers would have not been limited to the primary dunes for nesting and would have most likely been spread out across the dune system.”
Today, the Monterey Bay area is dotted with hotels and commercial development and draws visitors from around the globe. While the landscape has changed, the area remains an ecological marvel. It is one of the few places on earth where one can admire the gregarious and rare southern sea otter resting on its back while determinedly munching on crustaceans, delight in the variety of shorebirds that scurry in perfect unison along the tideline, and experience the thrill of a humpback whale’s blow in the deep blue horizon that separates sky from ocean.
Rare wildlife and plants like the western snowy plover, California least tern, tidewater goby, Smith’s blue butterfly, and beach layia, all rely upon these vibrant coastal ecosystems, from sand dunes to tidal estuaries, to find nourishment and survive.“The plovers don’t ask for much. They need simple beach and dune habitat to carry out their daily and annual life-cycles of feeding, resting, and producing young. They just need the space to do so, without the impacts of predators and human disturbance,” Milar said.
Amy Palkovic, environmental scientist with California State Parks, coordinates planting locations and plant species with the Return of the Natives staff at Monterey State Beach.
Only fragments of the coastal dune ecosystem in California remain. “Our dunes have been reduced and degraded by coastal development and invasion of non-native plant species like iceplant and European beachgrass,” Palkovic explains. “They constitute a unique and fragile ecosystem, and our coastal environments are under increasing pressure as a result of human populations.”
For California State Parks, working alongside the Return of the Natives program helps restore habitat for native dune animals, and provides the green infrastructure needed to help the dune systems become more resilient to climate change.
In 2015, the Return of the Natives program received a big boost with nearly $74,000 in funding from the Service’s Coastal Program, allowing every second and third grade class at Santa Rita to contribute to the dune restoration planting projects. The funding has been matched by CSU Monterey Bay through 2018. Additional funding and in-kind support is also being provided by California State Parks and Point Blue Conservation Science.
Return of the Natives grows anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 plants each year in a volunteer-run greenhouse. About 6,000 of those plants are dedicated to plantings at Monterey State Beach.
Greenhouse manager Christina McKnew said workers and volunteers come from all walks of life to maintain the broad collection of native plants, from university students to community groups for the developmentally disabled. Funding for the Return of the Natives project comes from federal and state grants and private funding sources.
By involving the entire community through both public and school planting events, Return of the Natives is committed not only to propagating native plants to restore the dune ecosystem of Monterey Bay, but to growing future generations of environmental stewards.
“We are lucky enough to live in the middle of a hugely diverse community of ecosystems, from the sand dunes of Monterey, to the maritime chaparral, to the redwood forests. We rely on these beautiful ecosystems in so many ways, for food, outdoor space and economic growth and stability due to tourism. It is so important that our younger generation realize how special their community is,” said Maze. “We want to inspire this community to take ownership of the environmental work that needs to be done to maintain and protect this unique gem that is Monterey Bay.”
As Mairenee smoothed the sand around her newly planted patch of coast buckwheat, she smiled shyly with pride and satisfaction. She picked up her shovel to dig another hole while she eagerly recounted her western snowy plover sighting earlier that morning.
Milar kneeled down beside Mairenee and her classmates to offer a helping hand.
"All children are faced with challenges, and perhaps these kids experience more challenges than most. On the surface, helping something that needs help, like the plover, makes people, including children, feel good and gives hope,” Milar shared. “On a deeper level, the connection between their challenges and the challenges of endangered wildlife like the tiny western snowy plover may merge in some way and provide a deeper sense of inspiration, compassion, and love.”
For more information about Return of the Natives, visit https://csumb.edu/ron
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the American people. Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office biologists and natural resource professionals work along the central and southern California coast from Santa Cruz County to parts of northern Los Angeles County. The office’s area of responsibility includes two national wildlife refuges and is home to 97 federally endangered or threatened species. For more information visit us at https://www.fws.gov/ventura/ or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
Ashley Spratt leads a team of public affairs specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, California.