Weeding the Way : CCC Crews Clear Hill for Comeback of Native Habitat


It is called Quail Hill, and as if on cue one recent early morning, a pair of California quail flew from the scrub and wheeled against the azure sky. Other birds, including endangered gnatcatchers, sang from their nests nearby.

Into this idyllic setting, a bus carrying workers from riot-scarred parts of Los Angeles lumbered up a dirt road. The California Conservation Corps crew members climbed out and quickly began their task: cutting down invasive weeds in this natural setting.

“Our goal is to get rid of this weed, the artichoke thistle, and to preserve this land for coastal sagebrush and the gnatcatchers and other native species,” said Trish Smith of the Nature Conservancy. “This land is now owned by the Irvine Co., but one day it’ll be a wilderness park for the public.”


Quail Hill is part of the Irvine Co.’s Open Space Reserve, which covers about 17,000 acres throughout Orange County. The land is scheduled to become public open space as the Irvine Co., over the years, develops nearby parcels. The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit international environmental organization, oversees care of the open space until it becomes public.

Quail Hill is undeveloped, cattle-grazing land south of the San Diego Freeway, between Sand Canyon Avenue and University Drive, near Sand Canyon Reservoir. The site is only six miles, as the quail flies, from bustling John Wayne Airport. But the hilly, pastoral area is light-years away from the noisy, frantic pace of most of the urbanized county. Other than the call of birds, few sounds are heard on Quail Hill.

“This is a beautiful area, but over the years it was used for cattle grazing, and this artichoke thistle is a non-native plant that has spread like crazy,” Smith said. “With the work of the California Conservation Corps, we’re getting rid of the weed.

“Then, this fall, we’ll seed the area with coastal sagebrush so that the native species will return again.”

The weed-removal work on Quail Hill this week involved an interesting mix of environmentalism and urban social work. The 10 CCC workers came from South-Central Los Angeles or Compton. Those were areas badly hurt by the April, 1992, riots in the wake of the first Rodney G. King beating trial verdicts.

Special federal funding has enabled the CCC to hire unemployed men and women from the riot-torn areas.


“We work with these people from the riot areas and help them learn work skills,” said the CCC supervisor, Karla Benedicto of Garden Grove. “They only make minimum wage working for us, but this is a good start because the California Conservation Corps serves as a very good reference for future jobs.”

The workers from the Los Angeles area said in interviews that they were more used to concrete and stoplights than open fields and thorny weeds. But they said they liked the job opportunity, even if they didn’t like the possibility of rattlesnakes, ticks and scratchy weeds.

“It you’re not careful, this (artichoke thistle) weed can get to you because it’s got sharp thorns,” said CCC worker Larry Moore, 20, of Los Angeles.

“You’ve also got to watch for ticks,” said Charlie Fields, 22, of Compton. “You’ve got to tuck your pants into your boots.”

Moore and Fields used shears to chop the tops off the thistle weeds. The bud of the thistle flower closely resembles an artichoke. The purple flowers of the plant become seeds, and the workers put both buds and flowers into bags to be carried away from Quail Hill to prevent spread of the weeds.

Tamica Donwood, 19, of Los Angeles, the only woman in the work crew, yelled that she had found a big rodent near the thistle weed she was cutting down. “It’s a rat!” she exclaimed.


The Nature Conservancy staff tried to assure Donwood that the critter was harmless. “They’re not bad like the Norway rats that invade houses in the city,” Smith said.

Donwood, however, looked skeptical. Nonetheless, she continued working in the area, hacking away at the thorny thistles.

“This is a good job opportunity for me,” she said. But she added that she doesn’t envision a future working in the outdoors: “I’m going to continue my education and take up typing and learn to be a clerk.”

Her work partner, James Givens, 23, of Los Angeles, said he also plans to use his experience with the CCC as a springboard to more education. “I want to go to school and learn to be a chef,” he said.

Supervisor Benedicto said the Los Angeles residents quickly adapted to their work in the outdoors.

“This is a very good bunch, and they’re doing a great job,” she said. Benedicto noted that the crew had scoured one side of Quail Hill, removing all of the thistle weeds.


The Nature Conservancy observers, Smith and Norma LaMadrid, also said they were pleased by the work. Removal of the weeds, they said, is a major step to restoring the land to its natural state.

“These exotic weeds take away the environment of the natural plants,” LaMadrid said.

Smith added: “When these plants are gone, the fields here will be returning to the native vegetation, such as the coastal sagebrush. There will be more habitat for birds.”

Quail Hill is not among the Irvine Co. Open Space Reserve sites periodically opened to the public for guided tours. But Smith said that someday, the public will get the land as a park and will be able to enjoy the magnificent vistas from Quail Hill.

Because of work this week, Quail Hill is becoming an even more valuable public legacy.

“When this land is turned over to a public agency,” she said, “it’s going to be in good shape.”