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Greening of Bare Hills : Nature Gets a Hand as Volunteers Plant Sage Scrub in Charred Area

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a steep, blackened slope above the El Morro Beach Mobile Home Park, Don Berryman dug a six-inch hole with his garden shovel Wednesday and delicately placed in a spindly, coastal sagebrush seedling.

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Helped by his wife, Vicky, and daughter, Kimberly, he packed soil around the young plant’s base, soaked its roots with a cup of water and paused momentarily to assess his work.

“We haven’t a clue what we’re doing,” Berryman said, smiling. “We just listened attentively to the instructions. The problem is this (soil) is like baked because of the fire. It’s like planting in asphalt.”

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Though not blessed with a green thumb, the investment manager from Irvine joined about 50 others who turned out at Crystal Cove State Park on Wednesday morning to plant 10 types of coastal sage scrub on the barren two-acre hillside charred by the Oct. 27 wildfire in Laguna Beach.

Their goal is not only to re-beautify the land, but also to prevent erosion.

The California Parks and Recreation Department organized the event to showcase its new “Adopt-a-Park” program, in which corporate sponsors support park maintenance and restoration projects. Most of the volunteers were employees of Prudential Securities, which donated $25,000 to sponsor Wednesday’s replanting and future restoration and maintenance projects at Crystal Cove State Park.

“Today’s efforts are the beginning of a renewal effort that will eventually return the park to its original beauty,” said Jack Rogenbach, the parks and recreation department’s regional director.

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Some environmentalists argue that planting coastal sage scrub may be an unsuccessful effort at “re-creating nature.”

In fact, the state has conducted a nine-year, 30-acre re-vegetation project near the Crystal Cove park area that has met with mixed results. Five acres attracted nesting pairs of the endangered gnatcatcher, while the remainder was determined useless or of marginal value to wildlife.

David Pryor, a state resource ecologist, defended Wednesday’s replanting effort. He said that unlike the nearby project area, the hillside above the mobile home park held better prospects because it had not been recently disturbed by development.

The seedlings being planted Wednesday were raised from seeds taken from local native vegetation, he said. Fortified with a growth-promoting fungus, they will reach their maximum size in three to 10 years, he said.

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Left to nature, coastal sage scrub takes five to 15 years to reach full size, he said.

Yet, most of the park’s hills and canyons will be left to do just that, largely because the effort is expensive. The cost of replanting the two acres where the volunteers were working is about $15,000.

In the next year, officials will comb the park’s 24,000 acres, concentrating on removing non-native plants and weeds that threaten the coastal sage scrub’s return.

One of the main targets will be the artichoke thistle, a prickly weed with the resilience of a cockroach that was already sprouting in patches on the hillside where the volunteers were working. Imported as an ornament from Europe at the turn of the century, it now grows wild and fast.

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“You almost have to blow them up,” Pryor said.

The hillside where the volunteers focused their effort was above an asphalt flat where 40 mobile homes burned in the fire, and where crews were still scraping with shovels and an end-loader Wednesday to clean up debris.

The slope was dotted with a rainbow of colored flags that state resource ecologist Ronilee Clark had staked out the day before. Each color designated one of the 10 sage scrub varieties.

“I’ve done a lot of coastal sagebrush restoration in the past,” Clark said. “In the past, I’ve (marked areas) more quantitatively. But now I do it pretty much visually.”

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So, for the volunteers, the hillside became sort of a lifesize paint-by-numbers project.

A pink flag marked the spot for elderberry, white for black sage, and red for sawtooth goldenbush.

Among those climbing the hill with their tools, gloves and buckets of seedlings were Anne Buginas of Laguna Niguel and Lynn Bradley of Manhattan Beach, who were looking for blue flags to plant their flat-topped buckwheat.

And nearby was Jane Nordskog, who six weeks earlier watched flames comes within a mile of her Turtle Rock home in Irvine. Wherever she saw a yellow flag, Nordskog planted a coast sunflower seedling.

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“This is easy,” she said. “I do this all the time in my back yard.”


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