Preserve thrives on volunteer help

Rayan Gandhi, 8, told the California sunflower he had planted to "sleep well" as he tucked dirt around the seedling. One down, 100 to go.

Rayan was one of more than 20 volunteers who gathered Sunday at the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve to plant species of the endangered California coastal sage scrub as part of the national Family Volunteer Day.

The event was organized by OneOC, a nonprofit that organizes volunteers and resources to help accelerate the growth of fledgling nonprofits, representative Arturo Garcia said.

Rayan's mother, Sabinda Gandhi of Laguna Hills, also brought her 11-year-old daughter and said the event was a good opportunity for children to start volunteering.

"It's really a life lesson for kids, that a part of our lives should be dedicated to giving back in some way," she said.

The volunteers started at the Muth Interpretive Center. They picked up shovels and buckets before planting more than 100 California coastal sage scrub plants like sagebrush, coyote bush, California buckwheat and California sunflowers.

The scrub not only keeps visitors from going off the trail but also creates a habitat for the bay's birds, raccoons and coyotes as well as a sheltered breeding ground for the bobcats that call the bay home.

"Coastal sage scrub is an endangered habitat, so we want to save what we have and keep it a nice nature preserve for the wildlife and for people to enjoy," said Orange County Parks Ranger Portia Bryant.

The coastal sage provides cover for rabbits and squirrels. And rubbing against the plant covers their scent, enabling them to evade predators.

The event was as much about creating a habitat as preserving a friendship for 11-year-old Kehra McTague of Mission Viejo.

"It's fun because we get to plant plants everywhere and I get to spend time with my best friend," she said as she and 11-year-old Sarayna Gandhi watered a freshly planted sagebrush.

With the Upper Newport Bay covering nearly 1,000 acres, Bryant said preserving and maintaining the area cannot be done without volunteer help.

The group worked mostly on the slope nearest the Muth Interpretive Center. Many workers took a minute to lean on their shovels and take in the dramatic backdrop that the bay provided.

The volunteers included UC Irvine graduate students who relished the chance to escape lab for a day. Mathew Jeung, who is studying wastewater, said, "I'm in lab sometimes and just want to get dirty a little bit.

"I love it. When you protect the environment, it needs everyone in the community."

The Muth Interpretive Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and offers exhibits on the animals and habitat of the nature preserve.

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