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Santa Cruz Island wetland restoration underway

$1-million project aims to reverse 150 years of degradation caused by ranching and farming.

September 28, 2011|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
  • Workers fill the wetland at Prisoners Harbor circa the 1880s. View is looking northeast toward the ocean.
Workers fill the wetland at Prisoners Harbor circa the 1880s. View is looking… (Santa Barbara Museum of…)

A major restoration project could bring back a long-degraded wetland to one of the remote islands off the Southern California coast.

Workers have broken ground on a $1-million project that will cut down 1,800 nonnative eucalyptus trees and scoop out tons of dirt and gravel to restore a coastal wetland on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park officials announced Monday.

In the coming months, crews will work to return some 60 acres of habitat on the rugged island to its native state, before it was degraded by ranching and farming activity more than a century ago.

Crews have started using heavy equipment to reshape the mouth of the island's largest stream so it will flow freely onto four acres of restored wetland at Prisoners Harbor. The anchorage on the north side of the island was once home to the largest coastal wetland in Channel Islands National Park, an archipelago of five ecologically distinct islands that are sometimes referred to as North America's Galapagos.

"We're trying to undo some of the more detrimental actions that have impacted the landscape of this island for the last 150 years" and allow its natural ecosystem to recover on its own, said Dr. Lotus Vermeer, Santa Cruz Island Project director for the Nature Conservancy, which owns the western 76% of the island.

Reviving coastal wetlands like the ones at Prisoners Harbor, officials said, is key to the survival of species found only on the Channel Islands, such as the island fox and island scrub jay. The project is also a rare opportunity to add to Southern California's coastal wetlands, the vast majority of which have been plowed under by development.

About half the wetland at Prisoners Harbor — named for prisoners sent there from Santa Barbara during Mexican rule — disappeared when the anchorage became the island's main port and the hub of its ranching and agricultural operations in the 19th century. By the early 1900s, ranchers had filled in the wetland near the pier to turn it into corrals and planted nonnative eucalyptus trees that spread quickly up the valley, supplanting oaks, willows and other native plants.

The project, expected to take several months to complete, is being carried out by contractors working for the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy and will restore about a mile of stream habitat. Youths with the L.A. Conservation Corps and other nonprofits will pitch in to cut down the trees and plant native vegetation.

It is the latest in a series of efforts to reverse the legacy of decades of cattle and sheep ranching and wine production, which altered the island's rugged landscape.

Even so, one of the most common observations by visitors getting off the boat on Santa Cruz Island is that it's like stepping back in time to what California might have looked like centuries ago.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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