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100 years later, Channel Island wetlands to be restored

September 26, 2011 |  7:06 pm

Prisoners island 
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 loads 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 the way it was before being 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 4 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 lost to development.

About half the wetland at Prisoners Harbor — named for prisoners that were 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, 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 nonprofit groups will pitch in to cut down the trees and plant native vegetation.

It is the latest in a line of efforts to reverse the legacy of decades of cattle and sheep ranching and wine production, activities that took hold in the latter half of the 19th century but have altered the island’s rugged landscape to this day.

In 2005, the park hired a hunting firm to eradicate huge populations of feral pigs that roamed freely for years, uprooting vegetation. Before that the island’s caretakers hunted and captured lingering sheep that overgrazed the rugged island long after its ranching days had passed.

Still, one of the most common observations of visitors is that getting off the boat on Santa Cruz Island is like stepping back in time to what California might have looked like centuries ago, even though groves of imported eucalyptus trees crowd its steep canyons and much of its habitat remains altered.


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Photo: Workers fill in the wetlands at Prisoners Islands in the 1880s. Credit: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History