One Mile, Big Impact
By Melissa Pitkin | March 20, 2015
Restoring the Upper Pajaro River Corridor for Climate Change
On a recent cool and sunny day, 30 miles south of San Jose, Calif., in a valley between Gilroy and Hollister, Point Blue’s Conservation Science‘s STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) team joined forces with second- and third-grade students from the nearby towns of Corralitos and Gilroy. The goal: to help restore one mile of stream habitat along the Pajaro River.
The work day was part of a focused effort to restore a river that once connected millions of acres of open space and three mountain ranges. Such habitat connections, or wildlife corridors, are a critical climate-change strategy. They enable wildlife species to move to new areas as climate change renders their current home ranges unsuitable.
The restoration of the Upper Pajaro River, now a grassy, shallow depression in the earth – a treeless ghost of a river – is an ambitious, precedent-setting effort, emblematic of how conservation should be done to prepare for climate change.
Partnerships are one key to successful restoration, and this effort is being led by Point Blue and The Nature Conservancy, in cooperation with local rancher Allan Renz and other key collaborators.1
Climate-smart design elements
In addition to restoring an essential wildlife corridor, Point Blue has designed the Upper Pajaro River project to specifically address how climate change will likely impact the region. The design aims to ensure that new habitat will thrive regardless of the future climate conditions such as increased drought.
The basic idea behind climate-smart restoration is that you plan for a range of future climate scenarios and design a restoration that increases chances of survival and provides wildlife habitat regardless of the future climate. For our designs, this approach typically results in a very diverse and specifically chosen plant list.
Along the Upper Pajaro River, we are planting 31 different species of trees, shrubs, forbs (herbaceous flowering plants), and grasses that are not only native to California but also indigenous to the Pajaro River valley. We choose species that are likely to survive an array of future climate conditions while providing food for wildlife year-round. For example, California buckeye and flannel bush are known to survive drought conditions, and coast live oak and toyon are fire-adapted. We added one plant, an aster known as mule plant, because it flowers year-round.
With climate change, migration timing of songbirds and other wildlife is predicted to shift: some will arrive earlier, some will stay longer. Our design addresses the need for plants that flower, fruit, and seed throughout the entire year, ensuring that food is available for native animals year-round.
In addition, to be climate-smart, a project needs to involve people. The human community is critical to the success of this work: people will be its voice – its stewards and advocates – for years to come. Direct involvement, from planting to maintaining to learning about the restored habitat, instills an ethic of supporting future endeavors that prepare our communities for a changing climate.
And the STRAW approach has a long-term impact. The second-grade teacher at Bradley Elementary, Stephanie Barnes, was present at the very beginning of STRAW – as an assistant teacher to STRAW’s founder, Laurette Rogers, in 1992. Stephanie worked with Laurette when her fourth-grade class restored a section of Stemple Creek in Marin County.
That experience gave rise to the STRAW project, which has since engaged some 38,000 students and community members to restore more than 30 miles of streamside habitat in the northern San Francisco Bay region. The work at Pajaro marks the furthest expansion of the STRAW program since its inception. As Stephanie now involves her own class in a STRAW restoration, it’s an example of the lasting, far-reaching, positive ripple effects of involving people directly in hands-on restoration.
Beyond one place
To ensure this restoration has the broadest possible impact, Point Blue plans to work with the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program to lead workshops and train more than 100 regional restoration practitioners and regulators in our climate-smart approach.
The planting design tools we create, based upon our forecasts of future climate conditions, will be made available to others in the region working to restore degraded stream habitats.
Connecting three mountain ranges and a million acres of habitat, connecting communities through student involvement, and connecting others to a climate-smart approach – all through restoration of one river mile – means big results.
Main photo: Emily Kent, The Nature Conservancy
1 Additional partners in this project are the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program, NRCS Resource Conservation District in Benito County, Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, USFWS Partners in Restoration Program, and Upper Pajaro River Watershed Partnership.
Learn more: Point Blue’s winter issue of the Quarterly.
More on this story: Science for a Blue Planet.