Your Community Parks, Open Spaces, and Gardens Need You

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Picture a place in your community that you visit regularly to relax, walk, play, picnic, or just enjoy being outdoors. Have you ever helped take care of it?

If you answered yes, thank you.

For those of you who answered no (not yet), you are in luck because opportunities abound to do your part in keeping the outdoor spaces in your community beautiful, functional, fun, clean, and safe.

It is easy to talk yourself into believing that someone else will do it, especially when you are feeling overly busy and stressed out (or even when you are not). However, the reality is that public outdoor spaces are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Chances are that the hardworking employees and loyal cadres of volunteers who tend your community parks, gardens, and open spaces would appreciate your help.

Imagine the possibilities if you, me, and everyone else contributed even just one morning or afternoon a year to help care for an outdoor space that we feel is special. The number of trees planted, native plants rescued, playgrounds rehabilitated, walking trails maintained, picnic tables refurbished, weeds pulled, and pieces of litter picked up would be astonishing and wonderful.

Besides the obvious benefits to the community, these kinds of activities are good for your wellbeing, too. They require you to be present and to think about what you are doing not worry about micromanaging bosses, piles of laundry, or bickering family members. Working outside with other like-minded people is fun and gives you a feeling of doing something worthwhile.

Sometimes volunteer activities occur unexpectedly or by chance and turn out to be just the impetus you need to get started. That is what happened to me.

Something Happened on the Way to the Wildflower Show

A few weeks ago, I saw a notice in a newsletter from an environmental nonprofit called ECOSLO with a list of several volunteer opportunities for an event they were calling Seas to Trees Day. After consulting with my spouse, I signed us up in hopes that we would be helping with set up for the Cambria Wildflower Show.

Several days later, I received an enthusiastic email from Erin thanking me for signing up to remove invasive ice plant on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. I thought, “Oh no, not ice plant! I have been battling ice plant in our yard for years. Why would I want to volunteer to do it someplace else?” I considered asking for a reassignment or just telling Erin that we had changed our minds about volunteering.

The next day, I was still pondering what to do. “Hmm, we do enjoy walking on Fiscalini Ranch almost every day. This unwanted assignment provides an excellent opportunity for us to give back in a small way.”

We decided to do it.

Before I tell you how the day went, some background about ice plant and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve might be useful.

Ice Plant

Ice plant is a hardy and fast-growing plant with long-lasting flowers that are quite lovely when it is growing along its native coast in South Africa. It is an unwelcome interloper where I live on the Central California Coast and many other places. Ice plant spreads quickly and has a way of taking over an entire area hogging all the sunlight, water, and soil nutrients for itself. Ice plant chokes out the native plants that are used to playing nicely with their neighbors and do not have a defense against this invader.

When my spouse and I moved to our current home about ten years ago, there were several places in our wild yard that ice plant had completely taken over by stealthily crawling over from neighboring yards. It took me several years with a shovel and a pair of loppers to remove the ice plant from our yard. I have tried explaining to the plants that they should avoid our yard because as soon as they reach over the property line I am going to cut off their new growth, but apparently, we are having a language barrier because they will not stop trying to build a new outpost in our yard.

Our ice plant situation seems insignificant to the enormous incursion at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve encompasses 437 acres in the midst of our small town with trails along the ocean bluffs and through our precious Monterey pine forest. This special place exists because a dedicated group of people worked for years to block development on this land that had been used partly for grazing sheep and cattle. Eventually, they raised enough money to purchase the land and protect it forever.

As I mentioned earlier, my spouse and I walk on the Ranch many times a week, mostly on the bluff trail. During the two-mile round trip, we look for whale spouts, otters, and sea lions, watch a wide variety of local and migratory birds soar and swoop overhead, and observe the landscape as it changes throughout the year.

At some time in the distant past, someone must have planted ice plant on the Ranch. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, however, it has now spread down over a huge swath of the bluff cliffs and it is continually marching towards the nearby path. In some places, native plants are struggling to survive in the middle of large patches of ice plant or taking a stand along the edges. In other areas, the ice plant has completely taken over.

The nonprofit Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve and other diligent volunteers have been successful at keeping the ice plant from crossing the path and moving onto the rest of the Ranch. They have also embarked on a massive and probably decades-long project to clear the ice plant growing between the path and the cliff edge. Native plants are making a comeback in the cleared areas.

Occasionally I have had a fleeting thought that I should help with the ice plant removal on the Ranch but I never actually did it, until the Seas and Trees Day event.

Seas and Trees Day Event

When Saturday, April 28 rolled around, I slathered on sunscreen and donned my California Native Plant Society t-shirt and a pair of gauntlet type gloves that I always wear to do yard work because I do not like creepy crawlies. I filled up my reusable water bottle and grabbed a pair of clippers my spouse had thoughtfully gotten out of the garage.

A group of cheerful people including several Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students greeted us at the designated meeting location. After signing waiver forms, we headed down the path a short distance to the day’s ice plant removal spot. Holly, who manages projects on the Ranch, gave us a plastic tarp and explained that the mission was to get rid of the ice plant without damaging the native plants. Clearly, this was going to be a finesse job that did not involve shovels or loppers—a new experience for me.

Ice plant stems are about the thickness of a highlighter marker and attach themselves to the ground with tenacious roots every few inches. Every part of the plant stores water so it is heavy. If you are lucky, you can grab a trailing end and pull up a piece that is three or four feet long. However, most of the work that day required using clippers to cut stems around the native plants and then pull up small pieces. I was surprised at how many itty-bitty native plant seedlings were gamely trying to make a go of it under the ice plant. Freed from a dense and almost impenetrable mat of ice plant they now have a better chance of becoming adult plants.

We tossed pieces of ice plant on the tarp until it looked like it might be getting too heavy to move. Then two people picked up the corners and carefully tried to tiptoe through the native plants and dump it onto one of two piles we were creating at the edge of the cliff. Holly and other regular volunteers had their own one-person sized tarps.

Bending over clipping ice plants stems, standing up and yanking out longer pieces, and hauling a tarp full of ice plant is physically demanding so I was ready to be done when our 2-hour stint was up.

Our work made a tiny dent in the ice plant, but we did meet some delightful people and made a small contribution to the wellbeing of the Ranch. I also gained a greater appreciation for the people who take care of the Ranch day after day, week after week.

Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018
Part of the Volunteer Group in Front of One of the Piles of Ice Plant Removed at Fiscalini Ranch on April 28, 2018 – Photo Credit Holly Sletteland (also the 3 above photos)

An hour or so later, wearing the same clothes, my spouse and I enjoyed the wildflower show and I savored a delicious homemade lemon bar I bought at the refreshment stand.

Holly has my name and email address now, so chances are, on some future morning, my spouse and I will find ourselves standing in the midst of another patch of ice plant on the Ranch with clippers at the ready.

Call to Action

Certainly, if an unexpected volunteer opportunity falls in your lap, accept it. However, you can take a more active approach. Choose a garden, park, or open space in your community and find out what volunteer activities are available. Then pick one and do it.

If you do not want to or are not able to contribute your physical labor, there are sure to be other ways you can help.

Do you have an artistic flair? Volunteer to design a flyer for a volunteer day. Are you good at organizing information? Offer to keep track of volunteer responses and forms. Do you know your way around social media? Volunteer to do postings and engage with people on social media. Do you like writing? Offer to write a piece for a website, newsletter, or newspaper. Do you enjoy meeting and talking with new people? Sign up to be a docent or to staff a booth at an event.

Everyone has something to offer and it is up to each one of us to do our part to take care of the community parks, open spaces, and gardens we love.

Featured Image at Top: Bluff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA, May 2018 (notice the ice plant on the left side of the trail) – Photo Credit Green Groundswell.

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Coastal Cleanup Day – Picking up Litter is Empowering

Wherever there is litter, there is an opportunity to pick it up.

Picking up trash during a beach, creek, or park cleanup day is an easy and rewarding way to do something good for the environment and your local economy.

A few weeks ago when I saw a Coastal Cleanup Day notice in my social media feed, instead of clicking on the signup link I scrolled down the page feeling irritated and frustrated.

I was thinking things like, “Geez, if people didn’t litter, then the beaches wouldn’t need to be cleaned up every dang year!” and “Why do people pile up trash around a full trash can instead of looking for another one or just taking their trash home and putting it in their own garbage can?” The thought of people tossing trash out of their car windows as they are driving along our coastline made me feel infuriated and powerless.

After fuming for a day or so, I decided I was not powerless and that I could do something about litter so I signed up for a Coastal Cleanup Day event where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. I talked my spouse into participating, too.

Once I had taken this positive step, I returned to thinking about how litter affects people, the environment, and local economies.

Why Do People Litter?

Even though I believe, everyone has littered at one time or another I doubt most of us would say we think littering is a beneficial act.

At the dinner table one night, I posed the question “Why do people litter?” to my family. The responses included people do not care, it is a small crime easy to get away with, and people think someone else will clean up after them.

I think that pretty much sums it up.

What are the Consequences of Litter?

Someone taking the devil’s advocate approach might say, “So what if there is a discarded candy wrapper, plastic bag, or Styrofoam cup on a beach, in a street gutter, or on a hiking trail? Is it really hurting anyone?”

Yes, it is.

Litter Begets Litter

Litter mysteriously seems to attract more litter.

If one person discards his or her empty single-use plastic water bottle on the wall between the beach and the sidewalk, it sends a message for other people to do the same. If someone discards their old mattress in a vacant lot or on open land, it attracts other unwanted items and the area becomes an unofficial trash dump creating a dangerous and potentially toxic situation for the people living near it.

Conversely, if people clean up a trashed area it shows that someone cares and people are more apt to keep it clean.

Litter is Dangerous

In many cases, the littered items are harmful to the people, pets, and other living creatures that encounter them. Below are examples of dangerous litter people leave behind.

  • Sharp objects – fishing hooks, pieces of broken glass, and syringes
  • Entangling items – fishing line, six-pack holders, straws, string, and plastic bags
  • Ingestible bits – cigarette butts, bottle caps, and tiny pieces of plastic and Styrofoam
Litter is Costly

Whom do you think pays for removing litter from public places, dealing with plastic bags clogging up storm drains, and clearing up unofficial trash dumps? You do one way or another.

Any town, city, or region that relies on tourism cannot afford to have visitors deterred by yucky debris filled beaches, parks, or campgrounds. That means diverting tax dollars and fees to clean up trash instead of paying for community programs, fixing potholes, or doing hiking trail maintenance.

Picking up Litter is Empowering

When Saturday, September 16 rolled around, my spouse and I slathered on sunscreen, grabbed some gloves, a tub, and a pair of kitchen tongs (instant trash picker upper), and headed for the Cleanup Day check-in spot at our local beach.

After turning in our release waivers, the site volunteer Dave gave us a tiny pencil and a sheet to record the different types of trash we picked up. Voilà we were now citizen scientists collecting data on marine debris.

Tub of Trash Picked Up on Coastal Cleanup Day September, 16, 2017I was in charge of making tick marks on the trash sheet as my spouse picked up various pieces of trash and carried the tub. I did pick up trash, too.

At the end of 2 ½ hours, we had covered our self-assigned section of beach and the adjacent park and we had filled up our tub about half full of trash.

The most numerous identifiable litter items we encountered were cigarette butts, bottle caps (metal and plastic), and aluminum can pull tabs (I was surprised by these because I thought they were supposed to stay on the can). Combined we found about 40 cup lids, straws, pieces of plastic flatware, plastic single-use water bottles, plastic bags, and picnic plates and cups.

We picked up hundreds of little pieces of plastic, Styrofoam, and paper that had begun life as candy wrappers, picnic ware, coffee cups, potato chip bags, and take out containers. The number of little plastic labels that are put on fruit and vegetables that we found lying around the park was astonishing. To me, all the small bits were the most worrisome. They are lightweight so they can blow all over the place and they can be picked up and eaten by curious and unsuspecting toddlers, pets, birds, fish, and other critters who live on land and in the water.

Comb, Clothespin, Chess Piece Picked Up on Coastal Cleanup Day September, 16, 2017One of the fill-in-the-blank boxes on our trash form was for recording the most unusual item we collected.

Our findings of a dog collar, a filthy sweatshirt, a clothespin, a comb, and a chess game pawn were not especially unusual but I bet the person who owned the chess set was bummed when they discovered they were missing a piece.

We returned to the gathering spot to weigh our trash, turn in our tick mark sheet, and thank Dave.

I was glad we participated in the Cleanup Day for a number of reasons. Leaving behind a litter-free stretch of beach and a park for everyone to enjoy gave me a sense of accomplishment. My spouse had spotted and cleaned up a broken beer bottle, which could have given someone a nasty cut. Maybe we saved a seabird from ensnaring itself in the tangled fishing line and hook we picked up off the beach. Perhaps someone who had seen us that day picking up trash was inspired to make the extra effort to walk to a trashcan to throw something away instead of just leaving it on the ground.

People littering still ticks me off.

However, I can empower myself to do something about it and so can you. Wherever there is litter, there is an opportunity to set a good example by picking it up.

See you next year.

Featured Image at Top: Leffingwell Landing State Park and Beach in Cambria, CA (our cleanup site)

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