Restoring the dunes

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate June 23, 2012 12:00 am

Sunday tour provides chance to see what’s been done

The Ma-le’l dunes as they look today, above, and as they looked in 2005, before restoration efforts, below. Photos courtesy Andrea Pickart
The Ma-le’l dunes as they look today, above, and as they looked in 2005, before restoration efforts, below. Photos courtesy Andrea Pickart
Looking out over seemingly endless expanses of European beachgrass in Tolowa Dunes State Park, the idea of clearing out all of the invasive plant often triggers a  response like, “Yeah, right.”

But efforts in Lanphere dunes to the south in Humboldt County have accomplished just that, restoring miles of the area to a flowering, bio-diverse collection of native plants.

Proof of the possibility of restoration locally will be demonstrated during a Sunday tour comparing the monotony of beachgrass to the vibrant, multi-colored variety of more than 70 native plants at a recently restored 17-acre site in Tolowa Dunes.

Andrea Pickart, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecologist at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, who led the dune restoration work in Humboldt, will be giving a presentation on the Dunes at 1 p.m. at Lake Earl Wildlife Information Center, followed by the tour.

A strong case for restoration can be made for Tolowa Dunes because of its ecological makeup, which is unique to the West Coast, Pickart said. The dunes have many more permanent freshwater ponds than found in other northern California dunes. The addition of Lake Earl, Lake Tolowa and their surrounding wetlands seals the deal for Tolowa Dunes’ biological importance.

“It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of different habitat types, which is very attractive to wildlife,” Pickart said.

Dune restoration benefits native wildlife as much as it does plants. Threatened birds like the western snowy plover find European beach grass too thick and impenetrable for nesting, but thrive in native dune vegetation, said Sandra Jerabek, programs manager of Tolowa Dunes Stewards.

The tour will highlight the blooming silvery phacelia (phacelia argentea), a rare and endangered plant that only grows on the Tolowa Coast in Del Norte and in Curry and Coos counties.

Restoration work began in 2010 for the site to be explored Sunday, which is just south of Lake Tolowa, but the native dune plants are springing back quickly without any need to replant them.

“What’s phenomenal is a lot of the seeds from these native plants stay in the sand — some for decades. They call it a seed bank,” said Sue Calla, education coordinator for the stewards. “If you release what’s impeding them from sprouting, they’ll sprout, and all of sudden there’s flowers all over the dunes again.”

A restored dune is covered with dozens of plant species, including many flowering plants — it’s not just a pile of sand as some would imagine.

State agencies have devoted resources and work crews to help clear the site to be toured Sunday, “because it’s so biologically valuable,” Jerabek said.

“It’s a treat for people to get out there, because it’s a remote, off-trail area that people usually never get to,” she said.

Pickart and her work provided inspiration for the Tolowa Dunes Stewards when restoration work began in 2003.

“Andrea is the person that started dune restoration on the North Coast in the early ‘90s,” Jerabek said. “She’s like the mother of dune restoration.”

 The restoration site first tackled in 2003 includes Del Norte’s largest moving dune, a massive mountain of sand providing great views of the Siskiyou mountains. The work was completed mostly by the Tolowa Dunes Stewards and volunteers hand-pulling beachgrass on the weekends for the past nine years.

The volunteers pile up the grass, which is then burned by state officials. Burning the plants before pulling them wouldn’t remove the long roots that keep beachgrass alive.

“We would love to have more community participation,” Jerabek said. “It’s not hard work, we’re near the beach and we have fun.”

Organic coffee and cookies will be provided during the presentation. Bring good walking shows, a warm layer of clothing (in case of wind), sunscreen or a sunhat, and water.

Pickart hopes Sunday isn’t as windy as it has been on the North Coast, but in a sense she welcomes the wind because “that’s why we have dunes.”

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

IF YOU GO

• WHAT: Presentation on dune restoration

• WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday

• WHERE: Meet at Lake Earl Wildlife Information Center, tour follows