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Monarchs. You know them, but will your grandchildren? These once common creatures are rapidly disappearing. Since the 1980s, 99.4% of the western monarch population has disappeared. Scientists have been acutely aware of this decline for decades, but it wasn’t until the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation’s shocking annual survey results were released this January that the public took notice. Only 28,429 monarchs were counted at 213 sites in California – an astounding 86% drop from last year’s count. It’s official – our western monarchs are in decline, and the neighboring eastern population isn’t doing much better; their population has declined over 90% since 1996.

So, what is the cause?

Scientists attribute the decline to a multitude of factors, including migratory disruptions, urban sprawl, and the use of chemicals on corn and soybean crops, but they all lead to one overarching outcome: habitat degradation.

Monarchs rely exclusively on milkweed to lay their eggs and sustain their offspring until they can metamorphize into butterflies. They use both tropical and native milkweed plants to procreate, but the former can cause more harm than good. Before the introduction and widespread use of tropical milkweed, the deciduous nature of native milkweed would force monarchs to migrate southward in search of fresh leaves, ultimately protecting them from the oncoming winter temperatures of their northern homes. But with tropical milkweed’s year-round leaves, monarchs miss the signals communicating that they need to move south, leading to catastrophic mortalities.

Native milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis, or narrow leaf milkweed), and a monarch feeding

If that isn’t bad enough, the perennial leaves of tropical milkweed do not offer the same resources as the native variety. Normally, feeding caterpillars absorb cardenolides, the protective compounds found in milkweed that naturally ward off a lifetime of parasites and predators. But the prolonged atmospheric exposure of these year-round leaves ends up breaking down cardenolides, which ultimately decreases the monarch’s defenses and lifespan.

Another problem is the destruction of flowering plants and milkweed. We’ve sacrificed natural landscapes and their biodiverse habitats for cities, suburbs, and monocultural farms producing ethanol, hydrogenated oil, and high-fructose corn syrup. Besides the obvious habitat loss due to urban development, the agricultural implications are astounding. Ever since Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” crops, which are genetically modified to be highly resistant to glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide worldwide, populations of milkweed and other pollinator plants have declined drastically. Today, 95% of corn and soybean grown in the U.S. are Roundup Ready crops – meaning food producers nationwide use copious amounts of glyphosate to remove anything that is not their desired crop. Milkweed habitat loss due to glyphosate is now estimated to exceed 100 million acres.

So what does all this habitat degradation mean? It means monarchs aren’t the only ones in trouble. Their declining numbers serve as a warning about the health of our lands. Some are likening monarchs to the formidable relationship between canaries and coal mines, dubbing them “the Canary in the Cornfield”: representing terrifying declines in pollinator populations; highlighting legitimate concerns about agricultural safety and sustainability; and potentially even foreshadowing a food chain collapse. According to researchers at UC Berkeley, one of every three bites of food depends on pollinators. Does that mean their food scarcity today is our food scarcity tomorrow – and if so, what can we do about it?

Unfortunately, changing or reducing urban sprawl, chemical use, and climate change on an individual level would be like trying to put a genie back in the bottle. But here is what you can do:

  • Plant native milkweed and flowering plants to create pollinator islands, and if you already have tropical milkweed, cut back vegetation between October and February to spur regrowth.
  • Support sustainable farming by purchasing locally grown and/or organic produce.
  • Treasure monarchs while you can and use them as a living a reminder that our land and its creatures are finite and fragile.

 

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

– Chief Seattle

A large part of what we do is habitat restoration – adopting places in our canyon that have been impacted by invasive species or human impacts and restoring the natural habitat. The endangered and endemic species in our rare coastal sage scrub depend on healthy habitat to survive. This planting season (which normally runs November to March, depending on weather), we have sixteen different active restoration sites in the South Coast Wilderness.

This season, we are focusing on planting 17,000 container plants and thousands of pounds of native seed at two major sites (Pecten Reef and Laguna Canyon Creek) and several smaller sites. We will be busy for the following months keeping those plants watered and healthy, and managing weeds popping up around them. So busy, in fact, that we’ve hired three new team members to help accomplish our planting goals.

Meet our new team members: (and make sure to say hi if you see them on your hikes or rides)

Our full time Lead Restoration Technician, Dan Salamone, moved here a year ago from Chicago. When he started volunteering at our restoration stewardship events, demonstrating his strong work ethic, ability to learn quickly, and his open, energetic personality, we knew he’d be a great addition to our staff.

Our two new Seasonal Restoration Technicians, Alyssa Moreno and Robin Matthews, both grew up in California. Alyssa has spent two seasons working with the Conservation Corps, learning to run power tools, build trails, restore habitat and work effectively as part of a team. Robin was looking for some hands-on environmental work while she took a break from her Cal State Long Beach Environmental Science degree, when she was introduced to Laguna Canyon Foundation through her volunteer work at the Bolsa Chica Conservancy. Robin brings a familiarity with both native and non-native plants from both her work at Bolsa Chica Conservancy and from spending lots of time hiking in the wildlands of Orange and LA Counties.

We couldn’t be more pleased with our team and we’re looking forward to another successful planting season!

Want to help us plant? Volunteer at one of our Keep It Wild events!

We all love our open space. Whether it’s from the physical, mental, or spiritual aspect, everyone can benefit from the canyons. We are fortunate enough to have land managers like OC Parks who spend their days making sure our open space stays safe and protected for generations to come, and one of the ways they do that is through park rules.

Now, I know I didn’t follow all park rules before I started working for Laguna Canyon Foundation, and it wasn’t because I didn’t care – I just didn’t understand why the rules were in place and how little ol‘ me could have an impact on our canyons. But now I do, and I think most of you are in the same boat I was, so I thought I would try to help bridge the gap between words on a park sign and the meaning one takes from those words.   

Here are some of the most commonly broken park rules and why they were enacted in the first place:

Dogs in the Parks

Of course we want to bring our four-legged family members on outdoor excursions – I know I do. It might even seem like it could be their “natural habitat!” So, why not just bring them with you, nobody will even know they were there…right? Not exactly. Dogs have the scent of a predator, meaning everywhere they walk, sniff, and relieve themselves leaves a path of warning to every animal in that area of the park. This disrupts natural cycles and even jeopardizes an animal’s ability to survive. They are now in defense mode instead of spending their energy and resources hunting or foraging for food.

You might be wondering: Well if the impacts are so great, why are some trails dog friendly? It’s because park staff know people want to experience the open space with their furry friends. So by limiting dog access to just specific trails in Aliso and Wood Canyons, they can concede to user experience while containing wildlife impacts. They picked trails with the least sensitive habitat that already had established human impact. Once animals sensed the ever-present threat of canines, they moved to other areas of the park.  

So even though it breaks my heart to leave my pup at home, I take solace in the knowledge I am saving that bobcat, fox, or roadrunner from unnecessary stress and I hope you will too.   

For more information about dogs on trails, a map showing dog-friendly trails, and safety concerns, click here.

Unauthorized Trail Use

How can you tell if a trail is authorized or unauthorized? Authorized trails have a post at each end.

I know the feeling of looking down that mysterious trail and wondering where it goes. Who doesn’t like to get a little lost? Plus, who would care? The trail is obviously already built and used, what is one more person…This was exactly the thought process I needed to overcome, because if I was thinking it, others were too. Using unauthorized trails causes damage to the surrounding vegetation, disturbs wildlife, and shows other park users they can do it too – especially if it’s posted on social media. I couldn’t imagine being in my home and having a scary-looking creature pass through my house! Unauthorized and social trails do just that: kill off native plants and disrupt animals to the point where they relocate to another undisturbed section of the park, which is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

There’s another problem unauthorized trails cause: small-scale habitat fragmentation. Think about what large freeways and developments do to animal species in our open space. It divides them. Meaning deer, coyotes, foxes, and bobcats in our two parks have a very small chance of diversifying their gene pools with the animals in the Santa Ana Mountains. It is the same with our trail system. It divides habitats. Animals shy away from human presence; our scents and activities on trails are a clear signal to stay away. If people continue to build and use unauthorized trails, it forces animals in our wilderness to compete for the remaining “wild” areas, which are now segmented throughout the park.

Trails are also “dead zones” where nothing grows. We have 70 miles of legal, authorized trails in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Aliso and Wood Canyon Wilderness Park – that is the equivalent of 28 football fields of compacted dirt where nothing can grow. It seems like a lot of space has already been legally provided for us. Let’s enjoy our marked trails and keep our wildlife happy.       

Trash on Trails

Thankfully, not many people purposefully leave trash on trails, but there are many opportunities to avoid leaving something behind. For instance, that empty water bottle or used doggie bag left on the side to be picked up on the way back is often forgotten. Fruit rinds, peels, and nut shells might seem like safe things to throw out into the wilderness – but actually end up being harmful to wildlife. Feeding wildlife damages health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to other dangers. Anything that goes on the trails with us should come off the trails with us.

Trail Etiquette

I’ve noticed some recent social trends that could become harmful, so I thought I would include some other tips about park use, even though they are not rules per se.

  • If in groups, don’t block the entire width of the trail.
  • Stay to your right.
  • When biking, slow down as you pass people and use a bell or your voice around blind turns.
  • Use one earbud instead of two to stay aware of your surroundings.
  • Sunscreen, a hat, and water are always a good idea.

My hope is that you won’t see park rules as the red tape trying to diminish your park enjoyment, but for what they truly are: the guidelines that, if followed, will give you and your descendants the ability to enjoy this open space for generations to come. After all, “we do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our descendants.” – Chief Seattle

#ProtectWhatYouLove

Earth Day was extra special this year in Laguna Beach! Laguna Canyon Foundation and Orange County Parks celebrated the 25th anniversary of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park on Sunday, April 22nd. LCF and OC Parks volunteers greeted park visitors with information and gifts at the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park entrances.

Can you picture the 133 lined with 3,204 housing units, golf courses, a fire station, commercial shopping centers, and a school? Coastal sage scrub? Gone. Trails? Gone. Unobstructed canyon views? Gone. That’s what Laguna Coast Wilderness Park would have been if the city of Laguna Beach and its environmental community hadn’t come together and saved the land we all know and love from the planned Laguna Laurel development.

In 1989, 8,000 people participated in the “March to Save Laguna Canyon,” protesting the Irvine Company’s impending development of Laguna Canyon. This led to a 1990 historic purchase agreement between the Irvine Company, the City of Laguna Beach, the County of Orange, and local environmental organizations. That year, in order to kick off the land purchase, Laguna Beach residents voted in favor of a $20 million bond measure, taxing themselves to pay for the purchase of the land. It was then that Laguna Canyon Foundation was born – a nonprofit whose original purpose was to promote awareness, secure funding for land purchases, establish the wilderness parks, and make sure the land would be protected in perpetuity.

Fast forward 25 years: Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is part of the 22,000 acres of the coastal canyon parks that surround Laguna Beach. So next time you drive down the 133, make sure to breathe in that coastal sage scrub and say a little thank you for our wildlands!