Hired last fall as full-time seasonal restoration technicians, Alyssa Moreno and Robin Matthews have become a big part of Laguna Canyon Foundation’s team, bringing expertise and passion to helping us preserve and protect our wilderness. With their last day of the season fast approaching, we wanted to give them a big shoutout and highlight each of their journeys.
I met up with Alyssa at Laguna Canyon Foundation Headquarters, where she was checking the irrigation system on our Laguna Canyon Creek restoration project. Alyssa’s original plan for the day was to work with the Orange County Conservation Corps to continue brushing the trail and completing tread work along the east side of Laguna Canyon Creek and the 133, but the OCCC crew rescheduled. The word “adaptation” comes immediately to mind. Our staff is well aware of how the plants and animals of the coastal sage scrub habitat adapt to survive. In our own work, this is most certainly true as well.
Having participated in the California Conservation Corps herself, Alyssa finds common ground with the Corpsmembers. “I know some of them would prefer not to be here clearing trails, but I also know what an opportunity they have with OCCC to further their education,” she says. “I’ve met some really amazing young folks and have been able to connect with them about the wilderness and about their future.”
What brought Alyssa to Laguna Canyon Foundation and prepared her for restoration, trail and outreach work is multifaceted. Alyssa redefines the definition of “outdoorsy.” She spent five months in the Trinity Alps Wilderness near Mt. Shasta as a backcountry crew member, packing in all of her own equipment and living in a tent with no internet or phone service. “I sent letters from our campsite to my family, literally via mule,” she explained.
Working in the Colorado Rockies, Alyssa was part of a team performing high alpine rock work to build a new trail to Mt. Columbia, a 14,073-foot peak. When asked how the crew relaxed at the end of the day, Alyssa replied, “We didn’t really. When the trail work was done for the day, we would do our camp chores. I cut wood for the fire, helped the camp cook prepare and clean up dinner, and studied American Sign Language with my project partner, who was hearing impaired.”
A graduate of California State University, Long Beach, with a degree in kinesiology, Alyssa continues to use her love of learning to tackle the incredible variety of flora in the biodiverse coastal sage scrub habitat. “Plants, in particular, were something I had little experience with. This year, I was able to plant seedlings in December and see barren ground fill with Bladder Pod, California Bush Sunflower, Evening Primrose and Bush Mallow. I’m learning the natives and invasives and am now pretty well-versed in sharing with public participants the importance of a healthy native habitat.” Often, Alyssa says, the public comments that plants are just plants. “I try to explain that invasive plants like Arundo and Mustard can choke out all the resources native plants need. It’s a domino effect because many of the native animals cannot eat or nest in the invasive plants. Pretty soon, we’d have a monoculture.”
In addition to her many talents, Alyssa is an artist and has designed Laguna Canyon Foundation marketing materials and t-shirts, as well as helped with the organization’s website. When asked about some of her favorite work at Laguna Canyon Foundation? “Trail work…it’s like an art project.”
After spending time with Alyssa, I traveled from Laguna Canyon to Aliso and Wood Canyons along our Pecten Reef restoration project to catch up with Robin. Our Restoration Coordinator, Adam Verrell, was there too. Sporting snake gaiters and lots of sun protection, Robin and Adam were removing invasive plants near the creek.
Around six years ago, Robin and her son, Dustin, took one of Laguna Canyon Foundation’s Native Plant Hikes, an experience Robin will never forget. “I fell in love with the scent of sagebrush and the ‘cowboy cologne’ story.” She also remembers Dustin was not too happy at the naturalist’s warning about ticks along the trail.
Robin took biology courses at Cerritos College and began volunteering at Bolsa Chica Conservancy, doing weed control and trash pick-up. “I also volunteered at the interpretive center on Sunday. I really enjoyed connecting with curious people.”
A single, working, volunteering mom, Robin juggled a lot, and as Dustin got more into sports, “…my Sunday volunteering was superseded by football.”
Robin continued to receive Laguna Canyon Foundation’s e-newsletters and saw the posting for the restoration tech position. After emailing in her application and resume and not receiving a quick response, she made a visit to our offices. “Frankly, after Josie and I met, I think that cinched it. This has been a great move for me.”
Recently, while hosting a restoration event, Robin connected with one of the public volunteers. Robin says, “He talked about his job and while it was financially fulfilling, it didn’t get him outside. He told me how he ended up quitting, opting for day-to-day happiness. There was a mutual understanding between us about the importance of a balanced life.”
Reflecting on her season of work, Robin said, “I love how every day is different, even though the work may be the same. I discover a new insect, new flowers — especially with this rainy season — and meet new people. I am so proud of the progress our plants have made. The restoration sites are a beauty to behold.”
Like her son, Robin is not a fan of the ticks and while she likes cactus for sure, “Planting them can get quite prickly. They’re tough.” In addition to all her restoration work, Robin has pitched in helping with guided hikes.
Adam Verrell, Restoration Coordinator, is now in his second year at Laguna Canyon Foundation. “This year has been remarkably different. My first year, I was doing a lot of the work alone or with contractors. Having Robin and Alyssa and their familiarity with our projects has made the work more effective and rewarding.”
Robin will be finishing up her degree in Environmental Geology at California State University, Long Beach in the fall. Discussions are already taking place about everyone’s plans for the upcoming season, and it is our hope that we have the privilege of working side by side with Robin and Alyssa again next season, protecting what we love.