The Mountains Once Again Called

by Rachel Burnap

I fell in love with the Santa Monica Mountains in 2008, when I first hiked in the Cold Creek Canyon Preserve with my husband. We would spend hot summer days picnicking next to the boulder home once occupied by homesteader Herman Hethke. Later, I volunteered for Mountains Restoration Trust and began learning native plants. A few months later, I was given a job at MRT, where legendary MRT Program Manager (and former co-director) Jo Kitz and restoration supervisor Tom Hayduk taught me to save native plants from the threats of tall prickly thistles, massive giant reed colonies, and huge black mustard plants. I loved putting native-plant seedlings into the rich soil on misty rainy days in the Cold Creek Valley Preserve, plants so carefully and caringly sown from seeds. I loved hiking Malibu Canyon from PCH to Malibou Lake and discovered the ultimate adventure: looking for invasive giant reed in the wilderness of Malibu Canyon, a removal project started by Jo Kitz. This kind of ecological restoration intrigued me so much that I embarked on a bioregional graduate program through Green Mountain College.

In the winter of 2014, I planted mulefat and willow pole cuttings along Malibu and Topanga Creeks for my master’s dissertation experiment. That year I had a surprise like no other: I was pregnant! Nevertheless (and with help from my husband John, National Park Service interns, and friends), I painstakingly visited and hand-watered my 98 experimental plots every two weeks. In October, 2014, I gave birth to my little Joshua. Consumed by motherhood, I left MRT and the mountains behind and eventually finished my dissertation in 2017.

Flash forward: my son is now four, and we picnic almost every week in the mountains. The mountains once again called. Back at the MRT, I now work at a restoration site in Malibu Creek State Park. My body, used to wrangling a wriggly child, quickly readapted to hauling heavy garden hoses and bags of weeds. My sleep-deprived mind, used to multi-tasking, welcomes the opportunity to focus on one plant at a time. When I get the chance, I enjoy taking Joshua to volunteer restoration events, where I almost always feel Jo Kitz’s presence in the breeze.

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Q&A with the Wildfire Experts

By Kate Eplboim

Four months after the Woolsey Fire, community members and environmental organizations, like Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT), remain steadfast to revitalize the mountains. While wildfires have been a recurring part of the Santa Monica Mountains since their inception some 2 million years ago, this recent fire was the largest in recorded history.

  • The 13-day  fire claimed 3 lives and displaced roughly 250,000 people.
  • 96,949 acres were burned, including 150 acres at MRT’s LA Sierra Preserve.
  • 1,643 structures were lost, including MRT’s nursery operations.
  • Estimates of the cost caused by the wildfire have been pegged in the upwards of billions.
  • The Camp and Woolsey Fires produced approximately 5.5 million tons of CO2, which corresponds to around 15% of all California emissions.
  • Within the week, air quality in California surpassed world health standards by 60 times.
  • Roughly 47% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) was burned.
  • 2 of the 13 NPS-collared mountain lions perished.
  • Surface erosion in Woolsey-impacted areas will increase by 24-fold for a 2-year recurrence storm event, 10-fold for a 10-year recurrence storm event.

As we reflect on the Woolsey Fire and our wildfires of past and future, we have reconvened the experts from the MRT & Conrad H. Hilton Foundation’s Community Halls to share their knowledge about the matter.

MRT: What are the major causes and drivers of wildfires in the Santa Monica Mountains?

Dr. Phil Rundel, distinguished Professor of Biology at UCLA’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology: Virtually all recent fires in the Santa Monica Mountains have a human cause, either direct or indirect. Down or arcing power lines caused by wind have been the ignition events causing several recent fires. Motorcycles or cars with a hot muffler driving over dry grass can be a cause. Arson is rare but has occurred. Whatever the ignition source, hot dry Santa Anas make fires difficult to control. Drought conditions in recent years has caused dieback in chaparral shrubs and increased flammability. The same is true of invasive annual grasses, which can lengthen the length of fire season.

Dr. Rundel recommends visiting California Chaparral Institute to learn more about fire ecology in the Southern CA.

MRT: What and where do wildfires burn in the Santa Monica Mountains?

Dr. Marti Witter, National Park Service Fire Ecologist: Fire burns all fuel types – grasslands, woodlands (oak woodlands and riparian woodlands), shrublands (coastal sage and chaparral) and homes (the highest fuel load type).

The below maps give an illustrated, pictoral answer to where fire burns in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area – everywhere, but some areas more than others. The area with the most fires are the Cheeseboro/Liberty Canyon/Malibu Canyon corridor.  If you look at the decadal fire maps you will see that the area of the Woolsey Fire hadn’t burned since the 70’s and 80’s, but it is an area that has seen a lot of large fires in the past.

NPS Fire History Maps

Large fires are not new and have occurred since we have been keeping records (1925) and even before then which we know from historic newspaper reports and paleontological data (charcoal deposits).  The decadal fire maps show this really well. All of our large fires have occurred under weather and fuel conditions of low humidity, low fuel moisture and high winds (usually in the fall, but the 2013 Springs Fire was in May and the drought created conditions that were equivalent to those that normally occur only in fall).  

The only difference with the Woolsey Fire conditions to that of other fires was: four years of drought preceding Woolsey, causing a lot of SHRUB dieback – note that dead trees do not carry fire in the same way as dead shrubs –  and a longer than typical 2-3 days Santa Ana wind event. The 2017 Thomas Fire also had a record setting Santa Ana event duration which was 10 days.

To learn more about California wildfires, Witter recommends visiting The California Fire Consortium

Active Fires 2/3/19 – NASA image

MRT: What role do wildfires play in ecosystem health?

Brad Shaffer, Director of UCLA La Kretz Center for CA Conservation: Biological communities go through natural successions over time—grasslands often establish quickly, shrublands follow and outcompete grasses, and ultimately trees and forests of different heights come to dominate a landscape. Those successions occur in the absence of disturbance, and they are part of the natural dynamics of ecological communities. However, disturbance helps keep all of those species alive and functioning, and fire is a major source of disturbance. Many of the shrub communities that dominate Southern California will transition to oak woodland if they never burn, but fire keeps them from attaining the so-called climax community of mature trees. Given that this process of patchy, random disturbance from fire has gone on for millions of years, certain plants and animals have evolved to specialize on those post-burn conditions. Black-backed woodpecker is a northern species that specializes on insects that themselves specialize on dead trees following wildfires— without fires, the woodpeckers, their insect prey, and certain species of plants would all go extinct. The key, from an ecological and ecosystem health perspective, is to have moderate fires that occasionally burn patches of landscapes, leaving different patches in different stages of succession supporting the species that specialize on those conditions.

Brad recommends two websites (Fresh from Florida’s – The Natural Role of Fire, and Landscope’s – Fire in Florida) that help emphasize the importance of wildfire, pointing to Florida’s wiregrass-longleaf pine community, a threatened ecosystem that depends on very frequent (every 1-3 years) fire. Whether those fires are in the form of controlled burns of wildfires doesn’t matter, just so it burns very frequently.

MRT: Why is chaparral, the dominant habitat of the Santa Monica Mountains, so vital to our local ecosystem and safety?

Steve Davis, Professor of Biology at Pepperdine University: Chaparral and coastal sage scrub vegetation are vital to our local ecosystems for the goods and services they provide humans, wildlife, and our mountainous watersheds. Chaparral and coastal sage scrub are low maintenance, requiring no irrigation or fertilization, yet they hold up our rugged hillsides. They enable animal life through oxygen production, nutrient transformations, and solar energy capture. They provide humans food, fiber, fuel, and medicine. These distinctive vegetation types deter global warming, desertification, and soil erosion. In short, they help sustain our life support system on earth.  

To find more information on the numerous ways our local ecosystems impacts us, Davis suggested Peter Raven’s article “Saving Plants, Saving Ourselves.”

MRT: What are the most effective actions and initiatives communities can take to make their homes and neighborhoods wildfire safe?

J. Lopez, Assistant Chief of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department in the Prevention Services Bureau: The ability of your home to survive a wildfire depends on its construction materials and the quality of the “defensible space” surrounding it. Windblown embers from a wildfire will find the weak link in your home’s fire protection scheme and gain the upper hand because of a small, overlooked or seemingly inconsequential factor. However, there are measures you can take to safeguard your home from wildfire.

·       Hardening your Home: Hardening the home is a crucial process in protecting one’s property from wildfire damage. Hardening refers to the process of fireproofing one’s house or other structures through the use of various flame retardant materials. Flying embers can destroy homes up to a mile from a wildfire. “Harden” your home now before a fire starts by using ember-resistant building materials.

·      Creating and maintaining defensible space:  Preventing conditions where fire can travel from adjacent fuels, through an ornamental landscape to your structure, is the key to creating defensible space. Fire spreads through convection, conduction, radiation, or embers. Proper maintenance of ornamental vegetation reduces ember production, fire propagation, intensity, and duration of the approaching flames.

To find more information on how to harden your home, Asst. Chief Lopez recommends using the “Ready! Set! Go! Program”.

MRT: What post-fire toxins should humans be most concerned about? What do we do about them?

Dr. Yifang Zhu, Dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health: When houses, cars and other materials are burned,they release toxic fumes into the environment in their wake known as PAH*, this toxin can be produced after burning coal, garbage, oil, and wood to name a few. HERE is a recent study showing after 14 months, no difference was observed for wildfire-derived PAHs and trace elements in indoor environments

Unfortunately, I could not find any other study specifically addressing wildfire’s impact on indoor environments within 14 months. But more research has been done on structure fire. Ash from burned structures is generally more hazardous than forest ash. Depending on what materials were burned, post-fire toxicants may include PAHs, heavy metals, and volatile organic compounds, etc.

Dr. Zhu’s recommends the California Department of Public Health’s wildfire page to learn more about the protecting public during and after wildfires.

*PAHs: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

MRT: What does the landscape recovery/regeneration look like post-fire?

Suzanne Goode, Natural Resource Program Manager for California’s Department of Parks & Recreation for the district of Los Angeles: Post fire regeneration often starts prior to the first rains with visible growth on still-standing yucca plants.  The first rains have already brought the germination of annual grasses and new growth of native perennial grasses, as well as the return of the wild cucumber.  When the weather warms, if there has been sufficient rain, chemicals in the smoke will have infiltrated the soil to break the dormancy of fire-following annuals, with resulting spectacular displays of color from California poppies, wind poppies, lupines, phacelia, and many others.  Short-lived perennials, such as bush poppies and chaparral bush mallow will also begin to grow. Seedlings of obligate seeding chaparral species, such as big-pod ceanothus and big-berry manzanita will also appear. Resprouting shrubs, such as chamise, laurel sumac, greenbark ceanothus, sagebrush and sage will be a foot or more tall by the end of the first growing season.  The second year will continue to have post-fire wildflowers, though not quite as abundant as the first year, and the shrubs will have become more prominent. Oaks that were severely burned but still survived will exhibit sprouting along their branches. By the fourth year after the fire, the chaparral canopy will have begun to close, with only a few burned stems left to show evidence of the fire.

MRT: Where can policy makers make the biggest differences to reduce the impact of future wildfires?

Richard Halsey, the Director of the Chaparral Institute and author of  Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California:  The traditional approach to wildfire protection is backward. It focuses on vegetation rather than what we want to protect – our homes and families. The nearly exclusive focus on vegetation management is not working in the wind-driven fires that cause all the devastation. We must look at the problem from the house outward, rather than from the wildland in. Homes burn because they are flammable and are built on fire-prone landscapes. Most structures ignite during wildfires because of flying embers that can travel a mile or more from the fire front. This is why so many families have lost their homes even though they have complied with defensible space regulations – their homes were still vulnerable to embers. This is why the wildfire problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Therefore, to stop the destruction of our communities by wildfire, fire policy must focus on strategies that reduce the flammability of existing communities (ember-resistant vents, fire-resistant roofing and siding, and exterior sprinklers, then 100 feet of defensible space) and prevent new ones from being built in very high fire hazard severity zones.

Halsey said you can find more of his in-depth research and commentary at The Chaparral Institute website. MRT recommends reading Halsey’s book “Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California”.

MRT: Where can we best innovate to minimize the future causes and/or devastation of wildfires in Southern California?

Peter Kareiva, the Director of UCLA Institute of the Environment & Sustainability:  Although wildfires have always been part of Southern California, with climate change fires are different.  Best practices for 1950 are likely not best practices in 2020, much less 2050. Not surprisingly there is a lot of research directed at improving our understanding of how wildfires spread so that the spread can be modeled and predicted in order to better direct fire containment efforts.  At a less technical level a high priority is to revisit flammability, and ask to what extent does species composition influence the likelihood of ignition and rapid spread, after factoring out weather conditions. A third priority is rethinking restoration. Restoration implies returning to some previous condition.  But with global warming accelerating more rapidly than anyone anticipated, we should consider our actions after a fire as rejuvenating nature so that it is resilient and thriving in tomorrow’s world, not yesterday’s world. What plants will thrive in Santa Monica mountains in 2050? Does that mean we favor some plants over others?  Lastly, after every major fire we hear that every fire is different. And we also know that the plant communities and species in the Santa Monica are unique. We need to make sure our management guidance for mitigating fire risk is tailored to the Santa Monica’s and not borrowed from some other region of the state.

Please stay connected with and support MRT as they ask more questions, host more events, and form initiatives and partnerships to better understand and defend against the damages of wildfire. MRT has partnered with UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation, National Park Service, US Geological Survey and 100 college students to quantify revegetation and biodiversity post-fire. MRT is also in development to create a physical monument and place to contemplate wildfires and post-fire regeneration.

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Santa Monica Mountains Homecoming

I went to UCLA because it was a reason to get away from the small, foothill town that I grew up in. Like many destinations that you flee to, it was more about the escape than it was about the particular setting. I found myself suddenly in a matrix of rich suburbanites and sleepy urban areas with expensive juices, without a car. I was disenchanted with my new home to say the least. In my fourth year of undergraduate, I was lucky enough to get my hands on keys to an old Subaru and through these retro wheels I began to see more and more of Southern California . I regularly traveled to the tide pools around Palos Verdes for my senior capstone, trekked to Bakersfield and Perris for summer field work, and hiked frequently in the Santa Monica Mountains for a course on California conservation. By expanding my view to cover more and more of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, I slowly began to understand Angelino pride.

I started working at Mountains Restoration Trust around three months after graduating from UCLA. My early career at MRT brought me to many remote areas within the Malibu Creek Watershed in order to supervise a crew of technicians removing an invasive species of crayfish in the Santa Monica Mountains. I was proud to consider a day surveying frogs and native fish under the shade of oak, willow, and mulefat a “typical work day”. I began my true romance with Southern California wading through the entirety of Malibu Creek, in awe of the beauty of such a massive canyon, of the cattails covered in exuvia that I pushed through, and of the charming kingfisher that followed me along the way as if to guard its caches of crayfish that were left within depressions of larger boulders.

MRT brought me closer to the natural beauty of Southern California than anything I had experienced before and ultimately concreted my reason to stay. The longer I worked at MRT, the more I regularly interacting with biologists and land managers who shared my exuberance for the Santa Monica Mountains. I began to understand the principles that were taught to me in my classes. The Santa Monica Mountains are so special in their beauty and rarity and yet they face so many threats and require so many resources in order to coordinate their management.

On November 9th, I sat in a coffee shop in Hollywood and watched the Woolsey Fire whip through MRT’s restoration sites, landholdings, and nursery facilities. I could not help feeling despair after losing so many natural and material resources. Not to mention, that after nearly six years of struggling to embrace my new home, I finally felt settled and near moments later my comfort was ashen! I wondered what I could do to heal this burn scars and return my sense of ease. I am writing from the other side of an atmosphere river that washed through southern California weeks ago – the scorched shrubs are re-sprouting from their root crowns and many of the hillsides are blanketed in green. For the next six months, I will be working UCLA and the La Kretz Center for Conservation to oversee 50 teams of undergraduates studying the impacts and recovery of this devastating fire. For now, I see my purpose right in front of me as I refind my home in the sprouting fields of the Santa Monica Mountains.

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In The Field

By Rebecca Kosugi

In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, one must find serenity through forming a relationship with their higher power. Admittedly when I first got sober this was just an abstract concept to me. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my higher power was to be found in nature. As cliché as it sounded I was confident that I had found more serenity outside of cityscapes, away from power lines and bright lights, than anywhere else. Most of what triggered me to drink was found in my role in society and in my interactions with other people and things in the “human” world. It was when I was able to see myself as a small part in something bigger than day-to-day life that I could quiet my mind. Fortunately for me, my job at MRT has allowed me to spend the majority of my time outside. The practices and principles found in my recovery are revealed to me “in the field” almost everyday. The most recent example of this centered on the Woolsey Fire.

On November 8th  2018, my fellow vegetation crew members and I were out watering the Coast Live Oaks trees at Nicholas Flats trail. MRT was in the last month a 3-year contract with California State Parks to establish 300 oak trees along the Nicolas Flats trail. It had always been my favorite project and I took my role as Site Captain there very seriously. I used to think it was strange how attached the previous Site Captain was to the oak seedlings. However once I inherited the project from him, I got it. Every tree received a monthly check up and report card. All individuals were watered by hand – a very strenuous and time-consuming process. The crew built shade structures out of strategically placed pieces of dead wood. Due to the large number of trees and the enormous area we had to cover, each tree was only visited once a month. If we fell behind schedule some trees would be under-watered. Because of this and my passion for the site, I became increasingly more controlling as time went on. I felt the urge to ensure that everything was perfect. I had to make sure that the seedlings would make it. This all changed later that night.

The Woolsey Fire made it way to the Calabasas-area practically overnight. I tracked the fire from home as MRT HQ and its operations were shut down. Several days passed before I could go back to work. Being grounded took a toll on me. Without work to take up my time I realized my sober life was empty. In stripping my life of what was unhealthy I also lost what was familiar to me. I stopped going out, I severed ties with old friends, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went to meetings, but without the liquid confidence of alcohol in hand, I found it difficult to introduce myself to new people. Once the smoke cleared (literally), I was relieved to be able to return to the field. However another month passed before I was able to visit Nicholas Flats again. I knew the fire blazed through the region but I had to see the damage for myself. Finally we had our chance: the crew and I got out of the truck and stepped foot into what had become a sepia-toned portrait of a stark moonscape. The ground was bald except for the charred remains of the trees. It was unrecognizable. Up until that point I was afraid the destruction would be too much for me to handle. As we looked closer we could see new growth at the base of some of the woody shrubs and trees. After a fire the shade of the older trees is cleared and young trees that had been hidden in their shadows, and the seedlings lying dormant in the seed bank rise up to seize their opportunity. Eventually these re-sprouts would grow and fill in. But for now the scenery was going through an awkward phase – filling in the barren landscape would take time. The stark parallels that nature draws to my own life do not go unnoticed to me. My life will take time to fill in as well – new hobbies, friends, new methods of coping. Eventually the awkward phase will pass, and I will re-sprout.

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Puzzle Pieces

Just months ago, I clamored through thickets of willow and blackberry with the usual lack of grace when off-trail, but today I walk through the La Sierra Preserve with ease. The variegated range of chaparral and sage scrub have burned down to a monotonous scene of black sooty hills, diversified here and there by the skeletons of scrub oak and ceanothus that remain. The scene has an eerie beauty, and my senses are ablaze, so to speak, with every subtlety that tells me more of the land’s traumatic experience.

The roads around me are still closed, and the resulting silence accentuates every sound in the valley. With each step a unique noise is produced. At first I hear the muted shifting of ash beneath my feet, the next is sharper and crunchier, where the blaze was less severe and organic matter remains. As I tiptoe closer to the streambed my nose flares from the smoldering remains of a sycamore, but I’ve reached my destination. La Sierra Creek lies dry, naked, and exposed before me, its banks which were once adorned with vines and flowers are blanketed in white ash. My eyes take in every detail, but my instruments will tell the full story.

I shake myself from the ashy daze and get to work measuring the channel. Its slope, width, and texture all feed into the story of this valley. Like pieces of a puzzle, each measurement I take contributes to a larger picture of the land’s recovery. With the coming rains these channels will fill with sediment washed down from the canyons, and these cobbles that I measure will disappear beneath silt once held by the vegetated slopes. With our extended fire season I’ve become rather accustomed to this type of work – and the process now fascinates me. In a year this channel with be flat and planar, more prone to flooding while it remains choked by the sediments, but as vegetation regrows and storms flush through the system, my cobbles will return.

I walk silently out of the valley, content for now with what information I’ve gathered. Along the way I see persistence. Deer tracks, gopher mounds, ants, and beetles flank my own footprints impressed upon the ash – more puzzle pieces that contribute to this gorgeous, heartbreaking cycle. Growing up in combustible California I’ve learned to love these jarring landscapes of ash and rock. Someday the carpet of chaparral will return, and the process, oftentimes, can be as beautiful as the result.

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The Importance of Wilderness

How do you quantify the importance of a wilderness? By its size? Its mountains or rivers? Maybe instead a wilderness is as important as its impact on individuals. Some places, like the Grand Canyon, are visited millions of times a year and leave life-long impacts on visitors.  Some, like the ice and waters of the Arctic are rarely ever visited, and yet inspire the imaginations of people the world over.

I felt inspired as I grew up in the Santa Monica Mountains. As a kid, I always loved staring out at the oaks and cliffs as I drove down Mulholland Highway. I would fall asleep comfortably to the sounds of howling coyotes a few blocks away. I celebrated birthdays at Paramount Ranch, hiked in Malibu Creek State Park, and attended my favorite field trips at Headwaters Corner. These mountains are not just my home, they’re my history and my refuge.
But is this enough? Valuing these mountains only by their impact on me makes me feel as if I’ve cheated them. They’ve been here long before I’ve seen them and they’ll be here long after. The plants and animals that live and interact here; the spaces that allow solitude; the hidden and wondrous features of this wilderness. They all hold a kind of value that can’t be defined in terms of enjoyment or satisfaction. Nor can they simply be defined in terms of usefulness or practicality.  These mountains are a timeless kind of treasure chest. One that’s bigger than me or you or even all of us. Their importance is too ubiquitous to be quantified, and I am proud to help protect them.


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Why I Joined MRT

As the newest member of the MRT team, I have already learned a great deal – why there is an inverse relationship between Red Swamp Crayfish and the vulnerable California red-legged frog, the difficulties associated with removing invasive Spanish Broom, and even good advice on how to make sure I stop killing my house plants (I was overwatering if you were curious).

But what I’ve found to be the most pervasively interesting part about my short time here is the genuine, unshakeable passion that my fellow colleagues have for the work that they do. Even on days that the Earth seems to be on fire, temperatures well over 100 degrees, the restoration experts at MRT work tirelessly and enthusiastically reestablishing native habitat on our Santa Monica mountainsides. For over 35 years, MRT has been the local expert in the realm of restoration and I was so excited when I had the opportunity to join this organization and its immense wealth of knowledge.

This is especially true because I didn’t come from an “environmentally-friendly” background. In fact quite the opposite: I grew up in your average Southern California suburb riddled with minivans and strip malls. I didn’t hike, or camp or play outside as often as I should have. And while I had always thought that nature was “cool”, it took an impromptu backpacking trip to Big Sur and one excellent college professor to really turn me on to the illustrious beauty that is our natural environment. Because of my personal experience, I know the value of a great environmental education. MRT’s Cold Creek Docent Program is just that: a great environmental resource for kids who wouldn’t normally get a chance to explore nature in their day-to-day lives. And luckily for me, I am working to become a trained Cold Creek Docent! It almost feels as if I am “paying it forward,” an homage to my Sophomore-year professor.

Working at an organization that devotes its time to restoring the natural environment of Southern California is an incredibly rewarding experience. But MRT can’t do it without the help of its incredible volunteers! Because of my role as MRT’s Development and Volunteer Coordinator, I get to talk to prospective volunteers everyday. And regardless of who it is – a school group, a company, or just a single person wanting to help – I am always impressed by the passion that our volunteers have for Mother Nature! I encourage everyone to spend a Saturday morning planting or removing invasive crayfish with us! Your hard work directly supports our beautiful Santa Monica Mountains.

While I’ve learned a lot at MRT (and I’m sure as time passes, I will only learn more), I still wouldn’t trust me with your houseplants. 🙂

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Remembering Jo Kitz (1932-2018)


“Jo was a champion for science, conservation and restoration. Each and every time we talked science she immediately understood why it was important and asked how she could support more of it. She was quick to use science to defend the efforts of MRT and to provide further protections for the Preserve. She was a true eco-warrior.”  – Lee Kats, Biology professor, now Provost at Pepperdine University and MRT Board Member

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of MRT’s long-time dedicated Program Manager and Co-Director, Jo Kitz. She was 86. Jo joined MRT in 1989 and managed oversight of the Cold Creek Canyon Preserve, and other MRT lands. She worked on development of the Cold Creek Conservation Plan with the CA Coastal Conservancy, and MRT’s Commemorative Oaks Program at Malibu Creek State Park where “her” trees are now flourishing and of healthy size. She worked ceaselessly and physically, leading to her nickname, the ‘Intrepid Weed Warrior.’ Jo’s lifelong passion for the environment manifested itself through over 17 years of activism and conservation even before she joined MRT. She worked with the Sierra Club Task Force, became a founding member of the California Invasive Plant Council (CAL-IPC), and in 1994 was named a Fellow of the California Native Plant Society, the highest honor bestowed upon members of CNPS. Jo was also a Board Member for the Santa Monica Trails Council and helped create the annual Santa Monica Mountains Trails Day. The culmination of her tireless dedication to the environment led her to being named State Assembly Member Fran Pavley’s Women of the Year in 2004. Jo was an incredible friend, mentor, and colleague to many of us at MRT and we stand in tribute to this remarkable woman. 


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A Day in The Life

Wearing fishing waders out in the middle of Medea Creek in Oak Park has allotted me multiple encounters with the locals, and the one thing I’ve learned from all of those interactions is that no one knows exactly what I am doing out there.

Perhaps there needs to be a scene set for this situation….picture a man wearing long sleeves in chest high Orvis waders with multiple items hanging from him with carabiners and string, a bucket under one arm, latex gloves beneath work gloves, all in an environment that is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Picture this strange creek man pulling metal baskets out of the water and inspecting them (for what no one is sure), then putting dog food into them and shoving them back into the water. I would imagine that for those walking on this trail every day, such a sight would raise an eyebrow and perhaps warrant an explanation. This is especially true if you are a person with an appreciation for nature and see this creek person as a potential threat to your natural landscapes. You may ask yourself, “Who is this person? What are they doing in the creek? What are those baskets? Why are there so many? Whom does he work with?”

Throughout the almost 3 years that I have worked at Mountains Restoration Trust, I have had the privilege of managing countless crayfish removal volunteer events. In 2017 alone I worked with over 1,500 members of the public to remove crayfish from Medea Creek, and because of that I am no stranger to debunking myths about my work. One memorable encounter with a local resident occurred while one of the biologists in our team was removing crayfish beside a culvert. A man stopped to ask him what purpose he had in the area. Why was he here and why was he tampering with the wildlife? The crayfish where there, he said, and now have a purpose. They had a job. The job in question was to eliminate mosquito larvae and reduce incidence of disease such as West Nile Virus. This is not the case, the biologist explained. The presence of crayfish will almost surely increase the population of mosquitoes. Why and how does such a correlation exist? The answer is that crayfish (who do not eat mosquitos) eat the native tree frogs and dragonfly larvae (who do eat mosquitos).

I had another memorable encounter with an oak park family that reinforced these common misconceptions with my work. The pair stopped us and inquired as to whether or not “the baskets” were ours. We indicated that they were ours and pointed out that these were not “baskets” but traps, and traps for crayfish. The boy responded that he and his dad came down to the creek to open up the traps and free the crayfish. After exchanging shocked glances with my associate, we quickly asked the boy his reason why. Again, it was because they were believed to eat mosquitos. Then he hit us with a more existential reason: crayfish have existed in these creeks for many years, don’t they belong there? Summoning my best young person logic, I told him that even though they have been here for a while, that does not necessarily constitute automatic membership. Native species are critical to the environment because they provide a service – such as the native tree frogs and dragonfly larvae keeping the mosquito population down – but invasive species that exist in our habitats do not provide a service.

Needless to say, I give lessons in stream ecology quite often. And while at times it is difficult to explain what this “creek man” is doing, I take great pleasure in teaching locals about their environment and restoring our Santa Monica mountain habitats. I encourage everybody to come to our volunteer events to experience and learn from the ecology of their backyards and perhaps become a creek person themselves!

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Mountains Restoration Trust Announces Appointment of D. Ezekiel Schlais as Executive Director

Press Release

Organization Release – 8/9/2018 10:00 AM ET

Schlais Brings Community, Environmental Science and Operational Experience

CALABASAS, Calif.– Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT) announced that D. Ezekiel Schlais has been named the organization’s new Executive Director, effective August 9. 2018.

MRT’s Board of Directors Vice President, Dr. Robert Wayne, on behalf of the MRT board, stated “After an exhaustive search, we are proud to name Ezekiel Schlais as Executive Director. Schlais brings an experienced environmental science background, a wealth of operational experience, and a lifelong passion for nature to MRT. We are confident that Schlais will elevate our acquisition, restoration, scientific and educational efforts in the Santa Monica Mountains. He is the right leader as MRT embarks on its next chapter with renewed focus, a supportive community, and an incredible team. Together, we will continue to restore our local mountains’ ecological fortune.”

Schlais has extensive experience leading and innovating environmental communities, partnerships and projects. He has guided a number of institutions through pivotal transitions and has frequently worked with underperforming organizations to affect positive change. Schlais is known for building inclusive cross-industry communities that deliver meaningful environmental solutions. As the Head of Strategic Initiatives for UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES), examples of his community-science partnerships include: launching a high school learning platform, creating a coalition of sustainable business leaders, cultivating the funds to establish the first university diversity center in green science, managing an annual $1M+ Gala, and playing an integral role to inaugurate the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award. Prior to IoES, Schlais served as Vice President of Origination with The Gores Group, where he sourced and managed complex acquisition opportunities. Schlais has worked with various environmental organizations and conservation science teams, including the Placer Land Trust, The Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Pepperdine and U.C. Davis.

“I cannot imagine a more important or exciting time to join MRT,” said Schlais. “We are well-positioned to foster a community-driven environmental renaissance in the Santa Monica Mountains. With an accomplished 37-year legacy in acquisitions, restoration, science and education and with a second-to-none staff, MRT is primed to expand our connections across diverse communities and to deliver local-to-global resource solutions in the face of climate change. This Executive Director role is the perfect opportunity to combine my industry experience and passion for ecology, which examines the interdependence of organisms to one another and their physical surroundings.”

Schlais holds a Master of Business Administration from the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University and a Bachelor of Science in English from Seaver College at Pepperdine University. He has lived in the Santa Monica Mountains since 2000 and currently lives in Malibu with his partner Julian and their dog Chance. You can most often find Ezekiel running the 500+ miles of trails available in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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