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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Heritage Creek Nature Preserve – Part 1. History

The Heritage Creek Nature Preserve is a 1 acre nature reserve on the campus of California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) in Carson, California.  The Preserve is located in the middle of campus, between the Perimeter Road and parking lot 7.   For an aerial photograph of the Preserve see:,-118.2533845,98m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x80dd34c8860912c3:0xcd25eed7d794a445

History – Old Nature Preserve

The story of Heritage Creek Nature Preserve really begins with the ‘Old Nature Preserve’, a tract of about 20 acres set aside as a nature preserve in 1974.            In his history of the first twenty-five years of CSU Dominguez Hills, Judson Grenier describes the Nature Preserve:

‘A unique use of campus land caught the public fancy.  Twenty acres were fenced off and protected from intrusion, allowed to return to a natural state, with wild oats, mustard and meadow flowers in profusion, and small animals running free.  This “Nature Preserve and Field Laboratory”, not duplicated in Los Angeles County, was a memorial to the once-prevalent coastal grassland range.’ [1] 

The area remained fenced and preserved, without intervention, for 31 years.  Generations of students took field trips to the Preserve.  Permanent plots were set up and ecology students monitored them over time (though what happened to the records is thus far unclear). Biology students surveyed reptiles, amphibians and insects in the Preserve.  And in 1993, Biology graduate student Carvel Bass wrote a thesis based on the Preserve [2].   Bass describes the Preserve as quiet, protected Greenland oasis which, although surround by urban developments, maintained its own silence’ [2]. Due to the preserves ability to serve several purposes (relaxation; exercise; education), Bass recommended that the Preserve be opened on a regular basis or on selected occasions to the surrounding community so that students and local interest groups could tour the preserve for their own enrichment.

Old Nature Preserve, looking southeast - October, 2004

Old Nature Preserve, looking east - October, 2004
The size of the Preserve decreased over the years, as land was needed for student housing.  But the Old Nature Preserve remained a viable Preserve until 2005, when Birchknoll Drive was extended and the western half of the area was graded for parking lot 7.  More parking was needed to serve a growing student population and the new sports stadiums (Home Depot Center – now Stubhub Center).   

Knowing that the area would soon be graded, Dr. Constance Vadheim (Dept. of Biology) and her research students visited the Preserve several times in 2004-5, collecting seeds and cuttings for propagation.  Among the plants they were able to ‘save’ were Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis), Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia), Arroyo Willow (Salix lasiolepis), Goodding’s black willow (Salix gooddingii) and Palmer’s goldenbush (Ericameria palmeri).  The progeny of these ‘local varieties’ formed the basis for the replanting in Heritage Creek Preserve.  So the part of the legacy of the Old Nature Preserve lives on today, in Heritage Creek.  But alas, there will never be another Old Nature Preserve.

Collecting seeds and cuttings, fall 2005

Remains of Goodding’s Black Willow – Old Nature Preserve

History of Heritage Creek Preserve

When the Old Nature Preserve was proposed to be decommissioned (2004-5),  the faculty of the Department of Biology urged university administrators to consider other options.  The administration agreed to set aside a wetland area on the very southwest edge of campus as a new nature preserve; this fenced area became the Dominguez Wetland Preserve, which still contains remnants of native plants that have grown on campus for many years. 

But the need for additional parking was critical and the Old Nature Preserve was open and centrally located.  When it became clear that parking lot 7 would become a reality, several Biology faculty members – including Professor Vadheim – strongly urged that at least the southern portion of the tract be converted into a planted natural  bioswale.   This would solve three issues: 1) drainage from Lot 7 and from the east along the Perimeter Road; 2) partial mitigation for building the new [now Stubhub] sports complex; 3) the desire to create a nature preserve to serve as a living outdoor laboratory for students and faculty.

It was finally agreed that a one acre tract at the southern edge of Lot 7 – between the parking lot and the Perimeter Road – would be managed as a bioswale/preserve by the Department of Biology.   Native wetland plants, planted in the lowest part of the preserve, would create a seasonal creek; this would slow and infiltrate some of the rainwater and trap soil  runoff.    The aerial photograph below shows the relative locations of the Old Nature Preserve and Heritage Creek Preserve

Old Nature Preserve (2005) in outlined in blue;
Heritage Creek Preserve in white

By the winter of 2005, Lot 7 was completed.  The Heritage Creek tract had been leveled, graded and all pre-existing vegetation removed.  A ‘wildflower seed blend’ was spread to provide quick vegetation cover.  Unfortunately, this blend also included a few water-wise non-native species.  We are still removing some of these plants today (Australian saltbush (Atriplex semibaccata) an invasive plant; Gazania species).   In December, 2005, Heritage Creek Preserve looked like this:
Heritage Creek Preserve - December, 2005

First restoration day, March 2006.

The first restoration day at Heritage Creek Preserve occurred on March 18, 2006. This began a tradition of campus/community involvement in restoring and managing the Preserve.  At the first Restoration Day, community volunteers (through ShareFest) and university faculty spent the morning removing non-native weeds and planting the first trees and shrubs.  The weeds sprouted from seeds/roots that remained behind after the site was graded.  Volunteers removed a huge pile of Wild Radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), a weedy plant that was also common at the Old Nature Preserve (see above). 
First planting of trees & shrubs, March, 2006

Volunteers also planted Narrowleaf willow (Salix exigua), Arroyo willow (Salix lasiolepis), Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia) and Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis).  The Narrowleaf willow was propagated from a local source; the rest were propagated from cuttings taken from the Old Nature Preserve or other areas on campus.   The photo below gives a panoramic view of the site (looking east) in the spring of 2006.
Heritage Creek Preserve, looking east - March, 2006
Plant Physiology students doing volunteer restoration -
Spring, 2007.

In the spring of 2007, Plant Physiology students started a tradition that continues to this day: volunteering restoration hours at Heritage Creek Preserve.  Since 2007, Plant Physiology students have volunteered over 1500 hours at the Preserve.  From the beginning, restoration involved much time spent removing non-native invasive species.   Some of these, including the Wild radish, Cheeseweed (Malva parviflora) and non-native grasses, sprouted from seeds/roots already in the soil.
Non-native, invasive Kikuyu Grass - Heritage Creek Preserve -
Non-native Pampas Grass - 2008 

Others, like the invasive Kikuyugrass (Pennisetum clandestinum; see above) and Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana),   were not present in the Old Nature Preserve; they were likely introduced by equipment used to grade the site.    Other early weeds included Caster bean (Ricinus communis), Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), Eucalyptus species, Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and Garland chrysanthemum (Glebionis  coronaria [formerly Chrysanthemum coronarium]) likely started from seeds blown in or deposited by birds.

Hedgerow soon after planting - 2008

Hedgerow in 2012

2008 was important in several ways. First was the decision to plant a hedgerow on the western edge of the Preserve, in the area between the driveway and the concrete drainage channel.  Original plants included in the hedgerow were several Lemonadeberry shrubs (Rhus integrifolia), and several Toyons (Heteromeles arbutifolia).  While not native to the Dominguez Hills, these plants are common on the Palos Verdes peninsula.   They were chosen to increase habitat diversity by providing food for fruit-eating birds and animals.
Path & bench, first Eagle Scout project in
Heritage Creek Preserve - December 2008


In the fall of 2008, the first Eagle Scout Project was completed in Heritage Creek Preserve.  Scout John Cortenbach and members of Boy Scout Troop 388 (Lomita) installed the western half of a pathway through the Preserve, as well as the first bench (see above).  John’s was just the first of five Eagle Scout Projects completed by this troop at the Preserve; Troop 388 Eagle Projects are responsible for trails, restoration, the stump seats, both information kiosks and the Preserve’s monument sign.   Over the years, Eagle Scout projects from other troops have installed additional trail, benches, information markers and plants at the Preserve.  In short, most of the hardscape that makes the preserve accessible and interesting is thanks to the hard work of Eagle Scouts and their troops.

Jeffrey Hessick doing restoration work, 2008

Several university students did internships at heritage Creek in the early years.  These included Jeffrey Hessick from CSUDH (above) and Alyssa White (below).  Both helped plant some of the early shrubs, trees and grasses in the Preserve.

The period from 2009 to 2012 was a time with normal rainfall.  The first plantings increased in size, changing the appearance of the Preserve dramatically.  Many more birds, reptiles and mammals were observed at the Preserve.  Several students did observational studies of the Preserve during this period.

Restoration emphasis was on removing non-native species and planting smaller riparian plants (grasses, rushes and perennials) as well as upland grasses in the middle of the Preserve.   Some Bush sunflowers, buckwheats and other shrubs were planted on the south slope near the road and near the hedgerow.  Drought tolerant shrubs were installed at the corners.   New plants were watered in summer using ‘Homer buckets’ (drip buckets that hold 5 gallons of water and release it slowly to the plant).   The pictures below are representative of that era.
Watering near hedgerow, August, 2011
View looking east, May, 2011

East end of Preserve from path - April, 2012

Southwest corner planting - April 2012

View from the south side, looking northwest - April 2012
In 2013 and 2014, the region experienced the most severe drought on record.  Restoration efforts were severely curtailed as a result of the drought.   A few shrubs were planted on the south slope and in the hedgerow.  The Salvias planted the year before in the hedgerow bloomed, attracting a wider range of pollinators including native bees and hummingbirds.

Native sage (Salvia)  blooming near hedgerow

Given the extreme drought, it’s surprising how well the established plants did. The hardest hit were the Coyote bushes (Baccharis pilularis) and the newer Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea [formerly Cleome isomeris; Isomeris arborea] growing along the Perimeter Road.  The native grasses pretty much disappeared, one of the many lessons of the drought.  The early and late-blooming shrubby sunflowers all did remarkably well.

Even in the drought, the Preserve had summer wildflowers like Annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) and Hooker’s evening primrose (Oenothera elata spp. hookeri) blooming in summer 2014. The Cliff aster (Malacothrix saxatilis), a perennial wildflower, bloomed less and earlier, but survived; same was true of the California poppies (Eschscholzia californica ssp. californica), which were spectacular and re-seeded in new areas of the Preserve.  The pictures below are typical of this period.



2014 ended with several significant rainstorms (below).



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