Some of my favorites are people who have an intimate understanding of the place. I’m sure you know the people I’m referring to, those who can reference the growth of individual tree branches on a hike, or identify all the ditches within a given radius that will have a presence of chorus frogs afterwards. a specific evening time, or recognize the return of a pair of breeding oystercatchers to an intertidal area as one would greet a beloved relative landing at the airport.
These people are also often the most connected to large-scale phenomena. They can tell you, for example, how a specific being can be influenced by changing tides, or changing seasons, or a changing climate. Their investment in hyper-local communities of plants and animals, humans and non-humans, provides them with the lived experience that makes them an effective advocate.
I don’t know if you can be more localized than Groundswell Coastal Ecology, the Santa Cruz-based food service nonprofit whose mission is to “make places better for nature and people”. Groundswell aims to create resilient and sustainable coastal ecosystems through community engagement at the neighborhood level, incorporating volunteers, local schools, teachers and businesses in rebuilding native biodiversity.
If you’ve recently walked along Seabright Beach or to Walton Lighthouse, chances are you’ve seen Groundswell at work or enjoyed the fruits of their labor as they replant our dunes from local sand along the coast. “Our vision is of a world where thriving natural ecosystems are linked to vibrant communities through practical stewardship,” said Bill Henry, Director of Groundswell.
The Seabright Beach Shoreline Improvement Project began in 2013 and is Groundswell’s largest volunteer effort. “Former Seabright resident Jordan Plotsky put me in touch with environmentalist Nancy Lenz to begin the restoration of the cove where Pilkington Creek enters the Seabright Beach portion of Twin Lakes State Beach,” Henry tells me. Henry, who was working with the USGS at the time, started the project at the grassroots level as part of the nonprofit Oikonos. Momentum building, Jeb Bishop has joined as a volunteer leader, partners have grown and funders such as Coastal Conservancy, Coastal Commission and the NOAA Marine Sanctuaries Office have joined us, and soon Groundswell Coastal Ecology took a life of its own.
The project now extends from the mouth of the San Lorenzo River to the West Harbor Pier. After restoring more than half a mile of coastline by investing more than 15,000 volunteer hours in the removal of countless tons of ice factories and the planting and maintenance of tens of thousands of plants, it is the largest coastal restoration project in the city of Santa Cruz and among the case examples for restored living shorelines throughout California State Parks.
“Our work increases coastal resilience by using green infrastructure to build coastal dunes and cliffs that protect our shores and provide important wildlife habitat within the urban envelope.” Volunteers gather every Monday at Seabright to remove weeds and plant native shrubs and flowers on the dunes and hills of the coast. Groundswell currently hosts ten food court locations, including Davenport Landing, Natural Bridges, West Cliff Drive, Lighthouse Field, and Rio Del Mar, among others.
Henry believes coastal restoration work is urgent in a changing climate. “We need solutions to maintain the ecology in coastal areas that face intense coastal pressure, stuck between development and rising seas,” he says.
Quick to give all the credit to the dedicated volunteers at Groundswell, he emphasizes that “Stewardship is key to bringing about lasting change. This work is not a point of action, but a cultural practice, in the footsteps of the indigenous peoples who walked here long before us, a way to make our environment better for nature and people.
Grace Voss and Bishop are the volunteers at Seabright Beach. Bishop organized Seabright’s neighbors, stepping in to support Henry as the organization evolved and grew. Voss proudly holds the record for spending more hours “Keeping Invasive Weed Out” than any other volunteer.
“We planted hills with native plants like lizard tail, monkey flower, beach sage and seaside daisy,” says Voss. “The work is both stimulating and rewarding, testing your balance and stamina. Over two recent Mondays, 450 native plants were added to a steep area. Neighbors help by providing water, and a spirit of camaraderie is always present.
Bishop sees the restoration project as “a way to fight the extinction of species.” He shares: “Much of our planet has been destroyed by development and by invasive species. Butterflies and birds no longer have a home and we are once again giving them a place to live.
Over the years, Voss has noticed the return of larger insects and animals. “Last spring, three red-tailed hawks, two adults and one juvenile, hung around the beach for several weeks. Burrowing owl and Gophersnakes were also seen. Ladybugs, large black beetles and salamanders are once again at home on the hillsides.
Henri agrees. “Our research has shown that we are getting a ten-fold increase in abundance and a three-fold increase in native bee diversity in just three months after restoring native plants to the dunes and cliffs invaded by sea ice,” says- he. “It also extends to other animals. Snow plovers, wild tits, deer and wintering burrowing owls nest on restored land at Seabright Beach.
Groundswell is not only an expert in the place, but in intergenerational learning. “So many projects fail by not bringing the community of all ages into the equation,” says Henry. Gault Elementary School, located just up the street on Seabright Avenue, was a natural fit for continued volunteer engagement through community service learning.
Hundreds of Gault students have come together to restore their back deck alongside other schools in Santa Cruz, including Monarch Elementary, Costanoa High School, and the Alternative Family Education program. “Students engage in scientific illustration to create colorful panels that are visible today,” says Voss. The small schools in Branciforte even house a greenhouse that “provides space to propagate native plants until they are ready to enter the ground,” she tells me. “Students bring dynamism to work.
For more information, to volunteer or to donate to Groundswell Coastal Ecology, visit www.groundswell.ecology.org. “Remember, work days are every Monday from 9 am to 12:30 pm,” says Voss. “We are ready to expand this work quickly,” says Henry, “but there is also a supply chain behind the restaurant business. A donation of time, equipment or money really makes a difference.
Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at [email protected]