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New Lagoon

news1_ecoUCSC’s Natural Reserve System works to restore Younger Lagoon

It’s a beautiful, mild mid-December day and Gage Dayton is standing on a gently sloping hill overlooking Younger Lagoon, a natural reserve site, as he looks politely, if a bit sternly, at a surfer. The surfer, a man in his early twenties clad in a black hooded wetsuit, is, for his part, looking both embarrassed and uncomfortable; he’s in a distinctly awkward spot, positioned several feet off the ground, halfway over a fence. His two friends, also clad in wetsuits and clutching their surfboards, are standing behind him, looking similarly abashed.

“No hopping here, guys,” Dayton says mildly. “Sorry. This is a reserve.” The surfers haven’t moved; they look at him a bit skeptically. “The UC Santa Cruz police have actually been starting to patrol down here, unfortunately,” he adds.

This does the trick. Surfer No. 1 hops down from the fence and grabs his board from his buddy. They all look at the ground and mutter, more or less in unison, “Sorry about that.” They form a huddle and have a brief, urgently whispered conversation, then jump back into a white truck and take off down the road in search of happier, less policed surfing grounds.

Younger Lagoon is one of the five reserve sites spread out over 60 miles along the Central Coast that form the UCSC unit. The other four are at Año Nuevo Island, Landels-Hill Big Creek, Fort Ord, and on 400 acres of protected lands on the UCSC campus itself. The entire University of California Natural Reserves System (NRS) has 36 sites throughout California.

Younger Lagoon, located just off Shaffer Road and next to UCSC’s Long Marine Laboratory, makes up just a tiny fraction of the total NRS acreage. “We’ve got a little postage stamp here, sandwiched in between Brussels sprouts and development,” Dayton says. Though most of the Central Coast is now either agricultural or residential land, he explains, “This is what a lot of Central California used to look like. This lagoon here is about 25 acres, and then there’s an additional 45 acres that were recently incorporated into the reserve as well.”

It’s also a protected area and is closed to public access. Dayton and his staff are working on restoring the natural flora and fauna of the area so it can be used for education and research for university students and scientists. But, as he explains with weary amusement, “There’s a nice surf break right out there. It’s a real popular secret spot.” Hence a near-constant stream of well-meaning but potentially destructive fence-hoppers who could jeopardize the still-fragile ecosystem of the area.

Restoration is a slow, multi-decade process. “Plants don’t grow overnight,” Dayton points out. But he says the NRS staff has already made huge strides in rooting out pernicious non-native plant species. He turns away from the fence and the road and gestures back toward the land surrounding the lagoon itself. “See that light green over there?” he asks. “That’s hemlock. It’s an invasive species. Over the past 10 years or so, we’ve been doing restorations, mostly with students, having them come out here and get hands-on experience with restoring the native habitat. If you’d come out here 10 years ago, this area would have been all light green.”

Instead, the land surrounding the lagoon is a rich, variegated tapestry of different shades of deep green, as the many types of plants native to the area each make their slow return. “If you hop up here,” he continues, jumping onto a wooden bench overlooking the lagoon, “you can see right down there, where there are more little plants just starting to grow. That all used to be hemlock too. You come back in 10 years, that’ll all just be native habitat.” As native plants return, so, too, do the animal species who depend on them for food and shelter. “Once the plants get established,” Dayton explains, “they out-compete the invasive species.  Then with that you get the insects and the lizards and the snakes and all that.” Even some bigger species have been known to use the land. “You wouldn’t guess it, because it’s such a small area, but there are bobcats out here too, along with deer and coyote,” he says.

Dayton is sympathetic to the surfers, hikers, and bird-watchers who’d like to have access to Younger Lagoon. It’s a beautiful spot, and he readily admits that if he wasn’t the NRS director, he, too, might be sneaking into the area, “moving around some logs to get over here or something like that.” But he still argues that the benefits of having a protected area outweigh the inconveniences of restricting public access. “It’s a real difficult one,” he says. “We need natural areas where the impact is very controlled and limited where we can do research and education. But it’s hard too, because we all want to be everywhere. But we can love our natural areas to death. So you can see the issue. [Trespassing] is going to happen all the time, but if we can limit it, that’s the goal.”

He’s also realistic about the extent to which they can restore the area to what it once was, given how successful many of the non-native species have been. “With any invasive species, you kind of have to pick your battles, see if it’s something you can beat,” he says. “European starlings, for example, you can’t beat them. We’re never going to get rid of them. You have to pick your battles on which species are going to have the most negative impact on the environment, the native flora and fauna.”

Dayton is quick to point out that although Younger Lagoon itself is closed off, much of the area around it is open to the public. “What we’ve worked out is there’s going to be a path where there’s going to be some public access,” he says. “[For] Younger Lagoon we’re going to limit access, because that’s more a fragile, protected habitat.” But what’s referred to as the “terrace lands,” an expansive piece of ocean-side meadow next to the Long Marine Lab, will remain easily accessible.

In time, Dayton also hopes to educate the public about the necessity of having protected areas. “One of the things we’ll be doing over the next year is a lot of outreach,” he says. “As these areas get developed, there’s going to be more people here. We have to do that education to convey the importance and the uniqueness of this area.”

He hopes the public will realize that it is crucial to have undisturbed native habitats in place. “There’s a need for places like this,” he continues. “It’s of very deep, long-term importance. And a little protection goes a long way.”

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