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A Gulch in Limbo

news_arana_sunsetThe Arana Gulch Master Plan faces another round of review
There’s something spellbinding about Arana Gulch. Its wide-open spaces, sprawling oaks and seasonal wetlands exist in perfect harmony with the dense urban setting that surrounds it on all sides. It is uncommon to find such a natural, relatively untouched space surviving in a city, but Santa Cruz has managed to preserve Arana Gulch’s inherent beauty since the city purchased the land in 1994. The city has been planning to use this space to connect the Eastside with the rest of Santa Cruz with a bike path ever since, but has yet to gain full approval.

Supported by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), Ecology Action, People Power and, more recently, the Santa Cruz City Council and Board of Supervisors, this project has been a long time coming. But with such adamant support, why has it taken more than 15 years of reports, data and litigation for the Arana Gulch Master Plan (AGMP) to be reviewed by the Coastal Commission?

Arana Gulch was designated a “critical habitat” in 2002 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and is defined as an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) by the California Coastal Act. There is an array of protected wildlife that call the Arana Gulch home, with the Santa Cruz tarplant being one of the most well known inhabitants because of its endangered species status. In addition to the tarplant, special status species in the Arana Gulch include the Great Blue Heron, Steelhead Trout and the San Francisco Dusky-Footed Woodrat. There is so much wildlife in such a small space (67.7 acres) that many have been left wondering if a paved path to connect Broadway and Brommer Street is worth the damage that will be done to this already threatened environment.

news_arana_gulch2The opposition to the AGMP, led by Friends of Arana Gulch (FOAG), does not want any part of this open space paved, nor do they want any of the species to be further jeopardized. Jean Brocklebank leads FOAG on the long fight to prevent the city from encroaching on the sensitive habitat. For Brocklebank, the fight is about enforcement of land use restrictions and ensuring that the City of Santa Cruz is accountable for the habitat restoration and enhancement plans put forth previously in the Interim Management Plan and currently in the AGMP.

“The city has had money to do tarplant management for 12 years and they were required to do it by their own 1997 Interim Management Plan, but they haven’t followed through,” says Brocklebank on a walk through Arana Gulch, where the ground is muddy from recent rains. “What we want is somebody to hold the city’s feet to the fire to make sure they do the management, but who is going to enforce that? Is there a Coastal Commission police officer?”

The California Coastal Commission released a Staff Recommendation on Feb. 24 that “recommends that the Commission approve a CDP (Coastal Development Permit) for the proposed project.” This recommendation comes with numerous conditions of approval, which must be met along with the official approval by the commission before the permit can be acquired. These conditions include wetland avoidance relocation of unpaved Arana Meadow Trail to avoid tarplant populations, abandoning all paths that are not included in the Master Plan, and restoring habitat on these abandoned paths.

This raises the question of what will potentially happen five, 10 or 15 years down the road if the city is no longer able to adhere to these conditions. The path, bridge and signage will already be in place. Will the habitat suffer because conditions of the approved permit cannot be enforced?

County Supervisor and member of the Coastal Commission Mark Stone says there are possible repercussions for the city if approval conditions aren’t followed. “It depends on the language of the permit, but if there’s a violation of the permit, the Commission uses a dispute resolution process,” says Stone. Although they hope it won’t come to this, it may ease the minds of the concerned local environmentalists if there are consequences for diverging from, or not completely adhering to, the exact nature of the permit.

The path has potentially great outcomes, as well—the most popular of which is a safer cross-town route for cyclists.  However, the Coastal Commission’s Thursday, March 11 hearing on the AGMP (which proponents were hoping would be the final vote of approval) ended on a note of delay.  The commission stated that the motives for the paved paths will have to be for more than transportation. “Putting this (bike path) through tarplant habitat is just not acceptable,” says Coastal Commission member Sara J. Wan. “From my perspective, the bike path needs to be removed from the plan.”

Currently, the only other alternative routes for cyclists are along busy Soquel Avenue to Capitola Road, or along Murray Street, which involves crossing the narrow harbor bridge. “According to law enforcement bike crash data from 2008 for Santa Cruz County, Soquel Avenue had the second highest number of bike crashes, 17, than any road in the county,” comments Piet Canin of Ecology Action. “The City and County of Santa Cruz ranked in the top three for the highest number of bike crashes with injuries for 2008 compared to other sites of similar size throughout California.”

There is no question that a safer bike route needs to be provided, but the city must now look at alternatives to paving a path directly though the center of Arana Gulch to find the answer. “Both Murray and Soquel are narrow, congested, and considered by all but the bravest and most dedicated bicyclists to be unsafe,” says Paul Scholhamer, supporter of the AMGP. “Without providing a better, safer route than we have today, we are not going to convert any of today’s short car trips.”

People Power, a local bicycle and human power advocacy group, would like to get as many cars off the road as possible and, with that in mind, they have fully supported the AGMP. Director Micah Posner believes that alternative bicycle access will get people out of their cars in exchange for a convenient bike ride across town.

“In Santa Cruz, even more so than the rest of the state, the transportation sector is by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Posner. “In our city 47 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and 40 percent of all automobile trips are three miles or less.”

After 15 years of debates, developments and decisions, the Coastal Commission says their call to prolong approval once again is necessary to ensure that the tarplant habitat won’t be devastated. At this juncture, the city will have to implement a revised master plan for Arana Gulch that focuses on it as a habitat—rather than transportation—project.

Neither the city nor the Coastal Commission want another 15 years of debates. “Practically speaking, how do we save the tarplant?” asks Coastal Commissioner James Wickett, sympathizing with environmentalists, cyclists and the city. “There is simply no easy answer to this.”

Comments (2)Add Comment
...
written by Kit, March 29, 2010
Facts are that the City of Santa Cruz blew it early in proposing the
bike path through the environmentally sensitive habitat area of an
endangered species. What a no-brainer! The obvious route would be
from Broadway through Frederick Street Park down through the Harbor
to Brommer . The harbor is public land! Why should citizens be
miffed at the Coastal Commission for interpreting environmental law
correctly in the face of harsh bullying tactics from People Power?
Where is the outrage at the City of Santa Cruz for their flawed,
blockhead plan?

It is at last time for all to work together to see that a bicycle
corridor happens: environmentalists, bicyclists, all of us. Let us
not permit the flaws of city government to hinder us in this regard
any longer.
Tar Weed Control: AS PUBLISHED
written by Terry Bond, March 17, 2010
ECOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT OF TARWEED

Yellow tarweed is a native plant that is well adapted to the hot dry foothill summers. Tarweed’s summer growth is sometimes tall and sticky. It is not palatable to livestock, hides forage needed by livestock and coats the faces and legs of livestock with a tarry resin.
With the arrival of Europeans, California’s grasslands changed dramatically. Annual grasses and forbs from the Mediterranean area were introduced both accidentally and intentionally. These species were shorter-lived and shallower-rooted than the perennial grass that they replaced. Growing numbers of domestic livestock greatly increased the grazing pressure on the range, resulting in less soil moisture use by plants. Also, the summer fires that had swept through the perennial grasslands were controlled. These changes undoubtedly favored the spread of tarweed.

By the end of winter, the tarweed plant has developed a deep taproot and about a dozen broad leaves in a rosette. Roots of tarweed go deeper than most of the winter annual grasses, reducing competition with them for soil nutrients and moisture. Penetration rates in sand of over 1.5 inches per day have been observed. From late spring until early summer the shoots elongate and branch out with bract-like leaves on woody stems that stand 1 to 2 feet tall.

By October, the plant disperses mature seeds and dies. The woody stems and thicker branches remain standing for at least one additional season.

Livestock use tarweed in winter and early spring while it is young and succulent. Use decreases rapidly as it increases in height and resin covering. It is hardly grazed at all at maturity when covered with resinous exudate, although it is still an important source of protein and moisture for ground squirrels. Summer annuals are often the only actively growing green plants, relatively high in protein, available in the summer on annual range. To discourage herbivory, summer annuals have apparently evolved mechanisms such as spines, aromatic compounds in vinegar weed, and aromatic resins as in tarweed. Few animals are able to feed on these plant in the summer.

CONTROL
Mechanical: Mowing to 4 inches in May reduced tarweed by 20%, mowing in July reduced tarweed by 90%, whereas mowing in late August eliminated all but a few prostrate plants. Density in the year following late summer mowing was reduced by 90%.

Chemical: University of California researchers, using 1.5 lb./acre of a low volatile ester of 2,4-D, found that tarweed was affected much more by the herbicide treatment before elongation (April 21) than after elongation (July 14). Because legal restrictions on herbicides are constantly changing, you should contact your Agricultural Commissioner before using any chemical control method.

Seedbank: One of the major obstacles to mechanical or chemical removal of tarweed is the seedbank of hard ray achenes that exists on sites. After five years of summer mowing, tarweed densities were about 10% of those in unmowed plots. To be successful, the use of these methods must be long-term (over five years) to totally eliminate tarweed, otherwise the pasture will be reinfested once the eradication project ends.

Fertilization: Nitrogen fertilization increase the vigor and productivity of tarweed’s competitors, making them better able to deplete soil moisture that supports tarweed survival and growth in the summer. The fertilizer should be applied in the fall to ensure that winter annuals utilize it efficiently. However, it is doubtful whether the large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer required annually to reduce tarweed density effectively (107/lb./acre) would be economical if applied to rangelands.

Annual legumes: Nitrogen fixation by annual legumes increases forage production and reduces soil moisture available to tarweed. Rose clover fertilized with single superphoshate has been shown to reduce tarweed. Lana vetch, subterranean clover, and the annual medics should have the same effect. Perennial grass: Although no studies have demonstrated a reduction in tarweed, established grass seedings should deplete soil moisture, making it unavailable to tarweed.

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