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Love OC’s natural areas? Volunteers help with preservation, access

Tucked around Orange County’s many communities are thousands of acres of preserved wildlands that offer strolls through trees, hikes to scenic vistas and, when lucky, glimpses of the animal kingdom that also calls the region home.

Volunteers provide much of the manpower making that access possible, helping with projects that are restoring the county’s natural resources and the maintenance of the web of trails and paths that get people out of their cars and into nature. Volunteers act as guides introducing neighbors to the varieties of plants and animals that are unique to the natural habitats and also as defenders against invasive species and even dangerous fires.

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“We could not do what we do without the volunteers,” said Derek Breaux, outreach and development director for the Laguna Canyon Foundation, which works with the OC Parks system to preserve the 22,000-acre South Coast Wilderness — it includes the Laguna Coast and Aliso and Wood Canyons wilderness parks and other nearby open spaces.

On a recent Saturday, a hardy team of volunteers headed several miles into the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park to help with maintaining the Stagecoach South Trail. Volunteers regularly help the foundation with “trail stewardship” by cutting back overgrown vegetation, removing invasive plants that shouldn’t be there and can kill off the native species and addressing erosion or ruts.

The foundation’s staff work on the trails throughout the week, but most weekends there are opportunities for the public to volunteer to help, allowing a lot more of the needed work to be addressed, Breaux said.

“Things like trail maintenance, there is so much that goes into it that people just don’t realize,” he said. “Most of the volunteers that come on our programs are just folks who enjoy using our trails.”

They are people who like “giving back to the earth,” he said, and in doing so, they “learn about all the hard work that goes into maintaining the pretty, pristine habitat we have here in Orange County.”

Volunteers also play a big role in restoring that habitat.

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy manages some 40,000 acres of Orange County’s wildlands for various cities and agencies, and part of that mandate is driving out invasive species of plants that have taken hold but don’t belong in this region and wreak havoc on the natural flora and fauna. It is also restoring lands that have been degraded over the years by misuse or following fires and other damage.

Volunteers help in a couple of ways. An easy option for getting involved is getting your hands dirty at the conservancy’s native seed farm; the Laguna Canyon Foundation has two similar, smaller operations people can also help at, as well.

Grown are the varieties of plants and shrubs and vegetation that would naturally occur in Orange County’s wildlands. Their seeds are harvested so, as invasive species are driven out and lands are restored, there are seeds available to replant what is appropriate for supporting the local ecosystems. You can’t walk down to the local store and get these plants in bulk.

Maritza Armenta, a program coordinator for the IRC who oversees the 8-acre seed farm, has public volunteer days every Wednesday and Saturday, and repeat participants are common, she said. “It’s nice to see them kind of get the full circle of putting the plants in the ground and being there the whole cycle and harvesting the plants.”

About 1,500 pounds of seeds are harvested each season at the farm.

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The conservancy couldn’t produce that much without the help of volunteers, Armenta said. “We rely heavily on public programming at the native seed farm.”

One recent morning, volunteers with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy were in Baker Canyon planting oak tree seedlings to restore a grove.

“My restoration and enhancement projects are 100% (volunteer), that is where I get my help as well,” said Matilde De Santiago, another program coordinator with IRC who is overseeing some 13 projects going on right now, including the Baker Canyon efforts, and has monthly volunteering opportunities to help with the work.

Along with members of the public, the programs are also open to corporate, community and youth groups looking for volunteering opportunities.

“There is a sense of ownership,” De Santiago said of the volunteers who come back again and again to help. “I hear it all the time, ‘I want to go check on my shrub I planted to see how it is doing.’ They enjoy being outdoors and just being in the wildlands.”

Ashton Abbott was among the volunteers planting the oak tree seedlings. She tries to volunteer with one of the conservation and parks groups in the county at least on a month, she said.

“I’m a nature lover, and I care about the ecosystem,” she said. “This gives me a chance to do some good, nature-wise.”

And, getting to learn more about the local habitats “is awesome,” she said.

Local agencies also have teams of trained volunteers who help with guiding hikes, act as docents and take on more of a leadership role with the various projects. OC Parks uses volunteers as historic docents, for doing backcountry patrols and at the OC Zoo. Its Orange County Fire Watch has a network of volunteers, and there is a Ranger Reserves program.

And the calendar is full of beach and park cleanup days and other opportunities; the upcoming Earth Day would be a good time to get your feet wet with volunteering.

There are a number of local organizations to volunteer with: ocparks.com, lagunacanyon.org, irconservancy.org and letsgooutside.org are just a few places to check.


Source: Orange County Register

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