"Service Trips" Are Obsolete!
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
February 23, 2017
I used to think that I didn't need to monitor our parks, because they would automatically be well managed. Was I ever wrong!
Today I worked eight hours in Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve removing French broom and other exotic plants. Then I sat down on the bench at the top of the hill to empty the dirt out of my shoes. Next to me a U.C. Berkeley student was doing stretching exercises. I said "I don't understand why this bench was placed facing the wrong direction. Behind the bench is a nice view of pristine habitat; in front of it are freeways and smog." She said "The sunset is nice. Sometimes I even hike backwards, so I can see the view." I said "Look, even the people are facing the wrong way!" (A man in front of us was also looking toward the freeway.)
As I walked home, I suddenly realized that what just happened was, in microcosm, the central problem of our time: we are all looking the wrong way! We are always looking at our fellow humans and our man-made environment, and ignoring the natural world. The result is the "Anthropocene" and its Sixth Great Mass Extinction. Lately our wildlife are "out of sight" and "out of mind". I go to many conferences. I always remind the conferees that a conference is a bunch of humans getting together to decide how to divide up the world. I remind them that the wildlife would love to be there to speak for themselves, but they were unable to come.
While working in the park, I noticed that it is almost entirely empty of native animals. One of my criteria for a successful hike is to see an animal. (Birds and insects don't count, unless there is nothing else – they are too common.) One day I saw two caterpillars lying side-by-side on a leaf. Nothing else. No, our regional parks are not well-managed. They are chock full of exotic species: besides us and our dogs, Eucalyptus, French broom, Italian thistle, poison hemlock, oxalis, wild radish, acacia, etc. No wonder the native animals are nowhere to be seen: the native plants that they have evolved with for millions of years are to be found only in the areas where there are no humans (in this case, in the trail-less chaparral)!
I like to work near the trail, because many people thank me for doing this work. Well, they thank me, but none of them offer to help. (I understand: when I was a student, most of my free time was spent studying; when I was working, most of my free time was spent on various environmental projects such as stopping freeway expansion or studying conservation biology. Now that I'm retired, I have an almost endless supply of free time.) But the result is that our parks are being neglected. The Park District gives top priority to purchasing new land. I understand and agree with this attitude. But volunteers, who should be making up for the park management's lack of resources, are scarce, and the park managers aren't making much of an effort to recruit them.
So we are operating on an obsolete model of a park: clearly, people think that a park is a place to go to have fun, and not have to lift a finger to maintain it. It isn't working! Our park managers either aren't willing, or aren't able, to maintain our parks as they should be managed. It's up to us to fill the gap. It should be understood that anyone who visits a park should help to fix whatever is wrong: pick up trash, remove invasive exotic plants, report damaged trails and illegal activities (such as illegal mountain biking or trail-building), etc.
Next I started thinking about the Sierra Club's trips. Most are just for fun (or possibly environmental or biological education). A few are advertised as "Service Trips", whose purpose is some kind of park maintenance. I've only been on two Sierra Club trips, both service trips. But it seems to me that "service trips" are obsolete: all trips should be service trips! We can't assume that our parks are perfectly maintained and not in need of our help.
I bought myself a "Park Patrol" trash picker, which I now bring on every camping trip. With this wonderful invention, I can pick up just about any trash, and I never have to bend over and I never have to touch anything. It's great for our annual beach cleanups. As for removing invasive exotics, I highly recommend volunteering with members of the California Native Plant Society (or the equivalent in your area). Their members are walking encyclopedias of plant knowledge, and they can tell you which plants are native, which are exotic, and how to identify them (often including the species names).
One group I have been working with along the Bay Area Ridge Trail has discovered the most biodiverse region in all of the Bay Area: Siesta Valley - 237 species of native plants, and counting. As noted in the last Yodeler, you can volunteer by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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