"It Was Hell," Recalls Quercus Lobata: Big Chico Creek Restoration

Paul Maslin, Biology, center, works on Big Chico Creek restoration with help
from participating students. (photo Jeff Teeter)
Most of us wouldn't know it by looking, but there's a war going on along the banks of Big Chico Creek. Himalayan blackberry vines are duking it out with California blackberry vines, hackberry is struggling against elderberry, and privet is vying with mugwort for biotic dominance—and that's only a tiny part of it. Biology professor Paul Maslin, who heads the Chico Creek Restoration Project, has become expert at recognizing the players in this battle and for many years has been working with students and citizens of the community to help the good guys win. Mugwort, elderberry, and California blackberry are some of the native plants whose habitats Maslin and crew are attempting to protect from encroachment and downright annihilation by "exotics," non-native plants, particularly where the creek winds through the CSU,Chico campus.

Those of us strolling the paths along the creek might wonder why it matters much whether a plant is native or exotic, especially given that many of the exotics seem so lush and beautiful. But it does. Native plants and animals have adapted to each other and staked out particular niches in the riparian zone. The white alders growing by the water's edge, for instance, serve the larger creekside environment in a number of ways. Their roots fix nitrogen in the air and soil "into organic forms plants can use," Maslin writes in one of the many interesting documents I discovered at his Web site. "Thus alder leaves are high in protein and, when they fall into the creek, are a rich source of nitrogen supporting the food chain for animal life in the creek." Exotic plants that crowd the alders out may look good but not perform the same beneficial functions.

Sometimes the process of environmental degradation is hastened inadvertently by humans, as used to happen on the campus with the irrigation of the grounds along the edge of the riparian corridor. Native California plants that had adapted to long, hot summers in the Sacramento Valley, such as the valley oak (Quercus lobata), were being watered to death while vigorous non-natives, such as Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus), were beginning to flourish. The Restoration Project has since convinced campus grounds personnel to limit irrigation, which can also wash pesticides into the watershed, to areas outside the riparian zone. A small victory, perhaps, but it is efforts like this that may ultimately keep Big Chico Creek a place frequented by such diverse organisms as giant tiger swallowtails, green herons, gray squirrels, and migrating salmon.

"Restoration of [Big Chico Creek's] natural flora," writes Maslin, "will provide for the needs of a greater variety of native animals, increasing educational and esthetic value" and the process of restoration will also provide "both a learning laboratory for involved students and a model of ecological stewardship for our campus and our watershed." Details of the Restoration Project, as well as A Management Guide for the Care of Streams, which Maslin authored with assistance from The Committee for Stewardship of Chico Creek, and a plethora of related and fascinating links, can be found at Maslin's Web site: www.csuchico.edu/~pmaslin/Cr.Manag/RipRest.html .


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