With a lagoon, an open-space preserve and several restoration projects near university-owned dorms and apartments, the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration manages over 300 acres of UC Santa Barbara’s ecologically diverse campus.
But for the greater part of this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered the center’s restoration operations, which normally rely on student workers and volunteers to manage the university’s vast ecological footprint.
“We used to have big volunteer groups assisting us with all this labor and all these interns and student workers,” Andy Lanes, Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (CCBER) education and outreach coordinator, said in an interview with the Nexus.
“Throughout this whole summer, we’ve been forced to be by ourselves, do all the work by ourselves eight hours a day. I personally had some health issues with my back from doing that work all summer, so it’s affected me personally,” he said. “But also it’s made getting all this work that needs to be done really hard because we don’t have these big volunteer groups.”
CCBER is in charge of managing and restoring several sites, including the Campus Lagoon, Manzanita Village and the North Campus Open Space Preserve (NCOS). But during the first two weeks of the campus shutdown, CCBER could not operate at all, Lanes said.
“I was honestly pretty surprised that the university suspended our work for a bit because the amount of effort and time and money that has gone into restoring [NCOS] is just a crazy amount to sacrifice,” said Kaelen McCracken, a student restoration ecologist at CCBER.
“Everybody’s made sacrifices for COVID, but I expected the work to continue because it could accommodate COVID precautions so easily,” she said.
After the first two weeks of the campus shutdown in March, CCBER was allowed to resume some essential functions, including managing fire danger and safety in the open-space preserves, according to Lanes.
However, Lanes added that none of the students hired by CCBER for Spring Quarter 2020 were allowed to work, and as a result, campus restoration projects were held back. Critical restoration efforts to clear weeds and make way for native plants slowed down, and now those in charge of managing restoration spaces for CCBER fear that 2021 will see a particularly bad weed season, according to Darwin Richardson, project manager for the NCOS.
“It was about the worst timing imaginable for us,” Richardson said. “These projects are geared on seasonal work and springtime is when we’re doing a lot of weeding — that’s due to our climate. We work hard year by year to make sure we have enough of a workforce to address this challenge.”
Additionally, according to Richardson, this year was a critical window for decreasing the non-native weed population for the coming years. This is because many of the grants that fund the NCOS restoration project will end after 2020, he said.
“We’ve done well the first two years; this is our third year in the [NCOS restoration project] and we’re at the point where funding will start going down. This was a really critical weeding season, one last chance to control our weeds and allow our native vegetation to establish,” Richardson continued.
In a normal year, with around 60 to 70 students working on restoration projects, weeds and invasive species would be managed with few issues. But this year, because students were not able to work on the restoration projects during the weed season, the CCBER staff had to prioritize which areas and invasive species to weed and were forced to resort to faster weeding methods.
“Areas where we would have been able to diligently hand weed … we had to resort to the more drastic method of string trimming stuff down,” Richardson said. “In order to stop the non-natives from flowering, we also cut down the natives because the natives are perennial, so they’ll grow back … whereas non-natives are unlikely to because they’re annual.”
With CCBER facing a deficit in their student workforce and multiple setbacks, Richardson said it will be harder to control invasive species in the next several years because restoration efforts this year were delayed.
“Controlling the invasives is one of the paramount goals of this project, and because we’ve lost this year, it’s gonna take several years to make up that ground,” Richardson said. “The natives are establishing, but the idea is that the first few years are the most critical for controlling the weed bank.”
Despite the setbacks, Richardson said he is still optimistic that the restoration at the NCOS will be completed.
Recently, more student workers have returned to work on CCBER-managed restoration projects. In July, eight student workers were allowed back for restoration projects, and as of early October, 20 students have been allowed back to campus to plant tens of thousands of plants before the winter, said Lisa Stratton, director of ecosystem management for CCBER.
“Because the weed season lasted so long, normally we’d start planning in June but we couldn’t because we were still weeding and we didn’t have students,” Stratton said. “So we have a ton of plants that we need to get in the ground. You don’t want to wait until winter when it’s so wet; these clay soils, you can barely move around on them. So we’re just planting like mad. We really need to get these 35, 40 thousand plants in the ground.”
The return of a handful of students has been a welcome change, in part because it has restored a sense of community that was at CCBER before the pandemic, according to Stratton.
“I feel like we are providing a real outlet for the students, both the ones who can recreate on our open spaces and the ones who can work with us, who we can provide the opportunity for a paid position that is safe and enjoyable and with some sense of community and contributing to the Earth. I feel really good about being able to slowly offer that opportunity to students,” Stratton said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted CCBER’s ability to operate this year, the center is adapting to the situation to fulfill its role as an environmental and educational body at UCSB.
“People who aren’t really in the environmental science circle of the university, or at least take interest in environmental affairs, don’t consider this work to be essential or important,” McCracken said.
“It’s not immediately essential for people’s health, but I think it’s really important and I’m really passionate about the work and the project, and I’m really proud of the CCBER staff for getting it off the ground and making so much progress in such a short amount of time,” she said.