A crowded California beach with people on the water and sand.
Crowded California Coast. Photo credit: Mats Haugen/Flickr

Places for people and wildlife

Over 40% of the U.S. population lives in a coastal community — and that number is growing… FAST. Some areas along our coasts are particularly popular — California for example, with over 3,000 miles of shoreline and some of the country’s largest coastal cities.

There are also over 300 endangered and threatened species sharing space with all those people. Intact coastal habitats (like dunes, salt marshes, estuaries, lagoons, and mud flats) in Southern California are rare, but highly valued by both people and the wildlife. Conserving urban habitats like these is critical to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission — to work with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

L: Colleen Grant, Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office Coastal Program and R: Carolyn Lieberman, Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office Coastal Program

Two people in particular who work to conserve California’s wildlife are Colleen Grant and Carolyn Lieberman — two biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program in Southern California. Working with members of the community, they are ensuring that Southern California’s coast will always be a great home for people and wildlife.

A Boggy Gem

Over the past 200 years, California has lost 97% of its wetland habitat. The Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve is a 230-acre estuary in Santa Barbara County that is surrounded by residential homes and industries and bordered by U.S. Highway 101 to the north, and beachfront houses to the south. This salt marsh represents about 3% of what remains of California’s coastal wetlands.

Marsh project area with tarp laid down.
Marsh project area with tarp laid down.
Project area. Photo credit: USFWS/Partners for Fish & Wildlife Program

Like others in Southern California, the marsh is threatened by invasive species. European sea lavender in particular is one of those threats. This invasive plant forms a single-species “carpet” that prevents native plants like the endangered Salt marsh bird’s-beak from growing. Plants like Salt marsh bird’s-beak promote biodiversity in marsh systems by making the soil more suitable for other plants to grow. In 2017, the Coastal Program and its partners began several projects to restore the marsh to its native state.

On the left: The secretive Light-footed Ridgway’s rail eggs in a nest. On the right: Dense marsh plants.
On the left: The secretive Light-footed Ridgway’s rail eggs in a nest. On the right: Dense marsh plants.
The secretive Light-footed Ridgway’s rail eggs and tracks. Photo credits: L: USFWS/Kendra Chan & R: USFWS/Karen Sinclair. Without native plants for habitat, other species suffer, too. The Light-footed Ridgway’s rail relies on dense marsh plants in order to build their nests above-ground and avoid high tides.

Rising from the Ashes

In December 2017, weeks before the project was scheduled to begin, the Thomas Fire burned over 280,000 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, making it one of the largest wildfires in California history. The fire burned through the Santa Ynez Mountains and Los Padres National Forest, and surrounding local communities, including Carpinteria. When torrential rains and subsequent debris flows swept through the area in January 2018, the salt marsh was inundated with mud, fallen trees and construction materials.

The cumulative effects of these disasters meant that the team needed to reevaluate their work and delay project implementation. There became immediate health and human safety issues due to the large amount of debris blocking the flow of water out of the estuary. When the immediate issues from the debris flow were resolved, project partners were able to re-assess the status of the salt marsh and renew their efforts to restore its valuable habitat.

Native Salt marsh bird’s-beak on the left and right and Limonium in the center.
Native Salt marsh bird’s-beak on the left and right and Limonium in the center.
Native Salt marsh bird’s-beak on the left and right and Limonium in the center. Photo credit: USFWS/Colleen Grant

“We needed to learn how to navigate working in a landscape that had completely changed, in an ecosystem that was already fragile.”

— Colleen Grant, Coastal Program Biologist

The Coastal Program partnered with the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District and Tidal Influence to remove 3,400 pounds of invasive Sea lavender and collect 7,000 Salt marsh bird’s beak seeds for outplanting. In addition, the Coastal Program worked with youth volunteers from the Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast to build five nesting platforms for the endangered Light-footed Ridgway’s rail and plant over 400 native plants for rail nesting habitat. Thanks to the dedicated project partners, this team was able to overcome numerous challenges to restore the beautiful and unique habitat in the Carpinteria Salt Marsh for the benefit of California’s native species.

The Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast.
The Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast.
The Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast. Photo credit: USFWS/Jenny Marek

Project Partners include University of California (UCSB and the University of California’s Natural Reserve System) with volunteers from the Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast, and the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District. For more information visit USFWS Southwest Regional Page.

A transportation corridor under threat

Coastal California is known for its beaches, and Cardiff State Beach is no exception. Every day people from nearby communities enjoy walking, sunbathing, fishing, swimming, surfing and tide pooling. The famous Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) runs right behind the beach. With over 20,000 cars per day, it remains a critical route for emergency evacuations. Extreme wave events, coastal erosion, and high tides have flooded and damaged portions of the PCH on numerous occasions, resulting in road closures and needed repairs.

Rebuilding the native dune ecosystem

Working with State and local partners, the Coastal Program identified a path forward that would reduce the threat to the PCH and improve habitat for native species. Safe public access to the beach was also important, so the project was adapted to incorporate footpaths and beach access points along with signs highlighting native plants and animals.

Dunes
Dunes
Dune restoration project site. Photo credit: Tidal Influence

“This project is an example of State, regional and local cooperation at its finest, with agencies uniting to protect our environment, wildlife habitat, beaches and transportation infrastructure from the impacts of climate change and sea level rise.”

— Catherine Blakespear, City of Encinitas Mayor

Today, a 2,900 foot long living shoreline protects the highway and provides habitat for federally threatened Western snowy plovers and native dune plants — a rarity along Southern California’s urbanized shores. The well-used footpath provides great views and separates walkers from the busy bike path and roadway.

A monitoring program was implemented to test the effectiveness of the dune restoration as an adaptation strategy to sea level rise. The team ensured that lessons learned from this project can be used to inform other coastal communities considering similar measures for protecting their coastal resources. Further monitoring was done by Nature Collective to evaluate bird use of the dunes as well as the plant diversity, cover and overall health.

People walking along a beach beside a life guard stand. A dog is stopping to sniff.
People walking along a beach beside a life guard stand. A dog is stopping to sniff.
Cardiff Beach goers. Photo credit: Paul Brencick/City of Encinitas

“Cardiff Beach’s dunes are an example of green infrastructure, an innovative new concept in shoreline resilience. This project uses natural features to protect communities from sea level rise while also creating wildlife habitat.”

— Sam Schuchat, Executive Officer for the California Coastal Conservancy

Project partners include California State Coastal Conservancy, Ocean Protection Council, San Diego Association of Governments, City of Encinitas, California State Parks, and the Nature Collective. For more information visit Digital Coast.

A western snowy plover (small bird with a white chest and grey feathers) standign atop a sand dune.
A western snowy plover (small bird with a white chest and grey feathers) standign atop a sand dune.
Western snowy Plover on the dunes. Photo Credit: Nature Collective

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program is a voluntary conservation initiative that works with communities to restore and protect land and water resources important to them. The Coastal Program provides technical and financial assistance for habitat conservation on public and private lands along the coast, including the Great Lakes, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Learn more at Coastal Program.

Written by Samantha Brooke, Colleen Grant, and Carolyn Lieberman

We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

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