Volunteers Fight to Save Anacapa Island

Of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, it's one of the smallest that has some of the biggest problems. 17 miles off the coast of Oxnard is Anacapa Island. The 1.1 square-mile series of three large volcanic rocks that shoot out of the ocean is the birthplace to most all seagulls you see on Southern California beaches and many of the pelicans found throughout the West Coast, as far as Alaska.

It is also home to some 250 plant species, but all of them don't belong there. While two-thirds of those plants are either native to Southern California or endemic to the islands, two-thirds of Anacapa's land is covered with invasive species and if they could have their way, they'd take over the whole island.

Of particular note is a succulent and crystalline form of ice plant from South Africa. The plant's biological competitive nature is winning out against the native and endemics, which are used to a balanced ecosystem. Anacapa should fully be abloom with Giant Coreopsis, but the ice plant over the years has spread, salinating the soil and choking out the home team.

Although there is speculation that the Coast Guard seeded the ice plant around the island for erosion control, park rangers believe that may not be the case. Thanks to accounts in American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s popular account Two Years Before the Mast--there was a 1946 film adaptation and Dana Point was named after him--it is believed that dirt, complete with ice plant seedlings, packed into bags and used to weigh ballasts were left on the island.

Dana noted that it was practice to dump ballasts when they were not needed. "This is done by every vessel, for the ballast can make but little difference in the channel, and it saves more than a week of labor," he wrote. "This is one of those petty frauds which every vessel practises in ports of inferior foreign nations," he noted, citing the illegal nature of dumping ballasts in some places. The book was published in 1840, ten years before California became part of the Union, but the quoted passage doesn't specifically site the Santa Barbara Channel.

By 2016, the centennial anniversary of the Park Service system, it is the goal of the National Park Service to eradicate 100% of invasive species from Anacapa Island. It's not only about losing plant species, but the loss of a diverse ecosystem can affect the way birds nest and procreate. And because the island plays one of the biggest roles on the West Coast in seabird births, a change in the food chain could have devastating effects.

"Some of these plants are very rare because they only occur on the Channel Islands," explained Dave Begun, a ranger for the islands. "As the National Park Service, our job is to protect and preserve the native plants and animals."

One of the the Park Service's best weapons against invasive plants are volunteers, namely high school students. On a Saturday every month, a group from Rio Mesa and Pacifica high schools in Oxnard head out to Anacapa for a work trip. For many of the students, it started out as a way to complete required volunteer hours, but some have found it rewarding and continue to come back.

Emily Baca, a sophomore at Rio Mesa, said she's exceeded her two-hour volunteer requirement, but enjoyed it, so she stuck with it. "When I came out, it was actually fun," she said has she pulled ice plant out of the ground.

For Ralph Flores, a senior at Pacifica, its helped him build a resume and get a summer job in the Santa Monica Mountains doing similar work with the Park Service's National Recreation Area. He's currently applying to go to UC Davis for biology with plans to become a veterinarian.

His teacher and marine biology club head, Robert Carr, said the program makes a difference in students lives. "I see a lot of positive impact on the students who are part of this," he explained. "Some of the students I had in my program last year weren't necessarily the best students, but once they started coming out here and got involved in this, I also started seeing improvement in the classroom."

Carr said he also helps his students with resumes and job interviewing skills, something Flores took advantage of.

In fact, Lauren Boross, who now works part time for the National Park Service and supervises the volunteer program on-site, was a student at Buena High School in Ventura and came out to Anacapa as a senior to eradicate the invasives. "We went out on Wednesdays, so these kids are more dedicated," she said with a laugh, referring to the students giving up a Saturday instead of a school day to come out. Boross next year is transferring to Cal State Channel Islands as a biology major.

Eradicating the invasive plants with a non-harmful herbicide is easy in some areas, where they have taken over whole portions of the island. But where natives, endemics and invasives intermingle, students have to take their time haloing, a technique of removing invasives while not harming others. "These plants matter to us and so we go through the extra work and painstaking process of clearing what's invasive and trying to keep as much as possible what's native and what's endemic," said Begun.

Bill Wakelee has been volunteering on the islands for around 25 years and is impressed with the recovery. "The regeneration is amazing," he said. "On San Miguel Island, it's lush now--it's gorgeous. It used to be a sandscape [after sheep overtook it]. Even in the short time the wild pigs [brought by farmers] have been off East Santa Cruz Island, you can already see some generation. And I think when the deer and elk [brought there by hunters] are removed on Santa Rosa Island, you'll find a lot more regeneration there."

For Anacapa, however, there's still a lot of work to be done. Some 75,000 volunteer hours have been given to the islands already, but thousands more are needed.

Previously on LAist
- Photos: Anacapa Island Abloom with Wildflowers, but it Won't Last Long
- Inside One of the World's Largest Sea Caves, 90 Miles West of L.A.
- Day Tripping: San Miguel Island at Channel Islands National Park
- Day Tripping: Anacapa Island at Channel Islands National Park
- Day Tripping: A Quick Jaunt to Catalina Island (it's a Channel Island, but not part of the National Park)
- Outer Island Season Closing at Channel Islands National Park
- New Visitor Center Opens at Channel Islands National Park on Scorpion Ranch
- Like Sea Kayaking? Channel Islands National Park is the Way to Go
- Exploring the Sea Caves of the Channel Islands Further