Preserving California's Grasslands

“A mere 10 percent of our grasslands are left, and less than 1 percent of those are native grasses.”

Zach Principe, Conservancy ecologist in southern California

The Nature Conservancy has accomplished its goal of protecting at least 4,000 acres of the Ramona Grasslands, one of southern California’s last remaining stretches of native grasslands. Located about a 30-minute drive from San Diego, the Ramona Grasslands is now in the hands of the San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department.

On June 3, 2011, a portion of the preserve was opened to the public for low-impact recreational uses such as hiking. The public can enjoy this special place, and we can still protect the amazing nature and benefits it has to offer for future generations.

Surrounded by residential and commercial zones, plans for development of the grasslands were well under way in the Ramona area when the Conservancy and its partners, San Diego County, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Conservation Board and Wildlife Research Institute, stepped in to preserve the land.

With an estimated 90 percent of southern California’s historic grasslands already lost to development, protecting this area has been an urgent conservation priority for the Conservancy. Grasslands provide important habitat for many species, including humans.

The Natives Live Longer

“A mere 10 percent of our grasslands are left, and less than 1 percent of those are native grasses. The rest have been taken over by non-native annual grasses. The annual grasses typically complete their life cycle and die in 8 months or less. That’s not much time to set down roots,” says Zach Principe, Conservancy ecologist for the Ramona Grasslands and board member of the California Native Grasslands Association.

“On the other hand, most of California’s native grasses are perennials. The same plant can live for decades, developing an extraordinary root system that can go down ten feet or more,” Principe adds.

The Benefit to Us of These Deep Roots?

“Those deep, massive roots allow greater ground water infiltration. This means rainwater can more easily penetrate the soil, leading to less erosion since the water is absorbed into the soil instead of running off, taking the topsoil as it goes,” says Principe.

And that’s not all, native grasses provide flood protection. With the improved water infiltration and soilholding capacity of the massive root systems, the Santa Maria Creek floodplain in the Ramona Grasslands is protected.

“There’s no need to build a concrete channel that would rapidly whisk the water away, robbing the area of needed moisture," says Principe. "When the grasslands are healthy, the floodplain is allowed to behave naturally, spreading out with the influx of water.”

In the 2005 rains, the creek spread 1,000 feet wider, benefiting the people downstream who did not get flooded, since the creek was able to accommodate the water as a functioning watershed should.


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