‘Don’t Look Up’ and Other Lessons From Invasive Species Removal

Pulling an Italian Thistle in its early stage.

At the risk of completely turning off our loyal readers (Hi Mom!), I once again sally forth into the area of invasive species removal, but this time it’s to describe some “lessons learned,” after years of doing this work. But if you read beyond this point you may want to see your psychiatrist. Just a friendly warning. Jump to the end of this post if you don’t believe me.

They’re called “invasive species” for good reason. Native plant species have existed in a particular ecosystem for many years, decades, even millennia. So when a new plant species is introduced into an area, the local ecosystem often has no defenses against it. This can (and often does) allow the invasive species the opportunity to completely take over the local ecosystem, thereby crowding out native species until there is essentially a monoculture. I’ve seen this happen. One of the first things to understand, then, is that this is a very real threat, and one that we have not always been good at fighting against.

It’s not a battle, it’s a war of attrition. Don’t think that this is a battle that can be fully won. All we can hope to accomplish is to reduce the level of invasion to a manageable level and keep it there, or reduce it over time. We may be successful in keeping a particular species off the properties completely, with due diligence over years and constant vigilance, but we will likely never completely rid these properties of invasive species altogether. It’s just what it is. Know this going in.

Don’t look up. Invasive species removal is what’s called a long game — something that takes concerted effort over many years to reach your goals. Think of marriage, or saving for retirement — things that take work over long periods of time to achieve lasting goals. I’ve also called this being gently powerful, as a river is when it erodes very hard rock. The point about not looking up is that if you see the entire job before you, you may despair. But if you keep your head down, and only look at what is in front of you, then you have a chance at going on, and really making a difference in the long term. This is a real issue when it comes to achieving a difficult task like fighting back invasive species.

There’s never just one. This is a rookie mistake – thinking that when you spot one invasive weed that’s all there is. As I’ve blogged about before, that is never the case. Just stop thinking that. As soon as you zoom in on that one weed, you will see others.

Not Only Is It Not Sexy, It’s Not Even Remotely Attractive. Much of this work happens off the trail, where no one sees you doing it. And even when you’re doing it on the trail, you’re sweaty, smelly, and sticking your big butt toward the trail. Believe me on this. It’s not a pretty encounter. Some of you reading this may have even been there, and can back me up on this. I’m sorry.

If you think you’ve won, you haven’t been doing it long enough. When I first started doing this work, I naively thought we could knock it out in a year or two. That was almost a decade ago and there are invasive species we haven’t yet addressed. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had a serious impact — we totally have. For example, I am proud to report that we’ve essentially eradicated the Yellow Star Thistle (YST) from both the Sonoma Overlook and Montini Preserve properties, after years of work. Also, we have made a serious impact on Italian Thistle on the Overlook Trail property. So there has been progress. But there is also much further to go. Just don’t think we’ve won, because we never really do.

Don’t let one patch get you down. This is a lesson it took me a while to learn. When I found a patch of invasive weeds I thought I needed to pull it all before moving away. But I quickly realized that for my own sanity I would need to take a break, if it only meant attacking a different edge of the patch. Sometimes you just need to walk a bit and restart anew, and that is totally OK. These days, I only work on a patch until I feel like moving on, as I know I will be back tomorrow or the next day to fight it back farther, and eventually, over time, eliminate it. And that’s perfectly OK. Bottom line: only do what you want to do.

Use the seasons to your advantage. Invasive species have their own timetable, and some, like Italian Thistle, come in early, while others, like Yellow Star Thistle come in later in the season. Meanwhile, you can get Scotch Broom pretty much any time. I’ve been pulling Italian Thistle starting in January, as it becomes to come in, which is a great time to get it, as it can be easy to pull from the wet soil and you can simply toss it aside, rather than hauling it out in a sack as you need to do later in the season. Later in the year I add YST to my itinerary, although as I’ve mentioned it is thankfully becoming more rare.

Beware of obsession.  I don’t know what to tell you about this. I just know that it’s possible to descend into obsession. Here is even a blog post about it. Just don’t let it happen to you. If you do, I’ll see you out there, and you’ll be welcome.

Lord help you. If you’ve made it this far then I feel for you. You may be in danger of catching the bug, which I’m not sure I would wish on anyone. Pretty much every day during Spring and Summer I ask myself whether I will hike or pull invasive species, and most of the time I choose the latter, as it needs to be done and I’m not sure who else will do it. Perhaps talk to me before choosing to do this. At least I will be able to give you the straight dope, and you can decide for yourself whether you are up to it. I think few are.

No, I’m serious. Perhaps you thought I was kidding. I’m not. I really wish that I had not caught this bug. I see the people every day doing their hike or run and there I am, pulling stupid invasive weeds. Don’t be me. Take your hike or run and throw me a thank you every now and then. But I know it is actually pity, and I get that. It’s what I would do if I could. But I can’t. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.

It Takes a Team

One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about becoming a Sonoma Overlook Trail Steward is being part of a motivated, energetic, and inspiring group of individuals who all love the land and hiking out in it. But now and then I’m reminded that the official stewards group is only the tip of the spear, as it were, in keeping the trail safe and well-maintained. This week was one of those times.

Usually I’m out on the trail every day when I’m not away, but this week found me in bed on Monday with a cold I caught in the wake of two weeks in Thailand. Literally on my sick bed I received a text message from Melissa Beasley, a friend who is a yoga teacher for The Lodge and also leads hikes on the Overlook Trail several days a week. She had in turn received a text message from her colleague Lisa Turchet, who also is a yoga teacher for The Lodge and also leads those hikes. Lisa was warning Melissa about a tree down on the trail (see photo), and suggesting she might want to consider alternate routes for the hikes she might lead later in the week. Before I had even gotten out of bed, I fired off an email to a couple colleagues who assist with trail maintenance, Lynn Clary and Bill Wilson, hoping that one or more of them could get by there and help mitigate the hazard. Bill also serves as our liaison with the City, so I knew he would report it to the City so they could come out with a chainsaw and do a full removal.

Sure enough, within hours Lynn, Bill, and Richard Gibson, another steward, were on it and had at least made it possible to more easily pass with care. Since Monday was a City holiday, it took another day or two to get it fully removed, but now it no longer presents a hazard. All told, at least six different individuals or groups were involved, working in concert, to get this resolved, and only half were actual trail stewards.

This experience is not rare, but it served to remind me how we stewards serve within a much larger community of those who care about the trails and the land that they pass through. It takes a team, and that team is much larger than I think any of us can fully grasp. Thank you all, for your love and support. It’s appreciated.

Kudos For the Trail

The Overlook Trail Stewards are happy to have the challenge of maintaining the wonderful resource that so many of us love. But every now and then it’s nice to know such work is appreciated. So it was with delight that we recently came upon this very nice (and accurate!) Letter to the Editor in the Sonoma Index-Tribune:

Overlook not to be overlooked

EDITOR: My wife and I are part-time Sonoma residents, but one of the resources we have enjoyed since arriving a few years ago is the wonderful Sonoma Overlook Trail just on the northern edge of town.

We especially like the combination of shade and sun, forests and grasses, while making the gentle climb to the top. It’s not even a mile from Mountain Cemetery to the peak and less than a 400-feet elevation gain, but the reward is a stunning view of Sonoma and the surrounding countryside you can’t get anywhere else so close to town. Last week we could see the Salesforce Tower and the Bank of America building looming over downtown San Francisco.

Our only minor complaints were that the trail was very rocky and steep in some areas, and suffered erosion both from downpours and from hikers straying off the paths.

A set of stairs to assist hikers and improve drainage.

Imagine our delight returning to Sonoma this autumn to find a renovated trail complete with drain dips and water bars, graded and stabilized paths, and a series of beautiful stone steps making the trail even more accessible and inviting. We prefer going up through the cemetery at the top of Second Street East, but you can drive to a number of accessible starting points and park for free everywhere.

We want to thank the Sonoma Overlook Stewards led by Joanna Kemper, Sonoma’s Public Works Department, the Sonoma Ecology Center, and those 12 hardy young people from the American Conservation Experience – how they moved those huge stone steps up the hill will forever remain a mystery. We are grateful to all of you for making a wonderful resource even better.

Richard Weiss

Sonoma

Thanks, Richard, for taking the time to write such a nice letter. You’re welcome!

Thistle Pulling Season Has Begun

Lately I’ve noticed that Italian Thistle has been coming up, since recent rains have kept the soil moist and we haven’t had freezing temperatures at night. In the past, I haven’t started pulling it until February or March, but I see no reason to wait. When the soil is moist it’s easiest to get it out by the root, and since there is no danger of it going to seed it can be simply tossed aside. Later, we will need to bag it and carry it out, which is no fun.

Although we’ve been making very good progress with Yellow Star Thistle (YST) after half-a-dozen seasons of concentrated effort, and we may actually be close to declaring victory (fingers crossed!), Italian Thistle has, in a number of cases, apparently been moving into the new territory cleared of the YST. This is alarming, as Italian Thistle is even more dangerous than YST, as it will grow anywhere. At least YST is limited to sunlit meadows.

Italian Thistle has essentially overrun the Montini Preserve, so my only goal there this year is to keep it off the trails so it doesn’t bother hikers. On the Overlook Trail property, I will start the same way by first concentrating on the trail edges, but then I also hope to be able to work on the Upper Meadow, as there are clumps there that threaten to spread and coalesce across the entire meadow unless it’s controlled.

So if you’re out on the trail and see what appears to be a gardener pulling weeds, it’s just me, keeping up the ongoing war against invasive species. Maybe say Hi.

 

The Upper Overlook Trail is Now Open!

A set of stairs to assist hikers and improve drainage.

The Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards are delighted to announce that the upper part of the Sonoma Overlook Trail is now open to hikers!

“Upper part” means that you can’t access the lower trail that starts at the kiosk parking lot. But you may park there and hike through the cemetery up to the Toyon Trail, and access the upper part from there. There are also a limited number of parking spaces at the Toyon Trailhead, so alternatively you could drive through the cemetery and park there. If you do, please be advised to be out of the cemetery by 4pm, as the City locks the cemetery gate between 4 and 4:15pm.

Alternatively, the upper part of the Overlook can be accessed from the Rattlesnake Cutoff trail from the Montini Preserve. Some hikers like to park at the 4th St. entrance to the Montini Preserve (cross-street is Haraszthy), hike across the Montini to the Overlook and back (that’s my personal favorite hike). Or, you could park in the parking lot at the Sheriff’s Office and Field of Dreams, hike up to the Spotted Fawn Trail and take that to Rattlesnake Cutoff.

While hiking the upper trail again, you will notice that a lot has changed.

The most obvious changes are new features — stairs, stone-lined drainage channels, substantial rock walls supporting the trail, small gravel that has been used to build up the trail to improve drainage off the trail, and new and substantial drainage channels. This work has the dual goal of both improving the quality of the hike for hikers, including increased safety, as well as getting rainwater off the trail quickly and appropriately, thus minimizing damage that can come from running water.

You will also notice new signs. These signs are temporary, but they are intended to model the eventual permanent replacements. We want to place these temporarily so that we can gather feedback from hikers whether they serve the required purposes of clarity and appropriate information. Please let us know what you think by sending an email to overlookmontini@gmail.com.

Also, as always, let us (the volunteer stewards of the trail) know if you have any questions or comments on this new work or anything else.

Cemetery Walk November 3rd

DIA DE LOS MUERTOS — DAY OF THE DEAD

WALK SONOMA HISTORY THROUGH SONOMA MOUNTAIN CEMETERY

Saturday November 3

10:00 AM OR 12:00 Noon

The Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards invite you to take a lively, informative walk through our historic cemetery with amateur historian Fred Allebach.

Meet cowboys and Indians, ranchers and real estate tycoons, farmers and farriers, carpenters and stone masons, quarrymen, grocers, butchers, bakers, maybe a candlestick maker, and many more!

Here in our back yard, the fabric of the town’s rich history is hidden right in plain sight,” tour guide Allebach has written about the historic cemetery.  “Sonoma had its Natives, then missionaries, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo Californios, Gold Rush and Manifest Destiny immigrants, Civil War refugees, and a Second Great Wave of Immigration from southern and eastern Europe from 1880 to 1910. Then came various immigrants on into the 20th century. All of these are represented in the Mountain Cemetery.”

Your $35 donation includes the walking tour and cookies and cider. All proceeds go to maintaining the Overlook Trailhead Kiosk. The Trail is solely supported by private donations. Questions? email Hope at hopenisson@me.com.

To Register: send a check to Hope Nisson, 3771 Cory Lane, Sonoma, CA 95476. Indicate which hike you prefer — 10 am or 12 noon

The event is sponsored by the volunteer Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and participation is limited to 20 people per session.