OC-based Back to Natives helps restore habitat and wilderness

The acorns gathered by Back to Natives will be used for a habitat restoration project.
The acorns gathered by Back to Natives will be used for a habitat restoration project. Susan Valot/KPCC

Squirrels and chipmunks aren't the only ones gathering acorns this time of year. Volunteers have been harvesting acorns under and around oak trees in Caspers Wilderness Park in southeastern Orange County.

Turn off the Ortega Highway into Caspers Wilderness Park and it's hard to believe you're just a few miles from neatly manicured neighborhoods. Grand oak trees shake their leaves like can-can dancers. Deer quietly move through green shrubbery. Hawks and ravens glide above like dark paper airplanes.

Along a trail, a group of volunteers gets to work.

"Now, we want to be a little bit picky because we want viable acorns," Reginald Durant, founder and director of restoration for Back to Natives, tells the group of about a dozen. "So if there are holes in the side of the acorn, then don't collect those ones. That means there's already been a weevil inside and ate everything."

Durant — topped by a floppy straw hat with a ponytail down his back — leads the group gathering acorns. He gently tugs on an acorn hanging on an oak tree.

"I don't know if you just saw that," Durant explains. "I barely touched the brown acorn that was in its cap still on the branch and it came off in my hand."

This time, Back to Natives volunteers are collecting acorns. Next time, they might be weeding or planting in the Cleveland National Forest, Caspers Wilderness Park near San Juan Capistrano or Mason Regional Park in Irvine.

"Throughout the spring, we're normally doing weed abatement, so we're pulling out non-native plants. Each time we go out, it's a single species removal day, so we'll only remove that one, single species of non-native plant, so everybody knows what plant we're removing so there's no confusion," Durant says. "Then during the summer, we do identification walks, monitoring, seed collection. During the fall, once again, we do seed collection and monitoring and start removing removal of large shrubs."

They only remove plants that belong there, under the watchful eye of a biologist and botanist. They use the seeds they collect to restore habitat in the same area. Durant says volunteers are the roots of Back to Natives.

"If the community's not involved, they're not going to know what's going on and they're not going to necessarily respect the area that you've been planting in," Durant says. "So we take that step, teach the community, outreach to the community and say, 'This is right here beside your home. Come out and help us with this. It will not only increase the habitat quality that's here, but it'll be more aesthetically pleasing when you're driving down the road. Instead of seeing a brown, dead hillside, you'll see a lush, green hillside or a really cool California gold hillside. There's a difference between a California gold hillside and a dead, brown hillside.'"

During the last fiscal year, nearly 1,000 volunteers signed up with Back to Natives. The volunteers come from all walks of life and include Girl Scouts, school groups and everyday people. The non-profit expects twice as many volunteers to sign up this fiscal year.

"They're coming out and they're doing a service for the community, but while they're out here, they're learning something and coming to appreciate nature more so than they had before, hopefully, and are hopefully deciding that this is something worth saving and protecting and restoring," says Lori Whalen, director of education for Back to Natives.

Whalen is a volunteer, too. Her favorite part isn't the acorns or the weeds. It's the people.

"We get to sort of create our own little sense of community and meet people who you normally wouldn't meet and get to spend time with people who you wouldn't normally have a chance to meet and talk to and make new friends. It's wonderful," she says. "You don't get that opportunity very often in this day and age."

Durant leads the down a loop nature trail, through "cathedral oaks," oak trees that drape over the trail like the ceiling of a cathedral. These trees are at least 400-years-old.

The group continues on, through a dry stream bed and through a meadow.

Volunteer Diane Etchison of San Clemente is up with Durant at the front of the group. She's been volunteering here for a year. Etchison is a biologist by trade, so she says habitat restoration is "her thing."

"I'm concerned about the degradation of the earth, so I wanted to do something. And I'm a gardener, too. I garden - I don't — I live in a homeowners' association and I can't do any there," Etchison says with a laugh. "I come out and do this. It's satisfying."

Back to Natives leads volunteer projects practically every weekend, but acorn collecting at Caspers ends this weekend. The group hasn't been able to secure funding to continue with the acorn project, which studied whether birds do a better job at scattering acorns than humans.

Back at the parking lot, Durant thanks the group as they pour their bags of acorns into a large basket.

"Thank you SO much for coming out today," Durant says. "Did you have a good time?"

The volunteers break into clapping. This project will soon be finished. But there's still plenty more to do.

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