It’s often difficult to define what Isla Vista is. It’s a place with hordes of students, slum-type apartments, too many cars in too little space, and areas riddled by trash. It’s also a place with incredible beaches, beautiful parks, and environmentally sensitive areas that have been protected by the efforts of pioneering environmentalists. Even when you start to get down looking at the way some of the residents are trashing the environment, you don’t have to look far to see what the protectors are doing.
One of the success stories involves the vernal pools in the Camino Corto Open Space. It begins as the same old sad story. I.V. was once a vast open space with vernal pools and native species. Then people came along and started to mess everything up. In the 1940s there was a military base where UCSB is now located. The military left. The area was taken over by UCSB. Housing was built. Vernal pools were destroyed.
Now you may not be all that excited with the idea of saving the vernal pools. It’s doesn’t have quite the same grand appeal as saving Naples, or the Ellwood Bluffs. But if you take a moment to visit the Camino Corto Open Space, or take a walk near the point between Devereux and Sands beaches, you’ll see something pretty incredible. During the dry season the vernal pools look like nothing, they look like the rest of the surrounding area. The only way you can distinguish them from their surroundings is by looking for the markers that have been placed around the areas. In some cases, there might even be a sign to identify the vernal pool.
The best way, however, to see the vernal pools is to take a visit right after a heavy rain. You’ll be amazed by the wonderful surprise you’ll get. You can walk through the Camino Corto Open Space and stumble upon a vernal pool hidden in the tall grass. These pools attract a variety of birds and other animals. Like magic, one day you’ll find a pool with ducks swimming around. It’s an instant duck pond. You can hear geese and other birds overhead, as they fly back and forth from the vernal pools to the Devereux Slough to the Coal Oil Point Reserve.
Here’s how the story of the vernal pools goes. In 1988 Santa Barbara County received a grant from the Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund to purchase the Camino Corto property. In 1997 the county received another grant, this time to restore and create vernal pools, plant native grasses, educate the public about the importance of the wetlands area, and conduct research to monitor the health of these areas. In 1998, this area was deeded to the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District.
The story of how the vernal pools were restored is fascinating. This is the definition of a vernal pool, as found on the I.V. R.P. D. website, “Vernal pools are small wetlands frequently supporting unique plants and animals. They form in depressions where the impermeable soil (usually clay) causes water to pond from winter rain. The plants in a vernal pool are unique because they can survive both in flooded conditions and in completely dry conditions.”
On this website you can also see pictures of bulldozers creating the basins for the vernal pools. Ranging in size from about 40 feet to 100 feet, the pools started out as large dirt holes. Then native plant seeds were added, and the restoration process was on its way. The vernal pools and wetland area are an important part of the transition zone between Isla Vista and the Devereux Slough; the water goes from fresh to brackish to salt marsh. Without these pools, the natural process would be disrupted.
When you first look at the vernal pools, you might think that all the plants look like grass, but there are actually more than 30 different plants, many with cool names like popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys undulates) and coyote mint (Eryngium armatum). In these areas you may also see some non-native species like eucalyptus trees and pampas grass.
Rabbits, squirrels, and a variety of birds including the great blue heron, the Canada goose, and the white-tailed kite live in the vicinity of the vernal pools. It can be an interesting science lesson to watch a heron stalking through the tall grass hunting for a mouse or other small animal to eat. But for my money, the real thrill is seeing a hawk dive down from incredible heights, snatch up a small animal in its talons, and then soar back into the sky.
UCSB students and others ride or walk near wetlands on a daily basis but often don’t take the time to think about what they are looking at. There are people working to preserve and protect these areas for future generations, but they shouldn’t stand alone. I.V. can become a model for an environmentally aware community. It will just take enough people to say that disrespect for the environment and trashing your community isn’t cool. When the balance swings so there are more protectors, and fewer trashers, I.V. will be an even better place to be.