Ellwood 2.0 Ready for Launch

A Major Restoration Plan Is Meant to Revive Monarch Numbers, Reduce Fire Risks

Ellwood 2.0 Ready for Launch

A Major Restoration Plan Is Meant to
Revive Monarch Numbers, Reduce Fire Risks

By Tyler Hayden | April 20, 2023

George Thomson | Credit: Courtesy

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George Thomson stood in the heart of the monarch butterfly grove at Ellwood Mesa and motioned upward with his arm. A patch of empty sky loomed overhead where a healthy canopy of habitat once stood. All around him lay fallen eucalyptus trees crisscrossed over one another like a giant, hellish game of pick-up sticks. 

“Something needs to be done,” said Goleta’s parks and open space manager of the 90-acre preserve, once one of the richest sites in the world for overwintering monarchs and an ever-popular destination for nature lovers. “People want action.” And action is what Thomson and a team of planners and scientists are about to deliver with a massive restoration effort nearly a decade in the making.

Credit: Courtesy

The new $5.6 million management plan — funded with state grants and pending likely final approvals from the Goleta City Council and the California Coastal Commission — will mean enhanced habitat not only for the butterflies but for an entire ecosystem of plants and animals. It will also mean far better fire protection for the 2,500 homes nearby and much-improved public access for all levels of mobility. “There’s a lot to celebrate,” said Thomson.

“Hands off” is how Thomson described Goleta’s historical oversight of the Ellwood Mesa Open Space after it was saved in 2002 from development, until it became clear in more recent years that active intervention was needed. Drought, storms, and a changing climate had wreaked havoc on its 150-year-old, non-native eucalyptus groves, and some trails had become nearly impassable. The property is now choked with approximately 2,000 dead trees — many still precariously standing —and creek crossings are often reduced to rocks and logs tossed randomly in the water.

The first steps of restoration will mean cutting up and dragging out much of that drying wood, explained Thomson, who has led numerous habitat rehab and park improvement projects throughout his 25-year career and frequently meets one-on-one with affected residents. Coastal fires are becoming more and more common, and a grove fire would be catastrophic for monarchs and neighbors alike. Just last November, a blaze along More Ranch Road prompted evacuation warnings. Some of the old trees will be intentionally left behind, however, to serve as habitat for critters and new plantings as well as visitor seating at monarch viewing sites.

Thomson stressed just how much research and analysis went into ensuring the monarchs weren’t further harmed before any chainsaws were fired up. Studies revealed that microclimates are far more important to the butterflies — in decline all over the world, but especially so at Ellwood — than the type of tree they roost in. They look for the right amount of sunlight, humidity, and wind protection, grouping together by the thousands once they discover those Goldilocks locations.

Credit: Courtesy

Therefore, Thomson went on, once the area is thinned out, saplings and stump re-sprouts of the existing blue gum eucalyptus will be managed and encouraged to grow. At the same time, the property will be planted with 10,000 new trees better adapted to our Mediterranean climate, including red ironbark eucalyptus and karri eucalyptus, and coast live oaks and toyon around the perimeter to act as wind shields. A ton of weeding will also take place, Thomson said, with 100,000 new native plants going in. Volunteers will be relied on for much of that work, he said.

Of course, all of this couldn’t be enjoyed without major reconstructive surgery to Ellwood’s trail system. Some paths will be regraded, others completely rerouted. A new bridge will take visitors over the drainage, which has fallen by six feet since the 1980s and will be raised with a series of step-pools. Small interpretive signs with QR codes will be installed and the monarch docent program revived. 

Lastly, continued public buy-in is encouraged, Thomson said. Opportunities are coming up for stakeholder feedback, and a new website is about to be launched that will provide frequent status updates and a point of contact for questions. “We really want to inspire another generation of stewards of this space as we implement these critical changes,” said Thomson. “Everyone loves Ellwood, and we want them to continue to.” 

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the City of Goleta will host a Science and Stewardship of the Goleta Butterfly Grove event on Friday, May 12, from 5:00 to 7:30pm at the museum’s Fleischmann Auditorium. The event is free but registration is required. Visit cityofgoleta.org/butterfly-forum.


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