City Councilmember Mike Jordan gave introductory remarks about the future improvements for the Douglas Family Preserve on 6/5. | Credit: Callie Fausey

Dozens of Mesa residents brought out their lawn chairs last Wednesday to learn about the planned improvements for the beloved Douglas Family Preserve (DFP).

Around 50 people, and a few dogs, crowded the Medcliff Road entrance to hear Santa Barbara’s Parks and Rec planners — many of whom, along with other Santa Barbara County officials, live in and around the Mesa — lay out the rough sketch of the restoration to come. 

The park carried on, business as usual, in the background. Birds chirped overhead, dogs kicked up dust, wind ruffled the surrounding trees and brush, and ocean waves crashed just out of sight behind the bluffs. 

The preserve — still known informally to some as “The Wilcox” property —  sees the most foot traffic of any city park. It’s where families walk their dogs, joggers take in the coastal views, and teenagers hide among the trees to do whatever teenagers do. 

But it’s also the park that needs the most love. Parks and Rec aims to “balance the park’s mix of recreational uses with the need to preserve the area’s natural resources, including native vegetation and wildlife.”

Frustratingly for some of the residents, that native vegetation includes poison oak, which will be kept off the trails but left alone everywhere else. 

Other than that, however, attendees seemed mostly on board with the improvements, which cover habitat restoration, wildfire prevention, hazardous tree removal, and trail maintenance. It is part of a citywide initiative to restore 18 of its natural open spaces and reduce wildfire risks.  

Parks and Rec Director Jill Zachary explained that the preserve is in “dire need of management and attention,” but it is just one of 60 parks spread throughout the community, “so that often makes things challenging.” 

However, the preserve is special because it has an endowment, which will fund the improvements alongside a $3 million Cal Fire grant through the city’s Wildfire Resiliency Project.

To protect the sensitive native plants and wildlife species that inhabit the park, the planners will remove secondary and unauthorized trails that fragment habitat, as well as control invasive vegetation such as eucalyptus trees, wild radishes, crown daisies, lollipop trees, english ivy, and acacias. 

Acacias — those small shrubby trees with yellow crowns on the preserve — have been a target of mechanical removal by the city for years. In 2023, the city worked to remove multiple acacias from one area of the park, which were strangling out native oaks. 

In the aftermath of the acacia eviction, oaks have shown “increased vigor” in the words of associate park planner Monique O’Connor, including new oak sprouts in the park’s main oak woodland area.

“That is something we want to see — we want to promote that native vegetation,” she added.  

They also plan to do some controversial eucalyptus management. The low-maintenance, beautiful trees provide habitat to species such as raptors, but they shed a lot of bark, which acts as fuel for fires, and their toxic seeds make the surrounding soil uninhabitable for natives. 

“They often are very successful at out-competing our native species,” O’Connor said. “So long term, we are exploring restoration opportunities — meaning either passive restoration by just removing invasive species or active restoration by either seed sowing or container planting.”

As they remove invasive species and address dead and unstable trees, the city does “plan to replace trees lost,” but with “suitable species to the preserve and native to California,” she continued. The number of trees to be planted is still to be determined, and they are also looking at where they can do restoration of coastal scrub species. 

In terms of fire safety, they want to increase defensible space by clearing out grasses and whipping weeds, as well as widening roads for fire access. Additionally, fuel-load reductions in high-risk areas are planned to reduce wildfire intensity. 

Just recently, on June 3, the entire county entered this year’s high fire season.

Residents and their dogs came out to the Douglas Family Preserve last Wednesday to hear city planners discuss the park’s future. | Credit: Callie Fausey

“We need to do our part,” explained Mark vonTillow, city fire’s wildland specialist. “If and when we have a fire — it’s going to happen someday — those are things that we need to work on. We want to be able to open up some of this stuff… You can’t even see the ocean anymore when you walk through here because of the excessive growth.”

For the trails, they want to address common issues that occur throughout the entire trail system, such as ensuring water is being directed to the right place when it rains, brushing the trails so that they are clear of vegetation and debris, and using downed trees and logs to line the paths to keep them from widening and guide people through the park. 

Concerns about the plan voiced by community members included it being too “human-centric.”

“Everything I’ve heard here is really good … but the key part of the preserve seems to be getting a back seat,” said one resident, adding that the slated-to-be-removed eucalyptus and deadwood sometimes provide important habitat for wildlife such as nesting owls. 

She added, “This is a unique place that was given to the city by the people. We all know that; we’ve all been here for that. And it needs unique management. So I’m hopeful that maybe out of this, we can get that. I’m very hopeful of the process.” 

In addition, others worried about the growing number of e-bikes traversing the city, creating ruts in the trails. While they are electric, they also have pedals, categorizing them as bicycles rather than motorized vehicles. The city said they are aware of the issue and “working on it.” 

The preserve has been a city park since 1996, “so it’s coming up on its 30-year anniversary; there’s probably been thousands and thousands of people who have enjoyed this space,” Director Jill Zachary said. “This project is what we believe will be the first of a number of opportunities to engage in activities in the park. So this is kind of a kickoff.”

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