Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Rick Rayburn

We hear from Rick Rayburn, the Chief of the Natural Resources Division for California State Parks.

By Amy Nelson

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Rick Rayburn’s involvement with California’s natural resources has spanned four decades. He began his career as a coastal program analyst for the California Coastal Commission. He became regional director of that agency in 1977 and remained in that position for eight years. Since 1985, Mr. Rayburn has been the chief of natural resources for California State Parks, where he is responsible for classifying state park units, land use planning, natural resource policy formulation, stewardship funding programs, and natural resource acquisitions. He also served as chief for cultural (prehistoric and historic) resource management until 2001, when a new division was established. Mr. Rayburn is a member of the executive committee of the California Biodiversity Council, a group of federal, state and local agencies and organizations focused on coordinating efforts to conserve biodiversity in California. He is co-lead for the Habitat and Biodiversity working group of the California Resources Agency’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. He has also participated on management oversight teams steering statewide connectivity/linkage projects for the state and non-profit sectors.

Mr. Rayburn graduated from University of California Los Angeles in 1969 with a management degree. After serving in the U.S. Air Force officer corps, he attended the graduate school of forestry at Humboldt State University, where he concentrated on redwood forest ecology,

Your agency, California State Parks, is responsible for more than 1.5 million acres of land in more than 270 park units. Approximately what percentage of this land is within the San Francisco Bay-Delta Bioregion?

About 15% of this land is within the Bay-Delta Bioregion.

If you had 30 seconds to tell someone about the rich biodiversity of the Bay Delta Bioregion, what would you say?

It is extremely rich in that you have two large rivers – the San Joaquin and the Sacramento – coming together in the delta and into the San Francisco Bay, which drains over one third of California. It is a bioregion that is heavily influenced by the North Coast, Central Coast and Central Valley Bioregions. It’s a meeting point for a number of geomorphic and floristic sub-provinces. The ecosystems begin with the sub-tidal, the mud flats, salt marshes, chaparral, scrub, variety of oak savannah, oak woodlands and conifer forests. It has a huge representation in terms of the vegetation types and ecological zones of California.

Do you think the general public – both within and outside of the Bioregion – is aware of this biological richness? If so, why? If not, why not?

The general public in Northern California is. The general public beyond Northern California is probably less aware. With so much of the San Francisco Bay Area being developed, people tend to assume it’s not as rich as it really is.

Why do you think people are more aware in Northern California?

Possibly, people in Northern California are more environmentally conscious of their surroundings. Issues such as environmental protection, climate change and habitat fragmentation get regular play in the newspapers. There are also a number of universities with influence on the general public. It’s been a hot topic in Northern California since the 1960s.

If you had to choose one State Park in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Bioregion that best showcases this biodiversity, which park would it be and why?

Mount Diablo State Park and its 25,000 acres is the high point in the Bay Area at almost 4,000 feet. It’s also a part of a larger, protected lands network. There are over 60,000 linked to Mount Diablo, so you have a large, sustainable landscape, some of which is near sea level through the drainages associated with the Bay. It has most of the life zones I mentioned earlier. It doesn’t have salt marshes, but terrestrially, it has most of the habitat types. It’s been a reserve for over 70 years.

When polled, 90% of Leaf Litter readers named expanding urbanization as the number one threat to the ecological health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Bioregion. In terms of biodiversity, would you agree?

Yes. Habitat conversion is the greatest threat to biological diversity anywhere, but along with habitat conversion come two other important factors: fragmentation and continued introduction and spread of invasive, exotic species.

I read in California’s Wildlife Action Plan, that 490 vertebrate species inhabit the Central Valley and Bay-Delta Region at some point in their life cycle, including 279 birds, 88 mammals, 40 reptiles, 18 amphibians, and 65 fish. Now these are numbers on a web site. To help bring this to life, can you tell us about one or two of these species that are threatened or endangered?

The California clapper rail has long been recognized as a species of high risk. It is found in the tidal sloughs and coastal marshes in San Francisco Bay and two other regions. They are primarily endangered because of the loss of marshes and estuaries along the California coast. It’s a relatively large (12 to 15 inches), attractive, chunky bird. You might find it in some of the small tidal sloughs within the marshes of the southern San Francisco Bay. They are very hard to find.

The San Francisco garter snake is an interesting reptile that is also associated with marsh areas. It can be found in San Mateo County. It’s a beautiful snake that few people will ever see-orange head, multiple colors, scaled. They feed primarily on small frogs, including the listed red-legged frog, in ponds and other freshwater areas.

Is there any hope on the horizon for the clapper rail? Are there any conservation efforts underway?

Since 1972, we’ve been adding salt marsh along the California coast. That was the first time in 150 years that we halted the destruction of coastal wetlands in California and slowly began the restoration process. Tens of thousands of these acres are in the North Bay and South Bay in San Francisco. I’m not up to speed on the clapper rail recovery. They have not recovered in great numbers yet, but time will tell.

Our mission at State Parks isn’t to focus on endangered species, but to preserve the full array of species. Common species or near risk species, as well as threatened species, are equally important to us. A number of our specific actions on certain ecosystems, where we can focus on species like the San Francisco garter snake, have been certainly successful. You’ll find a lot of listed species in parks.

There are a variety of classifications for the 270 units in the State Parks system. The most protected classification, which applies to most of the acreage of the parks, is a preservation designation. In 90-95% of our parks, habitat is preserved. Very little habitat conversion has taken place in these parks. We have a great opportunity to restore and/or improve the conditions for some of these listed species while ensuring the common species remain common.

What about plants? What is one of the Bay-Delta Bioregion’s most threatened plant species?

A plant that has gotten the most attention over the last three years is the Mount Diablo buckwheat, which is a tall (8 inch) very open, pink flowering perennial. In the 1930s, it was thought to be extinct. About three or four years ago, a botanist from U.C. Berkeley discovered 20 or 30 flowering buckwheat in an area of Mount Diablo State Park. It wasn’t a carefully managed, preserved area. So there seems to be a certain amount of disturbance that goes along with this particular area of buckwheat. The folks at Berkeley are taking the lead in propagating the buckwheat and ensuring recovery.

Is there one invasive species in the Bioregion that is considered Enemy Number One?

I don’t know about number one, but three species have been headaches for State Parks- starthistle, eucalyptus and ammophila (European beach grass).

Eucalyptus has really taken hold in Marin and Contra Costa Counties. Eucalyptus comes with a host of other problems. It is very fire prone – and I mean catastrophic fire. Both eucalyptus and starthistle provide more of a homogenic environment. Eucalyptus came into the region in the mid-1800s from Australia. A fast growing species it was brought into California to be used for railroad ties and other wood products. It was also used for wind breaks for fruit trees and agricultural operations, as well as for firewood. An example of its colonization can be found on Angel Island, the only natural island in San Francisco Bay. Ten percent of this 800-acre island was a hundred plus years eucalyptus colony. We removed most all of them.

I have heard that ammophila came in with the California Transportation Department as they tried to stabilize dunes alongside the freeway system. The seed is dispersed on the currents and wind all along the coast. It’s a nasty competitor while restoring native dunes.

What role are these and other invasive species playing in terms of biodiversity within the San Francisco Bay Bioregion?

It’s a big role. Like I said, habitat conversion, fragmentation and exotics are the big three in terms of destroying biodiversity in the San Francisco Bay area and really anywhere in California. We have between 24-30 that we consider very bad actors in the State Park system. We’re generally trying to get those that are most invasive and eliminate them while they first start to be established.

What treatment and management efforts have you found to be successful with some of these invasive species?

We use a number of different devices, depending on the species. We’re experimenting with using heavy equipment to uproot the ammophila in coastal dunes. We have had some success in spraying and burning them. In other places where the public is concerned about herbicide use, we’ve attempted hand crews, but that just doesn’t seem to cut it. It’s very expensive and volunteers are often involved on a short term, rather than a long term basis.

In dealing with exotics, we’re using cutting, burning, repeated burning and herbicide application. We’ll cut something, burn it, and then come back next year and get the sprouts with a hand-applicated herbicide. We use a variety of methods, including screaming and swearing at times.

I read on the Parks web site that of all of California’s 202 major habitat types, coastal dunes are the most impacted and 33.7% of them are in the State Park System.

They’ve been heavily converted. 80% of Californians live within 10 miles of the coast. The dunes are, for the most part, along the coast. They’ve been converted and fragmented. Years ago, most people probably didn’t think too much of them, as there weren’t trees or large areas of vegetation on them. They continually got abused or converted. Now, there are very little left. Of the State Park dunes, at least half of them have problems with European beach grass that I mentioned earlier.

Let’s talk for a minute about climate change. Sea level rise and changes in precipitation and in the amount and timing of show melt runoff present serious threats to California’s water supply and natural resources. The California Resources Agency is currently developing the State’s first comprehensive Climate Adaptation Strategy. You are co-leading the Biodiversity and Habitat working group for this effort, which is charged with developing strategies to maximize species and habitat resiliency in the fact of climate change. How did you become involved?

The problems that are furthest out in the future often receive the least amount of attention. For several years, we knew there was this looming, long-term issue of climate change but I continued to deal with the day to day work. About four years ago, I got serious about it and decided we really needed to spend some time on this within State Parks. I read a lot of the literature and discussed the issue with other conservation biologists with a background in climate change and came up with some crude strategies for dealing with climate change in the State Park System.

A small group of us on the California Biodiversity Council executive committee decided it was time to advance climate change and biodiversity issues. The California Biodiversity Council is a group of about 35 land managing and land acquiring conservation agencies. There are federal agencies like the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife and the National Park Service. There are California conservation agencies, and some local and non-profit representation. When it was established some 15 years ago, the idea was to improve our overall management and conservation of California land through collaborative efforts and bring the researches together with the land managers. So, at the Council’s quarterly meeting that year, we put together a day that was devoted to climate change. We decided to focus on how to bring to the land managing agencies the research that was going on. We also wanted to evaluate the research. That got things started. We ended up revising our acquisition goals and natural resource management policies for the State Park system based, in part, on climate change.

About a year ago, the State Resources Agency hired a climate change manager, and our efforts, State Parks and the Department of Fish and Game, became more formalized and included more agencies. So it made sense that Fish and Game and State Parks would take the lead within the Resources Agency in adapting to climate change as it relates to biological diversity and habitat.

We got started a few years before the formalized effort.

Is the Climate Adaptation Strategy intended to serve as a model for other states? (If not, do you think it will be?)

It could serve as a model for other states, but obviously it is tailored to California. Some of it may apply. The first strategy [of the Habitat and Biodiversity working group’s plan] which is the most critical at this point, related to establishing a system of landscape reserves in California, may not apply to a lot of states lacking an abundance of protected and managed land. In California, we’ve spent 400 million dollars annually on conserving or restoring the landscape. The protected land coverage of California is significant but in many cases fragmented. Other climate change strategies should be of value, especially those involving restoration and long-term coordination of research.

In the work you and your colleagues have done on the Biodiversity and Habitat working group, have you studied the efforts of countries? Has any other country or part of the U.S. been a resource of information or innovation?

Not really. We did look at the research that has been done elsewhere, such as in Australia, Mediterranean countries and some countries in Europe, but that has been more about the global effects. With the exception of perhaps South Africa, there are not that many areas where they have advanced to the point of having some of these solutions on the land applicable to California. Now, some of these solutions are short term – the next 20 years. These are solutions we can get on right now to address certain problems. We can afford to put money and effort into them because despite not knowing all of the ramifications of climate change, it’s good land management and conservation. These efforts will help reduce the stress on native species and provide some resiliency as things heat up in California.

We feel confident that we can move forward even though we don’t have good regional modeling at this point – especially for precipitation – that gives us a sense of what the landscape will look like in 50 years.

I have personally looked at Maryland’s work and the work from King County, Washington. It’s less about their conservation strategies, but their analytical approaches. That has proven to be helpful.

The Biodiversity and Habitat working group has drafted a report recommending five key strategies: landscapes reserves; management of habitat and restoration; research and guidelines; regulatory requirements and implementation. This draft report was just presented to the public last Wednesday. How has it been received?

Generally, it has been well received. It has been carefully reviewed by the academic community: UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and Stanford. California has a very strong environmental regulatory community and they also weighed in on it. I’m pleased. I think we hit the mark, but we have a number of new ideas to consider.
Specificity is an issue. Some other areas of adaptation, like agriculture and public health, are not as far along as biodiversity. When all are folded into one report we are told to find some commonality.

So when you say that there were additional things that came up ding the public meetings, are you referring to that level of detail they weren’t seeing?

In addition to the detail, there were a few other comments, such as “what will you do about species that can’t adapt as quickly as the temperatures rise?” There are some species that don’t begin their reproduction until they are 70 years old. In 70 years, the conditions in the near area may be such that they can’t survive. Some people wanted to see more of the assisted migration concept in the report. There are a lot of people looking into this topic throughout the country. It’s one of those idealistic approaches to climate change where money is a huge factor.

Some researchers looked at one particular assisted migration scenario. It was a listed butterfly in the South San Francisco Bay Area. They predicted the habitat on which this butterfly was dependent upon was going to move. When asked what the cost would be to move of the population of the butterfly to adapt to those new locations, it was something like $20 million. The reality is that $20 million can buy you a lot of nice habitat. It comes down to “where are you going to put your money to get the greatest impact?” For some of us this is a very tough question. However in California it has been predicted that 28-35 % of our species will be extinct within something like 100 years from climate change and other related impacts. It’s triage.

So will assisted migration be considered for incorporation into the strategy?

We said that we need better research on cost and effectiveness.

Were any new ideas brought up at any of these public meetings?

There were a number including the following:

  • Link sequestration and mitigation with adaptation were they overlap;
  • Beef up the aquatic ecosystems, possibly using a watershed scale; 
  • Link the Subdivision Map Act and it’s opportunities to biodiversity objectives; 
  • Ensure basic research is encouraged and funded; 
  • Ensure research has a funding and decision making framework; 
  • Better integrate local land use goals into habitat objectives; 
  • Give disease more attention-it maybe a bigger factor than fire; 
  • Engage with the Western Governor’s Association.

This is a quick sample, we receive a number more good ideas from which to amend our document.

Many of the sub strategies presented in the draft report seem as though they’d require a substantial amount of inter-departmental and inter-agency coordination, as well as coordination between State, Federal, academic, private and non-profit entities. How will this work?

We’ve had mixed results in California working together. It is very clear to me that if California is to take this challenge head on, the land managing and land acquiring agencies and non-profits statewide must to work together. the planning framework for federal, state and local collaboration needs to be institutionalized very soon.

Working together is critical if we are to develop a landscape reserve system. That’s going to require some serious collaboration on the part of these groups. Those folks with the most land and the most money to put into it need to come together and put together this reserve system. Then we put it out for public review and continually improve upon it. Just to take that initial step.

All this collaboration is only going to happen if there is serious leadership. Without serious leadership, we will probably do a little better than lip service to collaboration.

What do you see as the key challenges to bringing the strategies of your working group to action? Would this collaboration be one?

Yes. The other challenge is that the capacity of agencies in these times is dwindling. With the budgetary problems in the country and the State, I don’t see that improving soon.
But the long-term conservation potential in California is inviting. There are ten very diverse ecological regions in California. They are all large and they are all filled with endemic species-1/4th of plant species are endemic. They all have a lot of natural land. An effort to conserve California is very doable IF we do things right. Directors of the 1012 entities in California that have statewide involvement are going to have to get very serious about priorities and let some things go so we can focus on this long-term. We need to get away from short-term thinking.

One other thing that is going to be a bit of a challenge is the retirement of baby boomers. A lot of the people who are working together now are older baby boomers who have been around the conservation agencies a long time and know that in order for conservation to work in California you need to work together. A lot of people will be retiring, leaving significant gaps, but every day I’m happily surprised to hear committed, young conservationists talking the way we talked in the 70s. Those of us retiring in a few years are leaving huge challenges for these folks to confront.

There is one other thing that is important on a state and national level. Right now, California has a Governor who is very supportive of addressing climate change. This is also true of the upcoming administration in Washington, DC. If you get a Bush type administration after Obama, or a Bush type administration in California after Schwarzenegger in California, things can break down very suddenly. If there is not a priority in the administration to address climate change, it can very easily fall off the page.

Under the Landscape Reserves strategy, “provide for public access and recreational use” and “pursue opportunities for public education” are among the principles listed. If you had limitless funding and resources to accomplish this, what would you do?

I’m one of those guys who would put a majority of the money into preserving or restoring the land. Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do. Then I’d look into the factors that go into sustaining that type of effort and I’d continue funding those activities.

That means building a constituency that crosses into a variety of racial and ethnic groups. In California, the environmental movement through the 70s, 80s and 90s has been really about white guys initially and then white guys and white gals. The majority of California will be Hispanic in the near future. So we need to put a lot of effort into interpreting and educating the groups that haven’t been a part of the conservation efforts. We need to be doing that in a more effective way. I think we will get a big boost from the Obama administration in that regard.

There is no substitute for direct protection of the natural resources, including the working landscape, but we need to educate the general public about what we are doing. But then there’s the issue of access.

Access to protected lands in California continues to need improvement. In California, we put a lot of into conservation without access. We need to continually find ways to support these preserved areas for some kind of public use. I’m not talking about uses that are going to overrun protected areas, as you see on some of our beaches in Southern California. I’m talking about low-intensity uses of land, interpretation of our rich natural heritage and issues of climate change – how it is affecting resources and how they are adapting to it.

Many of our readers are landscape designers, biologists and ecological engineers. If you had one piece of advice to offer them about how they could help protect and enhance biodiversity within the San Francisco Bay-Delta bioregion, what would you tell them?

I’ll answer three ways.

First, continue educating citizens in the Bay Area that a long-term sustainable environment is what is in their best interest, in terms of quality of life. And when they can access natural areas, they should turn off the PC, and take a hike in nature with friends.

Second, a long-term, sustainable environment is dependent on continued management of the land and the ability to link protected areas to larger protected areas. Many populations will persist without a lot of heavy, expensive resource management if given the proper acreage.

In the Bay Area we haven’t provided good access opportunities to the underrepresented communities or people of significant financial need. We need to find a way to get folks from these communities from their homes to our protected lands to really experience nature. You can do scattered, small, 2-5 acre parks amongst urban areas, but those are too small to really serve nature well. In those areas, say Oakland, a little further away, perhaps 15 miles away – like Mount Diablo – you have a greater opportunity for larger areas. It’s very hard for them to get out to these areas and develop a strong appreciation. It’s a challenge that’s doable, but now we’re struggling with that one.

In your four decades of service to the State of California, you have, no doubt, seen a lot of change. What do you think has been the single, most positive change?

I remember first starting in the late 1960s – during the environmental movement – and then becoming more engaged in the 1970s when a lot of the major environmental laws were passed. (I was with the California Coastal Commission). At that time, environmentalists were looked on negatively – as those that were fighting growth and jobs. There was constant head butting.

We have now evolved to a point where a majority of thinking individuals – those who stop to think about quality of life and what they want their children and grandchildren to be able to experience – consider the environment to be very important. Certainly in California, a majority of the people see the benefit of putting money and effort into protecting the environment.

That one change has been the most important in my mind.

We’re continually growing and getting stronger. It’s no longer us vs. them. It’s us together trying to make things work for economic growth as well as conservation.

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