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Fighting invasives, one root ball at a time
From books, then blisters, Berkeley undergrads — using the Richmond Field Station as their testing ground — learn environmental basics from the ground up

| 05 November 2003


Though he’s working solo here,
student Patrick Nichols thinks a three-person team is ideal for uprooting pampas grass — as it offers the benefit of three styles of arm action.
“I have a big swing,
but I’m not very
coordinated or
delicate,” he says.

Cathy Cockrell photo

From the Bay Trail at UC’s Richmond Field Station, a group of Berkeley students, bundled against the cold, share binoculars and a scope as a local birding expert offers tips for identifying the grebes, willets, egrets, and herons foraging for food in the tidal mudflat.

What’s also visible from the shoreline is a large black tarpaulin, to which the students feel a special connection. It’s their handiwork. On an earlier visit to the field station, these environmentalists-in-training ventured out in waders to tarp over a relatively small and unwelcome colony of cordgrass known as Spartina alterniflora — an invasive species that crowds out native Spartina and alters the ecosystem of tidal marshes, mudflats, and creeks.

These forays to the Richmond Field Station (RFS), Berkeley’s research and teaching outpost on San Francisco Bay, are part of a campus environmental- sciences teaching program. Under its aegis, students study ecological principles in the classroom, then apply them to field work, and — in some cases — capstone research projects.

“Students involved in environmental science really like a hands-on experience outdoors — to see it, touch it, feel it — instead of just reading about it in a book,” says Earth and Planetary Science Professor William Berry, who designed and directs the environmental-education program.

One topic discussed in theory, then applied at RFS, involves techniques for dealing with invasive, non-native plant species like S. alterniflora — which dies off when deprived of light by a dark covering, thus giving native grasses a chance at a comeback.

This simple, pesticide-free management technique “only works in small areas,” explains undergrad Courtney Davis, one of the students going head-to-head with S. alterniflora. “We wanted to get it early” — before the Spartina spreads and hybridizes with the native species.

She and her classmates are getting intimate, as well, with pampas grass, the showy invasive that has colonized the field station, as it has much of the California coastline. After their bucolic hour learning about shorebirds, the students move to the adjoining grassy marsh for the sweatier segment of their outing.

“Everyone pick the root ball you feel a special connection to,” instructs a staffer from the Aquatic Outreach Institute, an educational nonprofit headquartered at RFS. The sun has not yet burned through the morning mist, but students peel off sweaters, shoulder tools, and head off into the grasses. There it takes a team of two or three, armed with pickaxes and a fireman’s tool called a Pulaski, up to 20 highly aerobic minutes to dig out one of the larger specimens — fostering deep respect, if not affection, for pampas grass (which has millions of seeds that develop without pollination, sharp leaves, and a tenacious root system). “Pampas,” says Davis simply, “is the enemy.”

The field station is currently in the midst of an makeover — as Facilities Services (formerly Capital Projects), in partnership with Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S), leads a multimillion-dollar project to mitigate contaminants left behind by past owners of the site and to restore affected natural areas.

Plans call for rehabilitating the marsh, creating a 30-foot-wide transitional zone of native grasses, and ornamentally landscaping the upland areas where RFS structures and roads are located.

“It’s going to be a great place for wildlife and for education,” says Anna Moore of EH&S. “People studying environmental issues will be able to come and see firsthand how a badly contaminated marsh recovers.”

Students will help transplant native plants — whose seeds were harvested before the digging started — back into impacted areas in order to create habitat for the California clapper rail (an endangered bird) and other native animals.

The site, post-cleanup, should offer inviting new opportunities for environmental teaching and research. Professor Berry, for one, has in mind an educational trail, replete with interactive stations, through RFS’s marshy wetlands and grassy areas — bringing together the university’s research, teaching, and service missions.

“The Coastal Commission has expressed interest in the project,” Berry says. “We’re getting estimates from a landscape architect who designs these kinds of trails. I find the possibilities enormously exciting.”