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Federal plan aims to help ecologically diverse areas like SLO restore native plant population

Monterey Pine Trees are native to the Central Coast.
Photo by Amanda Wernik.
Monterey Pine Trees are native to the Central Coast.

An $18 million federal initiative aims to restore native plants in ecologically rich areas across the US. It targets biodiversity hotspots like San Luis Obispo, where about 70% of native vegetation has declined.

The funding will increase the availability of native seeds to plant, which the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports could make the environment less susceptible to severe weather events.

“The impacts are more frequent and intense– wildfire, drought, extreme weather,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said. “As these native plant populations are lost, so are the ecosystem services that they provide.”

Recent heavy rains and floods in the Central Coast have increased the likelihood of mud and landslides because native plants, which help stabilize the soil, are disappearing.

Scott Steinmaus, a Cal Poly plant sciences professor, explained that native trees, like Monterey Pines, help prevent slides with their strong roots.

However, their populations are declining, and invasive grasses are taking their place.

“When you get a big rain in a particular year, those grasses can't hold the soil because they have a very shallow root system,” Steinmaus said. “Then the whole hillside slides away.”

According to Steinmaus, invasive grasses also extend and intensify wildfire seasons. This is because these grasses turn yellow and dry out earlier than native grasses, which makes them more flammable.

“They open up the fire window from April all the way until the next set of serious rains come, which are usually in December,” Steinmaus said. “So that fire window is so much worse than it used to be.”

Steinmaus emphasized the federal initiative goes beyond just planting seeds; it involves a team of knowledgeable experts.

“There are very smart scientists who know we need to be very particular about which species we nurture, plant, and most importantly, deal with the invasive species that are already here,” Steinmaus said.

The initiative will enhance current federal and local partnerships, such as the one with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, to safeguard native plants and habitats in the area. Additionally, it will support efforts to restore California species, including milkweed for monarch butterflies.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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