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The future of the Douglas Family Preserve in Santa Barbara outlined at a community meeting

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

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

In the background the park continued as usual. Birds chirped overhead, dogs kicked up dust, the wind stirred the surrounding trees and shrubs, and ocean waves crashed just out of sight behind the cliffs.

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

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

Frustratingly for some residents, the native vegetation includes poison oak, which will be kept off the paths but left alone throughout.

Beyond that, though, attendees seemed to largely agree with the improvements, which cover habitat restoration, wildfire prevention, removal of hazardous trees and trail maintenance. It is part of a citywide initiative to restore 18 of the natural open spaces and reduce the risk of wildfires.

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

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

To protect the sensitive native plants and animal species that inhabit the park, planners will remove secondary and unauthorized paths that fragment habitat, and 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 reserve – have been targeted for mechanical removal by the city for years. In 2023, the city attempted to remove several acacia trees from part of the park, strangling native oak trees.

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

“That’s something we want to see – we want to promote that native vegetation,” she added.

They also plan to implement controversial eucalyptus management. The low-maintenance, beautiful trees provide habitat for species such as birds of prey, but they shed a lot of bark, which fuels fires, and their poisonous seeds make the surrounding soil habitable for native people.

“They are often very successful in outcompeting our native species,” O’Connor said. “In the long term, we are exploring options for restoration – that is, passive restoration by removing only invasive species, or active restoration by sowing seed or planting containers.”

As they remove invasive species and address dead and unstable trees, the city “plans to replace lost trees,” but with “species suitable for the preserve and native to California,” she continued. The number of trees to be planted has yet to be determined, and they are also looking at where they can restore coastal shrubs.

In terms of fire safety, they want to increase defensible space by clearing grasses and removing weeds, and widening roads for fire access. In addition, there are plans to reduce fuel loads in high-risk areas to reduce the intensity of wildfires.

Recently, on June 3, the entire province entered this year’s high fire season.

“We have to do our part,” explains Mark von Tillow, a wildfire specialist in urban fires. “If and when a fire breaks out – it will at some point – those are things we have 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 overgrowth.”

For the trails, they want to address common issues that exist throughout the trail system, such as making sure water is directed to the right place when it rains, brushing the trails so they are free of vegetation and debris, and using fallen trees. and tree trunks to line the paths to prevent them from widening and guide people through the park.

Concerns about the plan, expressed by community members, included that it was too “people-oriented.”

“Everything I’ve heard here is really good… but the main part of the reserve seems to be taking a backseat,” said one resident, adding that the eucalyptus and deadwood to be removed sometimes provide important habitat for wildlife . such as nesting owls.

She added: “This is a unique place given to the city by the people. We all know that; that’s why we were all here. And it needs unique management. So I’m hopeful that maybe we can get that out of this. I have a lot of hope about the process.”

Additionally, others were concerned about the growing number of e-bikes riding around the city, creating ruts in the trails. Although they are electric, they also have pedals, which categorizes them as bicycles rather than motorized vehicles. The city says it is aware of the problem and is “working on it.”

The domain has been a city park since 1996, “so it comes on the occasion of its 30th anniversary; there have probably been thousands and thousands of people who have enjoyed this space,” said director Jill Zachary. “We believe this project is the first of a number of opportunities to develop activities in the park. So this is a kind of kick-off.”