By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Carlos de la Rosa, the conservancy’s conservation and education officer, came from Costa Rica to study and help restore Catalina’s wilderness, where the local fox is not merely a fox but a Urocyon littoralis catalinae— a tiny Catalina Island fox — and the Catalina ironwood, with its fernlike leaves and clusters of small flowers, is the last surviving relic of a species that once flourished on the mainland. (The fox, decimated a few years back by a distemper epidemic, seems to have come through the fires just fine.)
Up in the mountains a few miles from the airport, at a place called Middle Ranch, de la Rosa explains how the land has come back from an earlier fire, one that burned a smaller area in 2003. Tiny shoots of green struggle out of an oak stump; lemonade berry shrubs push tenaciously out of the soil. Only white sage has burst back to life with gusto. “Here, take some,” de la Rosa offers, pinching a little between his fingers. It smells as strong as turpentine. “Can you imagine being a grazing animal and eating that? Bison will eat the young oak, but they won’t touch this.”
A fence has been constructed around one small piece of land, “an educational experiment,” says de la Rosa, to gauge what effect grazing animals have on the young shoots of native plants. Here, the oak has come back more fully, but along with it invasive fennel — a weed that smells like licorice and is used by chefs. On the scorched hillsides below, he says, the fennel will have to be manually weeded and replaced with seedlings of lemonade berry and Catalina ironwood raised in an island nursery.
“Everything we plant we have to grow here,” he says, “because everything is totally genetically unique to the island. It’s a long process.” Most of the labor will be done by mainland volunteers, who pay a small sum for room and board and a “working vacation.”
But like so much on tinder-dry Catalina, where more fires are expected during this long season of drought, even the volunteer program is in peril.
ONCE AGAIN CAREERING along the edge of the exposed mountain roads, Rhein suddenly slows down and pulls toward the edge.
“Here it is,” he says, “China Cliff. This is where Laura Stein went off the cliff.”
Stein, who died in 1993 when she lost control of her car at this spot where Rhein morbidly lingers, was the conservancy’s first coordinator of volunteer services. In 1994, a volunteer camp was built in her honor, complete with tent cabins and hammocks and a solar-powered kitchen overlooking the sea. Local chefs held wine tastings and served wild-salmon suppers for the worthy workers who came over from the mainland to help restore the island.
Now all that’s left of the camp are two mysteriously well-preserved tent cabins, piles of charred cookware and irregularly shaped blobs of metal — the remains of solar panels that melted in the heat of the May 10 blaze.
“It’s really sad,” Rhein complains. “This was such a beautiful spot, and now it’s gone. Just when we needed our volunteers more than ever, we have no place to put them up.”
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