A unique property with a long and interesting history, the Elkhorn Highlands Reserve (EHR) contains large amounts of rare maritime chaparral, as well as oak woodlands, grassland, and freshwater wetlands. Despite being only 167 acres, EHR hosts more than 200 species of plants, including many that are rare or endangered. Future projects planned include habitat restoration and experimentation with conservation grazing.
With support from CalTrans, Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Making Biochar at EHR
Stewardship Director Dash Dunkell explains how ESF is converting logs from invasive eucalyptus trees into valuable biochar.
Partnerships for Land Protection
All of our work requires partnerships: with our community of supporters and volunteers, other conservation organizations, the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, universities, government entities, and private landowners.
In the case of the Elkhorn Highlands Reserve, it was a novel partnership with the California Department of Transportation, and key support from local elected officials, that led to the permanent protection of this amazing property full of rare and interesting plants and animals.
In a process that took more than a decade, the Elkhorn Highlands Reserve was transferred to ESF from CalTrans in 2016, with a detailed management plan and a permanent endowment to fund the needed conservation work. ESF has leveraged the provided funds with further state and federal support to enhance habitat restoration and land management activities with the goal to permanently protect the sensitive maritime chaparral, oak woodlands, and freshwater wetlands of this beautiful reserve.
maritime chaparral, willow-riparian forest, freshwater wetland
Yadon’s rein orchid, Monterey spineflower, harlequin lotus
Before: An Uncommon History
Prior to acquisition by Caltrans in the 2000s, the Elkhorn Highlands Reserve was host to an airstrip, airplane hangar, unofficial RV park, off-road vehicle tracks, an unpermitted landfill site, and many other environmentally-damaging uses.
Local legend has it that during prohibition, the property hosted clandestine dealings and secretive activities. Later on, the airstrip was developed, filling in a large portion of the freshwater wetlands that curve up the valley, and purportedly supporting flights carrying prohibited cargo from Moss Landing Harbor.
More recently, a host of RVs and trailers rented spots throughout the property, making due with substandard facilities. At one point, an owner or tenant even ran a landfill site, illegally accepting all manner of construction debris and trash.
With help from ESF, CalTrans identified the property as a conservation target despite these issues, completed the purchase, and began major cleanup activities.
- Trash dumping
- Off-road vehicles
- Wetland fill
After: Cleaned Up and Carbonized
When ESF finally gained ownership of the property, the trash dumps had been cleaned up and the boundaries surveyed. However, many issues still remained. Foremost were the eucalyptus and acacia trees growing in and around the sensitive freshwater wetlands.
The management plan called for removing these giant weeds from within 100 feet of the wetlands, but we figured out a way to leverage the funds to remove all the nonnative trees from the property. Instead of disposing of the wood in a typical fashion (chipping, firewood), which would release most of its CO2 back into the atmosphere, we decided to experiment with creating something called biochar.
Using a mobile kiln called a Carbonator, the wood was “carbonized” (turned into charcoal) so that the carbon was captured. This charcoal, when added to soils, is called biochar. Future experiments will test it on organic farmland protected by ESF. Other research will look at using it to filter wastewater and supplement habitat restoration plantings.
- 7 acres of invasive trees removed
- 600 tons of biochar created
- 2.6 acres of wetland restoration planned
Photo by Dash Dunkell