Isha Shah

A Day in The Life

Wearing fishing waders out in the middle of Medea Creek in Oak Park has allotted me multiple encounters with the locals, and the one thing I’ve learned from all of those interactions is that no one knows exactly what I am doing out there.

Perhaps there needs to be a scene set for this situation….picture a man wearing long sleeves in chest high Orvis waders with multiple items hanging from him with carabiners and string, a bucket under one arm, latex gloves beneath work gloves, all in an environment that is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Picture this strange creek man pulling metal baskets out of the water and inspecting them (for what no one is sure), then putting dog food into them and shoving them back into the water. I would imagine that for those walking on this trail every day, such a sight would raise an eyebrow and perhaps warrant an explanation. This is especially true if you are a person with an appreciation for nature and see this creek person as a potential threat to your natural landscapes. You may ask yourself, “Who is this person? What are they doing in the creek? What are those baskets? Why are there so many? Whom does he work with?”

Throughout the almost 3 years that I have worked at Mountains Restoration Trust, I have had the privilege of managing countless crayfish removal volunteer events. In 2017 alone I worked with over 1,500 members of the public to remove crayfish from Medea Creek, and because of that I am no stranger to debunking myths about my work. One memorable encounter with a local resident occurred while one of the biologists in our team was removing crayfish beside a culvert. A man stopped to ask him what purpose he had in the area. Why was he here and why was he tampering with the wildlife? The crayfish where there, he said, and now have a purpose. They had a job. The job in question was to eliminate mosquito larvae and reduce incidence of disease such as West Nile Virus. This is not the case, the biologist explained. The presence of crayfish will almost surely increase the population of mosquitoes. Why and how does such a correlation exist? The answer is that crayfish (who do not eat mosquitos) eat the native tree frogs and dragonfly larvae (who do eat mosquitos).

I had another memorable encounter with an oak park family that reinforced these common misconceptions with my work. The pair stopped us and inquired as to whether or not “the baskets” were ours. We indicated that they were ours and pointed out that these were not “baskets” but traps, and traps for crayfish. The boy responded that he and his dad came down to the creek to open up the traps and free the crayfish. After exchanging shocked glances with my associate, we quickly asked the boy his reason why. Again, it was because they were believed to eat mosquitos. Then he hit us with a more existential reason: crayfish have existed in these creeks for many years, don’t they belong there? Summoning my best young person logic, I told him that even though they have been here for a while, that does not necessarily constitute automatic membership. Native species are critical to the environment because they provide a service – such as the native tree frogs and dragonfly larvae keeping the mosquito population down – but invasive species that exist in our habitats do not provide a service.

Needless to say, I give lessons in stream ecology quite often. And while at times it is difficult to explain what this “creek man” is doing, I take great pleasure in teaching locals about their environment and restoring our Santa Monica mountain habitats. I encourage everybody to come to our volunteer events to experience and learn from the ecology of their backyards and perhaps become a creek person themselves!

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Mountains Restoration Trust Announces Appointment of D. Ezekiel Schlais as Executive Director

Press Release

Organization Release – 8/9/2018 10:00 AM ET

Schlais Brings Community, Environmental Science and Operational Experience

CALABASAS, Calif.– Mountains Restoration Trust (MRT) announced that D. Ezekiel Schlais has been named the organization’s new Executive Director, effective August 9. 2018.

MRT’s Board of Directors Vice President, Dr. Robert Wayne, on behalf of the MRT board, stated “After an exhaustive search, we are proud to name Ezekiel Schlais as Executive Director. Schlais brings an experienced environmental science background, a wealth of operational experience, and a lifelong passion for nature to MRT. We are confident that Schlais will elevate our acquisition, restoration, scientific and educational efforts in the Santa Monica Mountains. He is the right leader as MRT embarks on its next chapter with renewed focus, a supportive community, and an incredible team. Together, we will continue to restore our local mountains’ ecological fortune.”

Schlais has extensive experience leading and innovating environmental communities, partnerships and projects. He has guided a number of institutions through pivotal transitions and has frequently worked with underperforming organizations to affect positive change. Schlais is known for building inclusive cross-industry communities that deliver meaningful environmental solutions. As the Head of Strategic Initiatives for UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES), examples of his community-science partnerships include: launching a high school learning platform, creating a coalition of sustainable business leaders, cultivating the funds to establish the first university diversity center in green science, managing an annual $1M+ Gala, and playing an integral role to inaugurate the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award. Prior to IoES, Schlais served as Vice President of Origination with The Gores Group, where he sourced and managed complex acquisition opportunities. Schlais has worked with various environmental organizations and conservation science teams, including the Placer Land Trust, The Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Pepperdine and U.C. Davis.

“I cannot imagine a more important or exciting time to join MRT,” said Schlais. “We are well-positioned to foster a community-driven environmental renaissance in the Santa Monica Mountains. With an accomplished 37-year legacy in acquisitions, restoration, science and education and with a second-to-none staff, MRT is primed to expand our connections across diverse communities and to deliver local-to-global resource solutions in the face of climate change. This Executive Director role is the perfect opportunity to combine my industry experience and passion for ecology, which examines the interdependence of organisms to one another and their physical surroundings.”

Schlais holds a Master of Business Administration from the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University and a Bachelor of Science in English from Seaver College at Pepperdine University. He has lived in the Santa Monica Mountains since 2000 and currently lives in Malibu with his partner Julian and their dog Chance. You can most often find Ezekiel running the 500+ miles of trails available in the Santa Monica Mountains.

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Reflections on Cold Creek by Mark Fiege


It is a beautiful summer morning in the Cold Creek Valley. It isn’t hot yet, but by noon the temperature will be in the 90’s. Today, the mission is to water our Pepperdine restoration area (named for the organization that contracted the mitigation) off of Stunt Road in Calabasas. This site consists of over 500 native plants that are situated on upland slopes within MRT’s Cold Creek West Preserve. Planting began only last November so regular watering is crucial to pull these plants through the recent heat wave and the long summer drought. With high temperatures ranging from the 90’s to the 110’s, even the old established oaks in the Santa Monicas are having trouble. This site was chosen to restore a part of the Preserve that was used for a driveway before MRT obtained the property, which has subsequently become infested with invasive species such as black mustard, wild oat, ripgut brome, and Italian thistle. However, in order to water this area which can only be reached by foot, MRT installed an irrigation line that is accessible from an upper part of Stunt Road and flows through a fire hose down to our site over several rocky cliffs. As the water flows from the tank in the MRT work truck down to the auxiliary tank at the restoration site, I gaze at Calabasas Peak which rises to form the Northern boundary of the Cold Creek basin. To the west, Ladyface Mountain comes first with Conejo Peak visible in the misty background some 25 miles away. I can barely make out the two MRT restoration technicians down below at the site prepping for a day of watering, weeding, and the never-ending task of plant maintenance. In the picture accompanying this post, one can see the white water tank at the very bottom left with Adin Shy-Sobol, and the tiny dot that is Becca Kosugi making her way across the site just above and to the right. Although MRT was founded over 35 years ago in 1981, most of our vegetative restoration crew are relatively recent additions. We have employees with vastly diverse backgrounds and personal histories: from Biology to Mechanical Engineering to English degrees, from scientists to record store clerks, from fresh college grads to people looking for a new start after having been in the workforce. The common thread however, is a passion for the natural environment of Southern California and to restore it’s native beauty as best we can. With someone like Tom Hayduk (see last month’s newsletter for a column from Tom) in charge of the vegetative restoration work MRT does, it’s hard not to find beauty out here. From his hand planted “Elderberry Eden” site, to his tireless dedication tending the various MRT nursery sites, to his weekly educational volunteer events, Tom has personally improved a significant portion of the habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains. As one of the employees who has found this field after having been in the workforce for a while, I’m always excited when others choose to take the plunge and follow this path.

I am originally from the DC-Baltimore section of the east coast. When I graduated from tiny St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2008 with a BA in English, I was fairly clueless about what to do. The economy had just tanked and Washington DC was hit especially hard. The only “real” job I could find was a paralegal position at a foreclosure and bankruptcy firm in DC that represented major banks. Although it was miserable I kept pushing because I didn’t really have any other options, so when a friend asked me to move out to Los Angeles to help start a business, I jumped at the chance. Five years later, the business had been sold and I needed to find “real” work again. I returned to paralegal work, only to discover (surprise surprise!) that the only work I could find was fairly miserable law firms that needed help with things related to a struggling economy – corporate loss mitigation, debt collection, etc. As before, I took a job that I didn’t want because it was all that was available. After six months of paralegal work at an awful debt collection law firm, I was rescued by something I had never even considered possible: the federal government! The National Park Service in Thousand Oaks was offering internship positions in their restoration ecology department. Not only did I not have any experience, but I hardly knew what restoration ecology even was. Even so, the people at NPS loved my enthusiasm and decided to give a 29 year old paralegal with an English degree and no scientific experience a chance. I absolutely loved it from day 1; native plant nursery work, invasive species mitigation, interpretive talks with visitor groups, and botanical monitoring all became part of my weekly routine, and I went from dreading the alarm clock every morning to being excited about having a new adventure in the Santa Monicas. After concluding my internship at NPS, I was welcomed at MRT. Although the plethora of sites over several large preserve areas were intimidating at first, I quickly learned to love all of MRT’s land and projects. The La Sierra Preserve holds an endangered species (Lyon’s pigmy daisy, Pentachaeta lyonii) and a wealth of other rare native plants such as various Calochortus/Mariposa lilies (Calochortus albus, C. catalinae, C. clavatus, and potentially C. plummerae), spiny tarweed (Centromadia pungens), and a beautiful grove of black cottonwood trees. The Cold Creek Preserve is equally amazing with its own endangered species (the Santa Susanna tarweed, Deinandra minthornii) and several rare plant species including red shanks (Adenostoma sparsifolium), giant stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea), Fish’s milkwort (Polygala cornuta var. fishiae), splendid mariposa lily (C. splendens), and Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora). Our Cold Creek Preserve is unique in particular because its spring-fed waters are the highest water quality in the mountains, giving it the resources to support incredibly diverse and fragile habitats. This gives MRT not only a precious resource, but a crucial responsibility to manage and protect these lands. I won’t say the work is easy, and I won’t say that it doesn’t get hot/cold, wet/dry, windy/stifling out here, but every day is supremely worth it to myself and the rest of the crew because we believe in the work we are doing and we believe in MRT. I am so glad to have been welcomed in to this new field where I am excited to get to work. Every day in the Santa Monicas is an adventure – from thorns to snakes to secluded desert waterfalls – and I’m thrilled to call it home.

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Updates from Tom Hayduk, MRT’s Nursery & Vegetation Restoration Manager

June 26th 2018

After a busy planting season, the MRT veg crew are now focusing on site maintenance for our restoration sites and other protected lands.  Our current planting sites are at de Anza Park, Malibu Creek State Park, Headwaters Corner, Cold Creek High Trail and La Sierra Preserve. Since the end of the planting season, we have been catching up on our weed maintenance program by removing non-natives through weed-whacking and selective hand-weeding while avoiding the large-scale use of herbicides.

With multiple revegetation projects and others in development, the nursery has become the foundation of the program. The MRT nursery has been operational for almost nine years. Our growing grounds are unique in many ways, one being that the nursery complex is spread out in five locations. The shadehouse at Headwaters Corner was our first nursery structure, built in 2009 by two Eagle Scout projects and used to store seed propagation flats. In May of 2010, we began to use the “April Rd greenhouse” located on State Park property above the old Ronald Reagan Ranch. This greenhouse stores many native collections and with its great light provides near optimal growing conditions for our native propagules.

In 2011 we got permission from State Parks to restore and occupy a large shade structure located behind the Malibu Creek State Park campground. The PVC structure that supports the shade cloth was re-glued at this time and at least twice since after winter storms. This shadehouse stores our one-gallons and treepots and is much cooler than the greenhouse in summer, although adversely colder in winter.

We are using the small greenhouse I installed in the backyard of my Canoga Park home to grow all our coast live oak, valley oak and scrub oak saplings, California bay laurel, hollyleaf cherry, coffeeberry chaparral yucca and other native collections. This greenhouse has found its niche to provide a safe place for these young trees, because there is no predation by mice or squirrels who, if given a chance, will steal every acorn sown in a tray overnight. Nursery Assistant Manager Betsey Scheets has also been growing natives in her backyard nursery, and provides a few species to supplement our stock, including blue-eyed grass, creeping snowberry and yerba buena.

In the nursery, we continue to propagate from seed, cuttings, division and salvage. As the nursery manager I am particularly proud of the modifications we have made in the past year to improve our seed propagation program. Although we will continue to sow seed in propagation flats, we have also found success in direct seeding into 2-inch x 7-inch liners (50 per tray) and sowing multiple species per pot, all common to the same habitat type. For example, we typically have been sowing different combinations of deerweed, golden yarrow, woolly aster and showy penstemon seed, all appropriate companion species for grassland habitat, then lightly cover this seed and sow purple needlegrass seed, cover again with light layer of soil and then compress soil. We then tightly wrap these trays with hardware cloth caging to prevent rodent damage and leave these trays in the greenhouse environment for optimal light and moisture to allow for natural seedling development.  These liners can be planted directly into the ground or repotted to one-gallon pots. We have had great success with establishment of these plugs at a revegetation project at Malibu Creek State Park, with 300 plantings without any fatalities. Another key part to this successful planting has been the use of coco disks installed over the watering basins and wrapped around the neck of the protection cages to greatly increase the moisture retention in the soil.

On Thursdays I work with Betsey and our April Road greenhouse volunteers from 9am-2pm to complete all our propagation and repotting work for the week.  Long-time volunteers include Karen Cleaver, Virginie Snyder, Juliet Montgomery, John Ulloth, Phil Peck, Michael Hart, and new volunteers Chad Lee and Ben Schmit.  These volunteers are dedicated to the work and become skilled as they gain experience with repotting and propagation methods, while enjoying the company and environment found in our greenhouse cathedral. I should add that this greenhouse also houses nesting birds, lizards, snakes, and pesty mice, with honeybees and yellow jackets, buzzing all about in search of moisture more so than plant nectar or human blood. If you would like to join our greenhouse crew, please send me a note of your interest.

I will be working with volunteers on June 30, July 14 and July 28 at the Cold Creek Valley Preserve to remove invasive species and collect native seed. This is a great opportunity to learn native plant and weed identification and much more while working and hiking in our valley preserve.  Other upcoming volunteer veg events are scheduled for June 7 (at de Anza Park in Calabasas), July 14 at Potrero Creek in Newbury Park, and July 21 at Malibu Creek State Park.  All events occur from 9am-12pm.  Please sign up here.

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