SOLANA BEACH — It was 25 years ago that the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy formed.The organization was smaller then, but their goals remain just as big today — to protect the lagoon from development and to help preserve the area for future generations.
Doug Gibson is the executive director and principal scientist with the Conservancy. He joined the organization in 1996 and since then has seen the group mature into a good-sized staff, hosting structured events that yield measurable conservation results.
Gibson said that he’s also witnessed a change in attitudes when it comes to conservation, mostly due to educational programs that have grown over the years and the Conservancy’s ability to show results to the community. “The work that we do is not just to pat ourselves on the back; it’s to create a lasting environment for future generations.”
One of the organization’s biggest conservation efforts came in December 2011 when the Conservancy received a loan from a group of individuals, allowing them to purchase the Gateway property, 3.4 acres of land next to the San Elijo lagoon for $3.75 million.
The Gateway property has been one of the most highly contentious land acquisitions, explained Lydia Cobb, outreach coordinator. “For 20 years and longer, development project after another was being proposed,” she said.
Since the purchase, the Conservancy has formed a campaign to repay the lenders by the end of 2012. “There are six years to repay the loan, but it’s critical that we get the support as soon as possible so we don’t pay interest,” Cobb said. “If everything is completed on time and we get everything paid by end of the year, then in 2013…that’s when the planning phase II starts.”
For now, a lot of the work happening at Gateway Park sees volunteers ridding the site of non-native invasive plants such as Pride of Madeira and mustard wildflowers. And with its proximity to Highway 101 trash pickup is an ongoing event.
“We are just managing habitat as it is here,” said David Varner, restoration ecologist with the Conservancy. “We’re not…creating necessarily new habitat because we still have to purchase this property; we still need financial support to acquire this property to do real restoration. At this point we’re just protecting the reserve.”
On Saturday, about 65 volunteers came to participate in the “spring cleaning at Gateway Park.”
Eric Carstensen, a professor at MiraCosta College and faculty advisor for the college’s outdoors club was hoisting a tarp full of pulled weeds and invasive plants onto his back, saying that the experience has been awesome.
When he moved to the area in the ‘70s, Carstensen said the environment was much more natural. “So anything we can do to preserve the remaining open space we have, I’m totally on board,” he said.
Having walked through the park’s trails before, Justin Meeker saw volunteering with the Conservancy as a good opportunity to help out the community. “It’s an opportunity for the community to get together,” Meeker said. “It’s something that everyone sees driving along the 101 or on the train and it’s a valuable resource to preserve for future generations as well.”
While trash and invasive plants still pose natural hurdles to the lagoon, the Conservancy is facing some of its own challenges.
“It always comes down to fundraising and having funds to keep people employed,” Gibson said. “Those hurdles are always going to be there.”
The Conservancy still relies on state and federal support but Gibson said that it’s difficult to gain grants despite the passing of environmental bonds beginning in the late 1980s to the latest passing of Proposition 84. “That put billions of dollars into the natural environment of California, and thousands of acres of property was purchased and restored. But then we had some problems with the economy…we still have some of those bond funds around, they’re starting to dry up and we’re starting to be creative in how we accomplish some of these goals,” he said.
There’s a lot left to do, but Gibson said the lagoon has done a complete 180 from where it was 15 to 16 years ago to what it is today.