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  November/December 2000 Features:
Generation Green
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Sierra Magazine
Generation Green

More on Generation Green: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Some 400 miles south, and very much on the ground, the young members of the California Conservation Corps recognize that changing the world often begins with less dramatic actions--as humble, sometimes, as pulling weeds. The crews look like tiny dots down the beach, completely dwarfed by the jaw-dropping drama of the Mendocino coastline. Ahead, the Ten Mile Dunes shiver and undulate toward the mountains and redwoods in the distance. The Pacific Ocean crashes onto the sand, creating a salty, almost imperceptible mist. Grass sways in the steady spring wind. It's a perfect day, except for one thing: The grass shouldn't be there.

In the late 1800s, gardeners at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park introduced European beach grass (Ammophila arenaria) to the West Coast. They thought the smooth, graceful plant was an ideal way to stabilize the dunes that edged the Pacific, but they didn't anticipate the consequences: Beach grass diminished the open pockets of sand that the endangered western snowy plover needs to build its nests. It also turned out to be highly invasive, not just accenting the landscape, but conquering it.

Howell's spineflower (a delicate, low-growing, endangered flower unique to the area), the endangered Menzies' wallflower, and round-headed Chinese houses, their blooms like tiny, purple pagodas, all disappeared under the relentlessly advancing phalanxes of grass. "The dunes should look like a beautiful garden," sighs Renee Pasquinelli, the California State Parks ecologist who planned the corps' project at Ten Mile Dunes. "But with beach grass, all you get is beach grass."

The plant is tough to stamp out because it develops a system of roots and rhizomes, horizontal underground stems that descend as far as six feet into the sand. All along the coast, different agencies have tried several methods of removing the grass: ripping it out with bulldozers in Oregon, dosing it with herbicides like Roundup and Rodeo in California. But the most effective and least ecologically damaging method may be the most difficult: pulling the grass out by hand. That's where the Conservation Corps crews come in.

The California Conservation Corps, the oldest and largest of the dozens of youth corps in the nation, was formed in 1976 by then-governor Jerry Brown, who modeled it after the Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Roosevelt's corps provided work and vocational training for almost 3.5 million young men during the Depression. It also resulted in thousands of conservation and public-works projects. In modern California, nearly two thousand young people aged 18 to 23 join the state's corps each year. They receive training in ecology and trades such as carpentry and heavy-equipment operation, then work for minimum wage building trails, restoring habitat, and fighting fires. The corps' motto: "Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions . . . and more!"

"We have roll call at 8 a.m.," says Joseph Martin, 32, who leads a crew at Ten Mile Dunes. "Then we check our gear, drive out to the site, unload the tools." Joseph started as a corps member in 1985 and returned after attending college. "I signed on for six months and that turned into three years," he says. "The CCC developed an interest I had in science and the environment. I enjoy the outdoors, the restoration of endangered species."

I hunker down in the beach grass with Joseph's crew, sitting on my heels. "Here," says Brandi Parker, a young woman from Sacramento wearing her regulation helmet and khakis. "You can borrow my gloves. I don't like to use them. I think it's easier to get ahold of the grass with bare hands." I gratefully accept the gloves, then watch as the youth around me twist bunches of stems around their hands and pull. I try to do the same. The grass does not move. I pull again. The grass does not move. They weren't kidding about those rhizomes and root systems.

A year ago, Brandi says, she was in trouble. She was doing all sorts of drugs-alcohol, crank, coke, ecstasy, mushrooms, pot. She dropped out of school, and was taught at home for a while. When she stopped showing up for her home-school appointments, her mother, exasperated and ill with cancer, kicked her out of the house. Looking for a job and a place to live, Brandi came across a CCC ad in the paper.

"Believe me, the environment was not on my radar; I used to eat in the car and throw the trash out the window," she laughs. "Now I know a lot more. Some of my old friends laugh at me, 'Miss CCC girl thinks she knows it all now.' It's hard, but I know that one day, they will wake up and realize that it's not a joke."

The grass I'm trying to pull still isn't moving. "Here," says Mike Grindell, a 23-year-old with a hint of blond stubble. "It's easier if someone gets the roots first." Mike thrusts a shovel blade beneath the clump I'm holding. I feel the roots release, a miracle. Mike and I get into a rhythm. I wrap a clump of grass around my hand. He drives the shovel deep into the sand. I feel the roots release, then pull and toss. The repetition becomes meditative: Wrap, thrust, release, pull, toss. Wrap, thrust, release, pull, toss. Nothing else in the world exists, just the rasping of the shovel going into the dark brown sand, the ripping of the roots.

Mike works with studied concentration. His father, a policeman, no doubt taught him old-fashioned values: work hard, respect authority. Mike likes to scuba dive, play darts, down a few beers with friends. "I'm not a tree-hugger type," he says. "But I am worried about the planet. I have little nephews. I'll have kids someday. I don't want them to see the aftermath of what we've done. I want them to see a cleaner world."

Mike and I work for about 45 minutes, moving about ten yards north. The vastness of the job stuns me: Removing the 70 acres of grass will take hundreds of hours, weeks and weeks of weeding. I can't believe that next year, a new crew will have to do this job all over again, since it usually takes several weedings before the rhizomes die. My fingers are starting to blister; my forearms ache. I glance at my watch every few minutes, hoping for quitting time. I don't want to chicken out, but finally I say, "Man, this is hard work."

Ricky Arzdorf, a rail-thin 20-year-old with a wisp of a beard, blond dreadlocks, and a hemp hair-tie, pipes up, "I'm glad this grass is hard to pull out. This European beach grass is supposed to be an invasive species? Well, humans are an invasive species." The difficulty of the work emphasizes the magnitude of the task these young environmentalists see before them: not just removing beach grass, but repairing all the damage people have done to the planet.

More on Generation Green: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4


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