Clearing the way to recovery

Christmas came early this year for Ronnie Glick.

Glick, a senior environmental specialist at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, has been trying to conduct a prescribed burn south of Oso Flaco Lake for the past two years.

Time after time, shifts in the weather and other uncontrollable factors caused the burn to be postponed.On Thursday, the drip torches were finally lit and firefighters set ablaze a large swath of sand dunes infested by European beach grass, an aggressive non-native species.

The use of purposely set fire to control invasive species and reduce wildfire danger is a common land-management tool. However, using prescribed fire in a coastal dune ecosystem is unusual and challenging.

Strong winds, tricky moisture levels and endangered species protections make scheduling a prescribed burn there almost impossible.

“Many things can and do go wrong,” Glick said.

On Thursday, State Parks Department and Cal Fire officials burned 160 acres of beach grass as a first step in eliminating it and replacing it with native species such as sagebrush and mock heather.

European beach grass was introduced a century ago in an effort to stabilize the shifting dunes. However, it soon took root and began forcing out native plants and animals.

Veldt grass and ice plant are two other troublesome invasive species that are also found in the park. But beach grass is particularly worrisome because it destroys nesting habitat for snowy plovers, a small federally protected shorebird.

Beach grass sends out a large, deep root system, so pulling it out by hand is fruitless, Glick said. It immediately grows back.

Herbicides are effective in killing it, but the grass grows in thick tufts protected by dead vegetation called thatch. Fire is used to remove the thatch so that herbicides can attack the living parts of the plant.

Some beaches in Oregon and Washington have become so overrun by beach grass that managers have resorted to using bulldozers to remove it and reforming the dunes from scratch.

“Fortunately, it’s nowhere near that bad in our case,” Glick said.

Thursday’s burn was funded by a combination of fees collected at the vehicular recreation area and funds from a Unocal spill settlement at the Guadalupe oil field.

In coming months, park managers will follow up the burn with herbicide applications, Glick said. Overall, the beach grass removal project is expected to cost about $20,000.

The burn took place in the Oso Flaco Lake Natural Area, a part of the park not open to off-highway vehicles.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.