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Hillside Improvements Aim to Restore Native Plants

“Good morning!”

Long-time neighbor of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park David Kimball wakes up early in his house before the sun comes up and heads over to the demonstration garden adjacent to the Ladera Street parking lot. It is his favorite time of day.

“You couldn’t tear me away from here,” Kimball said.

The waves are crashing below the cliffs as his lungs are filled with the fresh smell of ocean. The song birds join him in the garden and the rising sun hits the native plants just enough to make them sparkle. As Kimball weeds and prunes the garden, the smell of bacon drifts across the landscape as Point Loma Nazarene University’s cafeteria prepares breakfast for its students.

Surrounding the approximately 100-yards by 75-yard garden, construction equipment honks and snarls as it clears away invasive plant species that have built up over the years. The bright yellow front loaders and skid steer loaders contrast against the blue ocean, but they serve a purpose of restoration for generations to come.

According to the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Master Plan, the vision statement for the park states: “Create a Park where people can enjoy San Diego’s natural coastal environment as it once was, free from the effects of man and intended to inspire the user to reflect on the grandeur of the sea, and the beauty of the cliffs that are Point Loma.”

One simple vision statement does not answer all the questions of the project. There is a goal to be reached, but what is currently happening on the cliffs below the PLNU campus has brought forth questions from many. Students and staff returned from spring break to a commotion of construction equipment and cleared-out cliffs.

The Hillside Improvements Project, the first step in the implementation of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Master Plan, received broad based review. The master plan was approved by both the San Diego City Council and the California Coastal Commission in 2005, years after the City of San Diego bought the property and dedicated it in 1983.

“The current project at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is the result of many years of planning,” Kimball said. “It will establish a system of trails that extend from Ladera Street south to the fence that borders Navy property.”

The decision to keep Sunset Cliffs as a natural park was approved in the 2005 Master Plan for the park. As President of the San Diego Audubon Society, Kimball spoke on behalf of the society in 2005 and proclaimed that this project would bring more native birds to the area. As in the vision statement, the plan outlines the goals of restoring the park to a natural, environmentally friendly state. The project is partially funded by the Coastal Conservancy and administered by the City of San Diego.

Following the approval, the city, with advice from the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council, applied for a Coastal Conservancy grant. According to Ellen Quick, a member of the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council, there have been two California Coastal Conservancy grants, one for design and funding, awarded in 2008, and one for construction, awarded in 2015. The City of San Diego is also providing funding for this project. Detailed planning, financing and permitting followed, which led to the current activity. According to Sandiego.gov, the total project budget for Phases 1 and 2 is $4.2 million.

“The 68-acre Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is classified as a City of San Diego regional, resource-based park intended to serve all the citizens of San Diego,” Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council member Ann Swanson said. “Recognizing the park’s responsibility to preserve the endangered coastal sage shrub habitat, the City designated the hillside section a Multiple Habitat Preservation Area.”

Kimball adjusts the black binoculars around his neck as his brown hiking boots crunch on the trail of the demonstration garden. He points at the post-and-rope trails surrounding the garden and explains how there will be revegetation at least ten feet around the new trails in some locations, with more in areas being restored to natural contours.

“In much of the park the original native plants had been removed and replaced by invasive plant species having little or no habitat value for birds or other wildlife,” Kimball said. “Much of that change was caused by use of the area by Madame Tingley’s Theosophical University for teaching forestry and raising food crops. When those activities ended in the 1930’s, invasive species spread and came to dominate the area.”

The current Hillside Improvement Project is in Phase 2. Phase 1 construction was completed in 2016 and is now in the 5-year maintenance period which involves monitoring plant survival. Once plants get established, they are watered and maintained. Then the temporary irrigation is removed and the plants compete on their own since they are native species.

Phase 1 of the project is the large orange-netted area below PLNU where students would often hammock in the Eucalyptus grove—an invasive species from Australia. The grove has been dying off for years due to bark-beetle infestation. This phase involved a trial to re-introduce native plants. A success, the effort is being undertaken on a much larger scale for Phase 2 which is the current work that will complete the project. According to Sandiego.gov, construction for Phase 2 began on Jan. 25, 2018 and major work is anticipated to be completed by the summer of 2018, followed by a 120-day plant establishment period. As with Phase 1, a 5-year maintenance phase will follow afterward to ensure the success of the plants.

“Beside the improved trails, about 35 acres adjacent to the trails will be planted with 20,000 coastal sage habitat native plants,” Kimball said. “The trails will include one for use by bikes, several segments accessible by the disabled and others for walking only.”

Kimball points out the former ballfield where the heavy equipment is at work. Built by PLNU and used for women’s softball, he mentions how this will be regraded and revegetated with native plant species. For many years, PLNU students have been helping Kimball and others with clearing the areas, planting native species, shaping trails and weeding. Biology professor Dr. April Cordero has students in her BIO105 Ecology and Conservation class participate in a service learning project, one option being the opportunity to work with Kimball and aid the cliffs each semester. These groups have helped make progress in restoring the area.

“The Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council, the designated advisory council regarding Park matters, very much appreciates the wonderful assistance that PLNU students have provided for the very successful native habitat restoration project that David supervises,” Swanson said.

As an active volunteer in habitat restoration for several organizations, Kimball was asked by the The Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council to lead the revegetation efforts at the Cliffs.

“My wife passed away twenty years ago so I looked into volunteer opportunities,” Kimball said. “The environmental activities appealed to me most.”

With a right of entry permit awarded in 2005 due to the creation of the park’s Master Plan, Kimball joined the council to redo the vegetation. They have since been working on a native plant garden regularly, the demonstration garden, that now exceeds two acres in area.

“Native plants will also be placed along the borders of the new trails,” Kimball said. “These species are selected from the 75 that were found in a botanical survey made in 2003. They include Torrey pines, sages, buckwheat, lemonade berry, toyon, cactus, wildflowers and grasses. These are all species in habitat known as coastal sage scrub. They are adapted to a mild dry climate with little summer rainfall, called a Mediterranean climate. Coastal sage habitat provides food and nesting areas for birds. They are naturally found within a few miles of the ocean from Baja California to San Francisco.”

Locals and visitors alike walk through the construction site and are greeted with a warm “Good morning!” from Kimball as he waters and manages the demonstration garden. People often stop to ask about what is currently being done to the cliffs as they question the construction equipment clearing the area and mounds of dirt. Kimball answers any of their questions with a smile.

A mockingbird lands on one of the native Mexican agave plants and Kimball points the bird out as a “regular”.

“I’m a birds and plants guy,” Kimball said. “That’s where I’ve hung my hat.”


*For more information on the Hillside Improvements Project Phase 2, visit https://www.sandiego.gov/sunset-cliffs-hillside-project , www.sunsetcliffs.info , or e-mail engineering@sandiego.gov with any questions or concerns about the project.


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Andie Naugler

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