RSF Association's grant will enhance fire safety, habitat at Arroyo Preserve

The Rancho Santa Fe Association was recently awarded an $83,303 grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that will allow the Association to reduce wildfire risk by removing highly flammable invasive species and enhance the streambed on the 68-acre Arroyo Preserve along the San Dieguito River.

The three-year project beginning this month will be a collaboration between the Association, the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Native Plant Society (CNPS).

“We’ve spent about a year working on this grant and we’re really excited,” said Caitlin Kreutz, the Association’s parks and recreation assistant manager at the Sept. 6 RSF Association board meeting.

Kreutz and her administrative assistant Samantha Kramer said they are anxious to get started on the project that will reduce fire risk and restore native habitat as well as be a positive example of fire-safe landscaping in the community.

“If we are successful, it opens the doors to even more grants,” Kreutz said.

Kreutz credited Jonathan Appelbaum, conservation manager for the San Diego River Park Conservancy, for helping with the grant process—the river park is the permit holder.

The Arroyo Preserve, formerly known as the McMorrow Property, was purchased by the Association in 2000 in an effort to create a permanent buffer from possible county road expansion and development. The property located on El Vuelo on the southeastern boundary of the Covenant, includes acres of undeveloped natural habitat, a creek and pond, and is open to Covenant residents for recreation such as hiking and horseback riding, fishing and camping.

The work the Association will be doing on the Arroyo is part of a large-scale fire risk mitigation and invasive species removal project in the lower San Dieguito River Valley that has been ongoing for the last three years.

The Rancho Santa Fe Community Wildfire Protection Plan, developed after the Witch Creek Fire in 2007, recommended reducing flammable non-native plants, restoring natural habitat and informing homeowners of fire mitigation activities to minimize potential fire hazards. In 2015, a partnership to accomplish those goals was formed between the Association, the RSF Fire Protection District, CNPS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, Fairbanks Ranch Association and local homeowners.

Since 2015, efforts have been taken to remove substantial stands of invasive species in the river valley—Kreutz said 94.9 acres have been treated to date, including 27 acres in 2017-18. Crews use several different methods to remove the invasives, which include palm trees, eucalyptus, pampas grass and Arundo donax (giant cane).

The Arundo, which looks almost like giant bamboo, has grown up to 30 feet in some locations along the river. The invasive species soaks up water and resources from other plants and then in the warmer months it can become so dry that it acts as a wick in a fire event—removing it can reduce the intensity of a fire and make it easier to control.

After removals, the areas have been replanted with locally-occurring native plants and trees. At the Arroyo, the restoration will enhance the existing habitat for native pollinators and animals, which Kreutz said is important as the Arroyo is part of the Pacific Flyway, providing habitats for migratory birds and sensitive species like least Bell’s vireos, southwestern willow flycatchers, coastal California gnatcatchers and monarch butterflies.

“This project shows that we take the safety of the community very seriously and we take a proactive approach,” Kreutz said. “We’re really excited to get started.”

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