Off The Map Side-Stories #6: Seeding the Clouds

By mid-afternoon on Santa Rosa Island, the winds reached gale force.  50mph gusts tore through our worksite in the cloud forest, throwing grit in our eyes faster than our tear ducts could remove it.  Still, we labored to the best of our ability, working to retrofit a series of erosion control barriers beneath the island oaks before the sun set behind San Miguel Island to the west. 

I’d been expecting this.  The winds that fly above the Pacific waves and course through California’s Channel Islands can be intense, especially at upper elevations.  As our project was situated fifty feet below the highest point on Santa Rosa, a little turbulence was unsurprising.  Still, I was relieved as anyone when the call was made to retreat to the vehicles and return to staff housing.  It took several minutes inside the truck before the wind-induced tension began to drain from my body.  We were all a little dazed.  With luck, calmer weather would reach the shores of the island by morning.

Our efforts were worthy, and badly needed.  Santa Rosa, like most of the Channel Islands, had suffered greatly under the influence of European settlers.  In the mid-1800s, nearly a hundred thousand sheep were introduced to an environment whose mammal population had previously included just skunks, foxes and mice.  The sheep chewed native plants down to the roots, and subsequent rains washed the exposed soil into the ocean.  Although the worst damage had been done, cattle, elk and deer continued to degrade the landscape into the 21st century.  Forests of oak and chaparral dwindled to isolated groves atop otherwise barren ridgelines.  The island was purchased by the National Park Service in 1986, but because of a 25-year special use permit, the trophy hunting of elk and deer did not cease until 2011.  The remaining hundred animals were removed by hunters in helicopters, allowing the recovery of the ravaged mountains and valleys to begin at last.

But there were contradictions in the recovery process.  Scant rain falls upon the island, and the trees and shrubs that used to grow atop the ridgelines gleaned most of their moisture from fog, which condensed on the leaves and dripped down into the soil.  Before ranching wrecked the ecosystem, this condensation produced enough groundwater to cause streams to flow at the base of the mountains.  Today, there wasn’t enough vegetation to collect fog and dampen the soil.  And if the soil wasn’t damp, vegetation couldn’t grow on the barren hillsides.  To break the contradiction, humans had to step in and jump-start the natural processes of healing.  That’s where we volunteers from Channel Island Restoration came in.

In exchange for free transportation and housing, a small group of us helped for four days to build dams across gullies to trap sediment and reduce erosion.  We worked beneath the shade of the few island oak trees to survive the livestock hordes of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Vast quantities of soil had eroded away from underneath these ancient specimens, leaving them standing on stilt-like roots above crumbling bedrock.  Our dams would hopefully fill with soil during rainstorms and be watered continuously by droplets of condensed fog from the oak branches overhead.  Then new plants could finally grow within the cloud forest.  Until the dams filled completely with sediment, the mesh fabric lining the barriers would also serve as artificial fog collectors, pulling moisture from the clouds and helping nurture seedlings during their first years of existence.

Funding for restoration projects can be nonexistent at times, and park managers have to get creative with resources to accomplish tasks like these.  By using unpaid volunteer labor along with leftover staples from past projects, t-posts from old fencing and discarded eucalyptus logs, the managers were able to get these dams built and give the cloud forest a chance to recover before the majestic trees were lost forever.  I was happy to do my part.  In effect, I was helping make amends for my ancestors’ mistakes, just as my descendants will undoubtedly work to repair damage from my unwitting errors.

For our efforts, we were given time to explore the east side of the island, including the grove of Torrey Pines – a subspecies found nowhere else in the world.  The hillsides within the forest were carpeted with a smooth blanket of needles, which allowed the spherical pinecones to roll down the hill unchecked and collect by the thousands in depressions and gullies.  Thankfully, the native mice seemed to be successful in helping the species expand its territory by planting seeds in the grasslands above the grove.  Five-foot saplings dotted these adjacent slopes, which helped me feel more optimistic about the resilience of the island.

Part of me wished that twenty years could flash by in a heartbeat so I might witness the results of our efforts in the cloud forest.  I am often disheartened by the impact our species has had on the planet, from habitat destruction to the altering of our very climate.  To maintain hope, it helps to see evidence of recovery, for it nurtures my belief that poor decisions made for short-term gain can sometimes be healed and forgiven.

Such evidence swam by our boat as we crossed the Santa Barbara Channel on our way back to the mainland – a blue whale.  Whaling had reduced the population of these leviathans by over 99% during the 20th century, but now their numbers were unquestionably rising again.  If the largest animal in Earth’s history could mount a comeback, then something as big as the hydrology of an entire island stood a chance of recovering as well.  I chose to dwell on that thought as the beast exhaled a great burst of air and mist, then slid out of sight once again into an ocean lit by the last rays of a November sun.

To find out more about Channel Islands Restoration and how to become a volunteer or supporter, visit