Enjoying the outdoors, as nature intended

The city of Santa Ana recently saved a natural diamond in the rough. Santiago Park and Nature Reserve is one of the few remaining natural habitats in Orange County.

The Nature Reserve has been so overrun with non-native, prolific weeds and grasses that it had all but lost its viability, said the city’s Community Services Manager Anthony Novella.

Back to Natives’ Director Reggie Durant proposed a solution: replacing all of the existing plant life with native plants that can “thrive versus merely survive.”

On a hot afternoon last month, he worked alongside a group of volunteers, chipping away at rehabilitating the Santa Ana River creek bed that comprises most of the Nature Reserve.

Back to Natives spent the afternoon pulling weeds, grass and shrubs that literally chased out what native plant life there was. In their place, they methodically replaced commercial trees, shrubs and grasses with native ones including California Sycamore trees, California Coffeeberry and California Buckwheat shrubs and Bush Sunflowers.

These varieties once thrived there before people introduced unknown species from foreign environments. They are also the answer to drastic reductions in watering requirements, as well as elimination of synthetic and chemical substances needed for nutritional support and protection.

“Mimicking how they grow in nature is what makes them a success here,” Durant said. He pointed to a tree he surrounded with five shrubs, a system that moderates the amount of ambient heat at the tree’s roots – an important factor in its survival.

Without Durant’s expertise and management, Novella said there would have been little choice but to cover this landmark, which he characterizes as a “jewel,” in concrete.

“If we had to pay for it, we couldn’t do it, bottom line” Novella said.
Durant’s success in obtaining financial support most recently included a $10,000 grant from Wells Fargo Bank, which also provided roughly one hundred volunteers for this effort.

A visit to Santiago Park today reveals the historic area nearing full restoration. In contrast to the saturated dirt lot it was before Durant’s intervention, the area has blossomed into a lush green area brimming with new wildlife which have been drawn to the area as a result of the plants that have been reintroduced.

This landmark’s transformation is yet another milestone in taking Santa Ana in a different direction. In the past, Novella said, nice parts of the city defaulted into dilapidation as a result of its inadequate budget.

Because of the park’s unique location and characteristics, it has also elevated quality of life for residents. Several times a week Novella sees families picnicking, taking pictures, observing the wildlife and taking advantage of the green and generously shaded setting for recreational activities from tennis to archery.

“If this [park] was lost, so would an important message, which is you don’t need a lot of money for leisure,” Novella said. “Its like they’ve gone to the river and use it like a vacation day without having to travel that long distance.”

Tending his freshly planted trees, Durant points to the creek and notes that much work remains to restore the park to its natural state.

“This is a human hazard, and people should not be drinking this,” he said of the water, adding that he’s seen people drink from the creek occasionally. That water is the vehicle for carrying runoff to the ocean, and is rife with the fertilizers and pesticides from the park as well as residents’ yards.

The dangers have been known for years to reverberate well beyond Santiago Park. Studies from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, reveal that
these toxic substances contribute to a high rate of bronchial, ear, eye and skin problems for surfers miles away in Huntington and Newport beaches.

Park-goer Jacob Beaman has also seen people drinking from the creek.

“While I wouldn’t do it, I’ve seen people who do,” he said.

Beaman, who has been coming to the park for a while from neighboring Tustin, still revels in the new atmosphere at the Nature Reserve.

“It’s a new experience every time,” he said, adding that he frequently sees new birds, the kind of feature that makes a trip from Tustin worthwhile.

As Durant’s efforts materialize, the park also is becoming a place rich with educational opportunities, Novella added. The rehabilitation of the creek bed preserves something far more valuable than just space to play. It transports the city’s youth into nature, if only for an afternoon, he said.

“There’s just this sense that you’re not in this very big crowded city, but somewhere up in the wilderness,” Novella said “The youth in our city are being introduced to a really rich history, where the Native Americans lived along the creek and getting that old rustic sense of what Santa Ana used to be.”

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