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Preserve Manager’s Journal

Preserve Manager, Rick Bisaccia’s Journal
Summer 2011 Edition – June 1, 2011

With all of the rain we had this spring came a plethora of weeds, brush growth and an explosion of animals on the preserves.  I was headed out the Casitas road which bisects the Ventura River Preserve (VRP) driving along a part of our Preserve that visitors never get to see when I saw four large birds walking along feeding on grain, insects and perhaps even mice.  I slowed down because at first I thought they were Great Blue Herons.  It was then I realized that the brown birds I was seeing were something else.  They kept doing this little flitting dance, jumping up in the air and as I glassed them with my binoculars I saw they had the tell-tale red cap of the Sandhill Crane.  These large birds aren’t rare in the west, but as I was about to find out had never been recorded as having been seen in the Ojai Valley.  I reached for my bird book just to make sure and then called Jesse Grantham, Ojai Valley Land Conservancy (OVLC) board member and bird expert who works for the Ventura office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Any birder lives for this kind of thing: the anomaly.  He confirmed what I was seeing based on my description.  Later I contacted Michael Grigsby an avid birder who at first doubted what I saw (he lives next to the same field not ¾ of a mile from where I sat) but became further convinced after I sent him a grainy, but identifiable photo.  He told me he’d get this recorded with the Audubon Society as a first for the valley.  


White Faced Ibis

Of course being out and about as much as I am working on our various Preserves, ranging from East End’s Ilvento to the Confluence in Casitas Springs, I run into interesting sightings usually entirely by accident.  I’m usually way too busy to get to birdwatch per se, but I run into things.  Other sitings this season which I found to be remarkable was a flock of White-faced Ibis, a water bird which I’d seen last year in a flock of  four birds.   They are a beautiful, medium-sized bird with a long, curving beak, with iridescent brown, purple and green plumage.  This year at the Ojai Meadows Preserve (OMP) pond I spotted a flock of fourteen!  I barely got a picture of them flying away with Topa Topa bluffs in the background.  Another animal I’ve been seeing a lot of has been the Red Coachwhip snake (also known as the Red Racer).  If you ever see  this reptile I think you’ll know what it is because it looks like a coachwhip as it races very quickly over the ground.  It’s long, thin and reddish in color.  Herpatologist Larry Hunt of Santa Barbara who does biological monitoring for the County’s Arundo spraying on the Ventura River told me that last year’s sighting of this snake in our area hadn’t been recorded previously.  Plant growth has been particularly spectacular this year, although for some reason there haven’t been as many wildflowers as you’d expect.  Few people know this, but besides my duties as Preserve Manager I also serve as OVLC’s restoration field ops manager and therefore work alongside field restoration techs Todd Bertola and Trevor Marshall.  We are keenly aware of weed growth on our restoration sites because, well, we have to remove them!

Oddly enough we have not had the same explosion this year of various mustard species on the OMP.  Part of this is because we’ve been removing many plants as they’ve come up.  On the VRP however, I have noted Black Mustard plants in excess of ten feet tall, Milk Thistle plants with growth upwards of seven feet high and five feet in diameter.  I can tell you this: you don’t want one of those big plants falling over on you as you hoe them down.  There is nothing like being pierced by thistle thorns which are so small they break off under your skin (except maybe stinging nettle!). 

A lot of people don’t understand what the big “to do” is about getting rid of invasive species on our nature preserves, which includes Giant Reed (Arundo donax) and other non-native grasses, thistles of many species, and Glauca, bindweed, mustard species, Horehound and Eucalyptus.  Here’s the deal as simply put as possible;  if you understand this you will get the basic core of ecological principles as they relate to restoration work. All plants which did not evolve over millions of years here in Ojai are exotics.  Of those many species, some get out into the natural environment and basically take over the ecosystem eventually blotting out all other plant and animal life.  To give you an example: if a stand of Arundo is removed you will see that absolutely nothing was growing under it.  Keep that area Arundo free and a huge diversity of life returns.  Arundo and other invasives act like a mulch shutting out light and often throwing off toxins into the ground which inhibit other plant growth.  There are virtually no natural enemies of these invasives which evolved to control them in our environment.  By removing the invasives we give the natives a leg up to re-establish themselves.  Invasives often thrive and beat out natives after a fire.  Once natives are back they block out invasive weed growth.  I like to joke that the only species living in stands of Arundo are the homeless!

Warm weather, a full river, and full attendance at the swimming holes on the VRP bring large and small incidents, and in addition to trail maintenance these events keep me hopping.  As this journal progresses I will continue to provide stories of the things that happen.  The reader should not get the idea from this that things happen all the time nor that our preserves are dangerous places.  Mountain Lions, rattlesnakes and people creating problems notwithstanding, you’re probably far safer on OVLC lands than on your own street!  

I recounted in the first newsletter journal last quarter that I serve as a “handyman, naturalist and cop.”  Well, this is the cop part.  I was told early on by my predecessor Rich Handley, to use but not burn out the local cops.  If I make a call to our local deputies, with whom I have an excellent working relationship, they are almost always assured of a contact.  I don’t call them willy-nilly.  If for example I find a homeless camp, I make sure that the people are at home.  When the cops arrive there is a contact.  Make no mistake, I usually leave a warning note well in advance and only call in the police if I’m having a problem that is beyond me.  Most of the time I serve as a “middle man” between the problem person and the police.  Also, many people do not get that the cops are hard put with time and being separated from their vehicles to walk into our preserves.  Most of the time I handle people (unless of course it’s a serious crime or something involving violence).  Often I will take a photograph of a troublemaker and then get them i.d.ed through contacts I have in the administration of various schools and they will deal with the issues at school.  It seems every year I get a new crop of kids on the OMP that slowly and affirmatively learn of my presence.  Before we got our new benches at the OMP ponds, the hangout spot of choice for years was the smaller of the Eucalyptus groves closer to Meiners Oaks Elementary School.  When I saw groups of teenagers out there, 9 times out of 10 it was  related to drug usage.  When I saw the kids I would contact them casually and introduce myself letting them know I was around and watching; asking them to pick up their trash and that we didn’t allow smoking, drinking or using drugs on our property.  This approach itself doesn’t change their behavior.

What I might do next is to get a photograph which I get by walking right up near the kids.  I then send it to the schools and if they’re a student they get called into the office.  Sometimes, I’ll call the police in.  With a teen culture whose view of the landscape is usually head down in a cell phone, the police sneak up on them with no problem and besides we’ve done such approaches enough times that we “have it down.”  Often, by the time I get to to this point I will prohibit various key individuals from entering the property via the police with threat of trespass.  Once this process is completed it takes care of this activity for the year and makes the OMP more enjoyable for normal preserve users, cuts down on litter, violence and vandalism.  This year there is a new group.  No self respecting American teenager wants to sit on the ground in the Eucalyptus grove when they have a nice bench and so the OMP pond bench has become the new spot. 


Teenagers at the Ojai Meadows Preserve
Teenagers at the Ojai Meadows Preserve

Some among you may criticize what I’m doing.  I would like to add here that I do not suffer from any delusion about “all kids are bad” because they are clearly not.  This is a small group and without fail I usually find out one or more of several things about them as I work “the Process.”  The group members are not always as young as they act and in spite of mode of dress, hanging out and riding BMX bicycles many have been in their twenties and almost all have done jail time or have a record. Although I have tried being a “nice guy” in the beginning, they usually do not come through, lie to me and litter and vandalize.  Last year I came across a group in the Euc grove who I thought was “smoking pot.”  When I related their aggressive behavior and mode of drug usage (and later I found out three of them had just gotten out of jail…) the police told me that they were likely smoking crack.  I come from the marijuana era and tend to be naïve about such things, but I am wising up. 

 One problem I have in particular on the VRP is illegal trash dumping which has particularly picked up in these difficult economic times for some people. 

In February I arrived one morning to the Riverview Trailhead to be greeted by ten 7 foot high dead Christmas trees!  I have also had major appliances dumped there.  The most common dumping is household garbage in our trashcans.  I was noticing a trend of numerous double white bags of garbage at Riverview all tied with the same knot over a period of weeks.  I’d arrive on a Monday morning and our cans would be full of those bags.  Not only is this an added expense for us, it also causes overspill onto the ground and looks unsightly.  Animals can then get in and strew the trash all over the place. I keep a box of latex disposable gloves in my truck to protect my hands against having to clean up the most heinous of things often involving excrement both dog and human.  I started going through the trash.  The people were very good about “cleansing” their stuff of any i.d., including mail.  I could tell by their trash that they had two small children, one about age 6 and one a baby (drawings and diapers).  They smoked and also curiously ate a certain amount of organic food.  I have a rule which I’ve imposed on myself, because I learned early on in this job that investigating such things can really suck up the time, therefore I only go after things that I can deal with in 1 to 2 hours.  If it starts going beyond that I abandon it.  This lights a fire under me and also winnows out the solvable things from the unsolvable, because god knows I have enough other things to do.  After a not very long time, I came across a name, and the next time I came across an address.  Usually people tear up such papers into tiny pieces—they don’t know how good I am at solving puzzles.  The address (which also had the name I had from before) coincidentally is about two blocks from my house!  I walked over there on my day off and I couldn’t believe that the house is owned by someone I know and a great professional outdoorsman who has done much “restoration work” on our Channel Islands for the Nature Conservancy.  I called him up, figuring the name I had was of a tenant living in his cottage out back.  Boy, did he give me an earful about the people, telling me he’d evicted them, it took him months to get them out and they literally destroyed the inside of his place costing him thousands of dollars.  He said they lived in their van, had a five year old, and a baby and were “not nice people”.  He described their blue van to me and then it clicked that I’d seen it in the parking lot numerous times over in the shade.  A few days went by when I pulled up at Riverview to a light blue van.  A young man was dumping trash in one of our enclosures.  I approached him and said, “Sam?!, Sam Henderson?! (I’ve changed the name to protect the guilty)”

He replied in the affirmative and I told him he was dumping illegally and that I was asking him to remove himself from the property and that he had five minutes to leave.  He got very upset at this and told me he was going to “call the police.”  I kind of laughed at that inside and told him to do what he had to.  I have the police on speed dial and they showed up within five minutes.  The man wouldn’t leave and the police exited him off the property.


An Ojai Valley Land Conservancy Partner

The people have not been seen since, although they did leaflet Meiners Oaks businesses and telephone poles, about “the ranger in the river” who steals from peoples’ cars.  One of my preserve patrollers removed them immediately.  Speaking of “eyes and ears” patrollers, very often a number of key volunteers who I’m in constant contact with advise me of potential or occurring issues, often with license plate numbers.  


One recurring issue we have to deal with on the preserves, particularly VRP and OMP, are dog issues.  While probably half of our users obey the law and our preserve rules and keep their dogs leashed, the other half unfortunately do not.  It’s a hot button issue sometimes and people don’t understand why it’s important.  So often patrollers (trained in this issue by me) and I hear the same arguments which are mainly “my dog is a good dog.”  What people don’t get is that even a good dog can scare a horse or wildlife or cause an incident with other dogs resulting in an injury or death.  I am constantly dealing with this issue by talking to people and leafleting cars with information on the dog issue.  I often have my own dog out with me as an ambassador of “good behavior”.  Betty, my little Rat Terrier is a very good girl, but she is always on her leash! (insert photo from Doriane’s photo file with Betty and I in my kitchen).  We had a “good dog” incident last May when two pitbulls fastened themselves onto the neck of a horse and started shaking to rip horse steaks off the horse.  Through a photo and the help of  Ojai Police Chief Chris Dunn I got the owner i.d.ed and Animal Services Officer Steve Piehl made a little visit to the man’s home.  I have been trying for several months now to get Animal Services more involved in our dog issues and just this week we are stepping this up with Officer Bob Wisma who as a Preserve user has suddenly taken added interest in the issue.  I will be showing him good observation spots and good times and people to focus on.  I have also had to “expunge” a couple people from the OMP for flagrantly running their dogs in the planted area which chase protected birds.  Usually, those people give me lip about it in the most untoward way. 

Dogs off leash at the Ojai Meadows Preserve

Dogs off leash at the Ojai Meadows Preserve


We will leave “crimes and misdemeanors” alone for this issue, but I promise you we’ll continue next quarter.  An area I spend a lot of time working in is trail creation, repair and maintenance.  This is my fourth trail clearing season since I’ve been on the job and this year in particular has been the most difficult in terms of weed growth and trail damage.  You have no doubt noted three major trail repair and re route projects in Wills and Rice Canyons which have included restoration-type plantings.  We do have a small, but dedicated and active volunteer trail crew which helps me (Please read our notice on how to volunteer for this in our current newsletter…) keep the trails clear.  I do not expect to finish until sometime this summer.  In some cases I have had to weedwhack trails more than once.  Besides VRP trails, I also work at OMP, Ilvento and Fuelbreak Road Trail.  This year we opened 2 ½ new miles of trail including the Lower River Loop Trails and the Green Chair trails, an interesting maze of trails accessible out of our fabulous new Old Baldwin Trailhead, with links to the rest of our preserve trails.  Many people are curious about what the status is of our Kennedy Ridge trail which links up to the Los Padres National Forest with ultimate connection to the historic El Camino Cielo and Ocean View Trails.  The OVLC portion of the trail begins in lower Rice Canyon and the trailcrew does maintenance on our portion.  There are great views from up on this trail.  OVLC has been working with the USFS to get this project off the ground for the past two years.  At present the FS portion of the trail is undergoing permitting by the Ojai District which includes environmental impacts reports and sign offs.  Further decisions are not expected until 2012 according to Ojai District Ranger Sue Exline.  Speaking of the new trailhead, we will be having a new gate entry gate installed down there with increased days and parking lot hours.  Through the largesse of the  Ventura County Watershed Protection District we secured fifteen thousand dollars to make this gate a reality.  There will still be 24/7 walk through access.  We have had a few recent motorcycle incursions through this trailhead onto the VRP.  With the help of new preserve patroller Robin Daniels I think we may have put a stop to this practice for now.  Robin lives with his house right above the beginning of the Lower Loop Trails and has had to encounters with a group of bikers.  We have a plan in place to begin “the Process” as soon as he can get a photo of them.

 There is much to write about, but we’ll continue next quarter, so please stay tuned.  Volunteer, donate and respect our preserves.  Our lands are only as nice as they are through hardwork and dedication on the part of the OVLC staff and our dedicated volunteers.  It is my honor and privilege to serve as your Preserve Manager.

Rick Bisaccia

Preserve Manager, Ojai Valley Land Conservancy


Handsome Trail Volunteers

A good looking crew!