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By on November 23, 2021 in Featured, News, Newsletter

Stuart Niebel has been an Ojai Valley Land Conservancy (OVLC) docent since 2012, and has led dozens of tours on our preserves, including guiding hundreds of local school children. We hope you will consider becoming a docent too. Don’t worry if you think you don’t have the knowledge base – Stuart has created extensive docent manuals for the Valley View Preserve, Ventura River Preserve, and Ojai Meadows Preserve! We are proud to highlight Stuart’s contributions to the OVLC, in an interview he had with Land Steward, Linda Wilkin.

Hi, Stuart! Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you came to volunteer at the OVLC? 

I spent 35 years as a firefighter, first in Carmel, and then in Ventura, where I worked for 30 years before retiring in 2012. Shortly after retiring, I showed up at the OVLC office and mentioned that I was interested in becoming a docent. While I had spent a lot of time on the land, I wasn’t an expert on the native plants and animals, nor on the OVLC’s restoration efforts. So, I asked if there were any books or literature that could help me become a docent. At the time, the OVLC didn’t have any standard docent manuals. Given my experience as a training officer in the fire department, this was the perfect project for me. To date, I have created three in-depth guides for the OVLC’s main preserves. 

I used them when I was hired, so thank you! They were so helpful and informative! What does it mean to be a docent? What do you enjoy about being one? 

A docent is a guide that knows about the history of the preserves, and is also knowledgeable about the plants and animals that can be found there. Their main job is to lead tours of the preserves, and relay their knowledge in a meaningful way. While we have some scheduled tours open to the public, we mainly set up tours with organizations and schools. For example, if a class goes on a field trip to the Ojai Meadows Preserve, we give them an overview about the importance of the preserve, including covering our restoration projects. However, if the students were studying a certain subject, we would focus on that specific subject. We’ve also given tours of the Ventura River Preserve and the Valley View Preserve. 

I really enjoyed researching and creating the manuals. The manuals have a little information about everything, and then if there is a subject you want to explore, you can expand on that subject. After I started the tour manuals, I realized we had to teach how to present these tours. We worked hard to make them engaging so that our audiences would participate and ask questions. 

Who should become a docent? 

Anyone who is motivated to learn and has a strong desire to educate people about environmental conservation, the history of the land, and the work OVLC is doing today should consider becoming a docent. There is definitely a lot to learn, but being a docent is an incredibly gratifying experience. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it over the years, and it’s been fun to share what I’ve learned with preserve users and the community. And don’t worry – the OVLC will teach you what you need to know! 

What are some things you enjoy the most about the different OVLC preserves

The views from Valley View Preserve are incredible and I really love hiking up Wills Canyon at the Ventura River Preserve on a hot day because it’s nicely shaded. However, I really like the Ojai Meadows Preserve because of the restoration that’s taken place. The OVLC took land that had been used for ranching for decades, and turned it back into native habitat. It has been great to watch the transitions, even as they continue today. Page 10 

They reconfigured the pond that used to be there, and as a result, bird counts went from less than 100 different species of birds before the pond was reestablished, to close to 183 species today! It has also been interesting to watch the various restoration plantings that have both thrived and to learn from those that have not been successful. 

When I am giving a tour of the Ojai Meadows Preserve, I like to highlight the different plants that grow there other than coyote brush; like ceanothus, holly leaf cherry and lemonadeberry. Watching the nests at the Ojai Meadows Preserve is always exciting—especially when the red-tailed hawk nests become the owl nests. It’s always fun to watch and anticipate how many babies they might have. 

What does it mean to be a steward of our preserves when you use them? 

I like to encourage people to steward the land. If you bring trash in, you take the trash out. We’ve always had a hard time with people not picking up after their dogs, or keeping them on a leash. We’ve also had a hard time with graffiti and trash. If you see trash, please pick it up! I always have a little pack on and I pick up trash as I go. 

All the little actions really add up! What can visitors of OVLC’s preserves do to help protect and preserve these lands? 

Visitors can stay on the official trails. They can pick up trash if they see it. Visitors should also give wildlife space, and do everything in their power to avoid stepping on plants. 

One thing I’ve learned from being a docent and learning about wildlife and habitat is that most animals prefer to eat native plants. There’s a long evolutionary process that connects California native plants and the living species that call it home. There is a harmony between the two. This is really important because many native plants are disappearing as people plant non-native plants in their gardens. As a result, wildlife in the area are suffering. Our yards can be native plant corridors through residential neighborhoods. I have transformed my yard into a native garden and it is nice to see the birds, butterflies, and insects enjoying my garden. I am currently growing narrow leaf milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis, in my yard. This food source will help the monarch butterfly with their migration. While we have a lot of milkweed growing at the Ojai Meadows Preserve, you can help the monarchs by planting some milkweed in your garden too. 

Why volunteer with OVLC? 

It’s your backyard! It’s right here in town and OVLC is a great organization with great people! Talking to the staff is a great resource. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone who’s an expert and learn more about what makes Ojai’s open spaces so special.

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