FALLBROOK – As the children step off the bus, they squint into the sun and follow directions to gather near the trailhead, questions and excitement sparkling in their eyes. Jackie Heyneman and Jean Dooley welcome the students to Monserate Mountain Preserve and tell them that they are continuing a tradition that started before they were born, of students who volunteer to make their community a healthier and more beautiful place by planting native plants.
As a part of the Fallbrook Land Conservancy, Save Our Forest has been connecting students to nature through its Environmental Education program since 2005, but this year was different for several reasons. 2022 was the first year the fifth grade planting took place at Monserate Mountain Preserve. Originally, students from Live Oak Elementary planted trees at a small preserve on Reche Road. Once the program expanded to include other schools, students traveled to Los Jilgueros or the Karen Tucker Preserve at Hellers Bend.
This year, SOF was able to expand the program, thanks to a grant from the Fallbrook Regional Healthcare District. This funding allowed them to offer the experience to fourth and fifth graders at two additional schools, Mary Fay Pendleton and Vallecitos Elementary.
They were also able to lengthen the fifth grade field trip to include a guided hike in the preserve. After years of COVID restrictions, SOF was excited to resume the program in 2021/22 with its classroom visits to fourth grade, and fifth grade field trips. For many fifth grade students, this is their first field trip in two years and for 70% of them, their first visit to Monserate Mountain Preserve.
Eager to get started, the students first patiently listen to instruction from Diane Kennedy, chair of the Native Plant Restoration Team, on how to prepare a hole in the ground, gently remove their plant from its one-gallon pot and carefully settle it into place.
She also introduces the species students can choose from: California sagebrush (Artemisia California), Black Sage (Salvia mellifera), California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and others. These plants, Kennedy explains to the children, were chosen because they are native to this place, they evolved here and are adapted to the challenging environment. They are also important sources of food and shelter for the local wildlife, in particular the federally threatened California gnatcatcher.
Scientific concepts like adaptation and food cycles are familiar to students because they have been studying them in the classroom for years. SOF worked with staff from the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District to align its program with school curriculum, so students’ experience during their visits to the fourth grade classrooms and the fifth grade field trips reinforce their knowledge with hands-on activities.
Next, the children are divided into groups of two or three and assigned to one of the adult volunteers who make this program possible. Students are given a shovel and the opportunity to choose their own plant. Many are drawn to a species because of its name (Monkeyflower is always popular!) or an unusual feature, like the feathery leaves of the sagebrush. Often, they take a few moments to study each plant and carefully pick the one they prefer.
Once supplied, the adult volunteer guides their small group up the trail to an area that was damaged by erosion and off-trail hiking, where FLC staff have pre-dug holes in the incredibly hard soil. Students pick a spot for their plant and get to work with adult volunteers intervening only to remind students of planting technique or lend a hand if they have difficulty. Once in the ground, plants are given a deep watering, a blanket of mulch, and sometimes a name specially chosen by the student.
This program not only provides an important experience for students, but the plants they install restore critical habitat and prevent further erosion. Although each student only plants one seedling, together the children of Fallbrook planted almost 400 plants in January.
Now that their planting is done, the class gathers again at the trailhead and Susan Liebes, FLC chair, prepares them for a short hike by sharing proper trail etiquette: “we will move quietly through the preserve, stay on the trail, and observe many interesting things, but we won’t take anything from the preserve. We will be respectful visitors to the preserve, since it is the plants’ and animals’ home.”
Once on the trail, students are asked a series of questions to discuss with their small group. How will the area you planted change over time? What makes up a good habitat? What natural forces change a landscape over time? The group stops frequently to discuss these questions and many others that the students ask. The adult volunteers are always impressed by the knowledge students have of ecology and their enthusiasm for learning about nature.
The MMP trail is steep and rocky but the students are excited to hike to an overlook that gives them a view of the mountainside and ravines that bring to life classroom lessons on geology and erosion. Then students are asked to sit, take a deep breath, and close their eyes. They are guided to visualize the life of a chapparal plant over a year, reaching roots deep into the earth, waiting through the long, hot dry months of drought for the cool rains of winter, and growing stems, flowers, and seeds that provide food and shelter for wildlife.
On the hike back to the trailhead, Liebes points out the 9-11 trail markers to the students. They remember the heroes who rushed into burning buildings to save lives, sacrificing their own, but students also learn that the trail markers can help save lives. The code on each (A-1, etc.) can be given to first responder to help them locate injured hikers on the trail, speeding their rescue.
Back at the trailhead, students are given a paper guide to Monserate Mountain Preserve with a trail map and original illustrations of wildlife created by FLC volunteer Miranda Kennedy. Students are invited to return to the preserve with their families, to introduce them to the seedling they planted and share the knowledge they gained on their hike. The volunteers also encourage them to continue volunteering in their community, since that is how everyone works together to make it a better place.
Thanks to the FRHD grant, SOF will also be providing a summer program for children in the Boys and Girls Clubs of North County. They care for the seedlings during the Monserate Mountain volunteer events on the first Saturday of each month. To help give these plants a better chance of survival and the students an experience they will never forget, call 760.728.0889, email [email protected] or visit https://www.fallbrooklandconservancy.org/.
Submitted by Fallbrook Land Conservancy.