Friends of China Camp, in partnership with California State Parks, is offering a series of training sessions for volunteer docents in the area of natural history. I took part in the first of these sessions on Saturday, which covered the Salt Marsh Ecosystem. The training was led by biologist and botanist Kathy Cuneo, Ph.D. from the Marin Conservation League and the Environmental Forum of Marin, and Bethanie Gilbert, a volunteer with Friends of China Camp who heads up the efforts to create new educational and interpretive programs at the state park. Volunteers are asked to complete four of these training sessions within one year, plus the State Park Volunteer Orientation, in order to become a fully qualified China Camp Interpretive Volunteer. Additional sessions will be offered in the fall, so prospective volunteers can join the training at any time. The training itself is free, with a $5 charge for materials.
China Camp State Park is one of 70 California state parks that were put on a closure list in May 2011, due to deep cuts in the budget for the Department of Parks and Recreation. Closure of China Camp has been met with strong objections from the community, however, and Friends of China Camp has stepped up to form a partnership with California State Parks and take over operations of the park starting on July 1. This type of partnership between California State Parks and nonprofit organizations was made possible by AB42, legislation authored by Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), which was passed last year with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The training took place in the field, starting off at the trailhead for the . We walked around the hill a short distance, and then found a small social trail that brought us up to the top of the hill. Looking out over the vast salt marshes that line the shores of San Pablo Bay at China Camp, we began to learn how this critically important ecosystem functions. China Camp State Park has some of the most pristine and best preserved salt marsh wetlands in the entire San Francisco Bay estuary. The significance of these marshes was not well understood or appreciated until recently, and for decades they were drained and covered in suburban and commercial development. Their value is becoming apparent now as they are being restored to their natural state throughout the Bay Area.
The salt marshes appear to be a flat plain of green when viewed from a distance, interspersed by the meandering paths of sloughs that make their way to the Bay. The most prevalent plant is pickleweed, a perennial plant that resembles a series of connected pickles when viewed close up. Pickleweed is a critically important component of the salt marshes, providing shelter for birds and mammals, including two endangered species: the California clapper rail and the salt marsh harvest mouse. As the pickleweed grows, it transports nutrients upward through the plant. The tops of the plant wither and fall off in autumn, adding their nutritional value to the "soup mix" of the Bay. This process also serves to remove carbon dioxide from the air and deposit it in the sediment of the Bay, "sequestering" it and helping to mitigate global warming.
For the next part of the training, we carpooled to Bullhead Flat, a small peninsula that juts out into San Pablo Bay. Here we were able to explore the edges of the salt marshes close up, examining the many plants that make this ecosystem so unique. In addition to the pickleweed, we looked at the salt marsh gumplant, whose bright yellow flowers are just starting to bloom, and California cord grass, another plant that contributes to the sequestration of carbon dioxide. Salt marsh heath, jaumia, saltgrass, and salt marsh bulrush are also present, and many of these plants are just starting to bloom, creating a colorful summer palette. Looking out across the Bay beyond the salt marshes, we could see a golden sheen on the water, formed by diatoms, a unicellular type of phytoplankton. Taken together, the plants, animals, birds, and organisms of the salt marshes form an ecosystem that is extremely productive. In addition to providing food and shelter for birds and mammals, and sequestering carbon dioxide, the marshes serve to filter the waters of the Bay, preventing flooding and erosion.
The Natural History Docent Training will continue over the next few weeks. The schedule for the upcoming sessions is as follows:
Saturday, June 23rd
10AM - 2:00PM
Subject: Oak Woodlands and Park Wildlife
Instructors: Ranger Rejas and Supervising Ranger Fogarty, California State Parks
Sunday, July 8th
10AM - 2:00PM
Subject: Grasses/ Interpretive Techniques and Games
Instructors: (Part I) Katherine Cuneo, (Part II) Cynda Vyas, formerly Education Director of Terwilliger/Wildcare, and Bethanie Gilbert, Friends of China Camp
Sunday, July 22
10AM - 2:00PM
Instructor: Meryl Sundove, faculty member of Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science's Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW) program.
Friends of China Camp is counting down the days to July 1, when the new partnership will take effect. They need to raise $250,000 to get started and are now close to the $200,000 mark. The last big fundraiser before the deadline will take place on June 20 at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. It will feature an oyster bar and a dim sum station, as well as beer and wine. Musicians from the San Francisco Symphony will perform, and a silent auction will have a wide variety of items to bid on, including rides on the Grace Quan, a replica Chinese junk, and the Alma, a vintage scow schooner. Tickets are $50 per person, and can be purchased online. Supporters of China Camp are urged to attend and help make this event a big success for the park.