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Back-to-school used to mean to me shopping for pencils, notebooks and backpacks, and one last trip to the beach. Now that I am an empty-nester it means something new. It means nature park volunteers – YAAAY! (See pictures below.)

Student volunteers,
August 2013

High school student volunteers
The teacher of the AP Environmental Science class  in our local high school requires a summer project for incoming students, and so for the past few weeks I have received email requests for volunteer opportunities from these students. On Saturday morning eight students and a few adults weeded out invasive, non-native plants to gently but firmly facilitate the evolution of the park from degraded wasteland to healthy, vibrant habitat. And our efforts over all of these years are working. 
As the non-natives disappear, seedlings of appropriate native plants take their place. Although I am always happy when new plantings make it in the park, it is seeing their offspring that brings me true joy. The spread of sagebrush, California buckwheat, deerweed, Southern California walnut, coast live oak and more is evidence of the transformation that is going on in the park.

Young sagebrush grows from seed of recently planted shrubs. It would never have made it in weed-choked land.
In addition to weeding and removing litter, I led the students through the small park with the hope that they will come away with one lesson: We can improve our environment but it takes time and vigilance. It is not something that you do for a while and then walk away, job done. No, it is a long-term project. 
Preserving Arroyo Seco parklands
For our nature park the project began way back even before “voters passed a $100,000 bond issue to buy a hundred acres of the Arroyo Seco lying within the borders of South Pasadena” in 1922 (Jane Apostol,  South Pasadena, 1888-1988, A Centennial History, Second Edition with Chronology: 1988-2008, p. 87). In fact, there was interest in maintaining parkland along the Arroyo Seco from Los Angeles to the mountains as long ago as 1894 (Ibid, p. 66). And in 1912 South Pasadena’s Woman’s Improvement Association held a picnic along the Arroyo to promote land acquisition for Arroyo Seco parkland (Ibid, p. 66).
More recently, activists once again organized to oppose the sale of 1.37 acres of land along the Arroyo Seco to be developed as a school for children with learning disabilities. The proposal was described as “an opportunity to establish a new family-oriented park and direct substantial funds toward major park improvements throughout the City” (Pasadena Avenue School and Public Park Development, Public Information Packet, City of South Pasadena, City Manager’s Office, May 1999). As the City was reviewing the purchase offer it was directed by City Council “to evaluate the alternative of retaining ownership of the entire site, and developing a ball field for soccer, baseball or both” (Ibid, Introduction). Hence, land preserved as parkland through the issuance of a bond way back in 1922 was in serious danger of being developed, either as a built structure (a school) or habitat-unfriendly playing fields. The foresight and diligence of a group of residents, however, once again prevented the loss of this small but significant piece of habitat, continuing a regional trend to maintain green space along the Arroyo Seco to serve as a refuge for both people and animals.

Flyer from 1999 effort to preserve South Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco Parklands
Driving range extension
Since 2006 Friends of the South Pas Nature Park has been continuing this long history of land stewardship both in the park and at City Hall. Our interest is in healing the land and protecting it from new development. In 2011, the City once again considered the conversion of approximately one-acre of “unused” land adjacent to the nature park to extend the driving range of the nearby golf course. (Read about golf course expansion debate, here and here.)  Although some may argue that grading the land and covering it with turf-grass is not in conflict with the preservation of parkland, I would argue that it is as environmentally unfriendly as putting in a parking lot. Turf-grass, especially for golf courses, requires a substantial input of resources, including water for irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides, and represents a loss of habitat. Following yet another organized effort, the acre of land was saved and will be added to the nature park. A chain link fence surrounding the land has been removed and a draft for incorporating it into the park developed. 
Click here for more information on the nature park.

Volunteers at the park, August 19, 2013. Mayor Richard Schneider (left) has been a strong supporter of the
park through his volunteer work in the park with Friends of the Nature Park and his efforts on City Council
to preserve park. He has also donated council discretionary funds for park plantings. 
August 16, 2013 park cleanup with student volunteers
Student volunteers with Councilmember Michael Cacciotti (second from right).
More student volunteers. Student on right has been volunteering at the park for over five years.