Volunteers with the Tolowa Dunes Stewards will begin working under a grant this month that will allow the nonprofit to incorporate heavy equipment and paid crews in its ongoing efforts to remove European beachgrass from the dunes.

The organization received a $300,000 grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board on Aug. 30, said Program Director Sandra Jerabek. This will allow the Tolowa Dunes Stewards to use crews from the California Conservation Corps and, when available, CAL FIRE as well as bulldozers and other equipment as they continue to restore an area at the Tolowa Dunes State Park and Lake Earl Wildlife Area, she said.

“They use a small bulldozer to dig a trench and they scoop up the beachgrass and roots and they bury it in a deep trench and they cover it over and it’s pretty gone,” Jerabek said, adding that to eradicate European beachgrass by hand requires pulling it at least three times. “We don’t have nearly enough volunteers to pull it regularly, so it takes more than three times, but we do get it. We have areas that are beautifully restored. They’re full of native plants and it just looks great and we have areas where we’re still removing re-sprouts.”

The Tolowa Dunes Stewards have been using volunteers to eradicate European beachgrass since 2010, according to Jerabek. The organization has worked with hundreds of youth volunteers from Crescent Elk Middle School, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, the Building Healthy Communities’ Youth Training Academy and the Sierra Service Project. The Tolowa Dunes Stewards also has a core group of about 12 volunteers who have removed European beachgrass re-sprouts, Jerabek said.

The organization’s two fiscal sponsors are the Arcata-based Friends of the Dunes and the Redwood Parks Conservancy, which allows the Stewards to pull beachgrass year-round, Jerabek said. The Tolowa Dunes Stewards also receives funding from the California Coastal Commission’s Whale Tail License Plate program and the Rose Foundation.

European beachgrass has taken over the West Coast since the late 1800s and early 1900s when settlers brought it to stabilize sand dunes. The grass creates a dense covering, crowding out native plants and insects.

The proliferation of European beachgrass has also led to a loss of nesting habitat for the western snowy plover and has changed beach topography creating steep foredunes, according to the California Invasive Plant Council.

Over the past five years, volunteers with the Tolowa Dunes Stewards have removed European beachgrass on about five acres of Lake Earl Wildlife Area land, according to Jerabek. Meanwhile, crews with the California Department of Parks and Recreation have restored more than 33 acres at adjacent Tolowa Dunes State Park, she said.

“Threatened and endangered species have returned in large numbers,” Jerabek said. “Open, moving and living dunes are a rare ecosystem that has vanished from much of the West Coast. We are the world stronghold for the beautiful silvery phacelia dune plant, a federal candidate for listing as endangered or threatened, and the Tolowa Coast wallflower. These plants support native dune bees and other native insects.”

Jerabek said western snowy plovers, which haven’t nested in the area for 28 years, have begun to make a comeback recently as well.

According to Jerabek, this isn’t the first time the Tolowa Dunes Stewards has pursued a grant with the California Wildlife Conservation Board. She credits support letters from California State Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Sierra Service Project as well as Andrea Pickart, a coastal ecologist with the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, for helping the Tolowa Dunes Stewards receive the grant.

Jerabek said she was especially thankful to Pickart, who spearheaded European beachgrass removal at Lanphere Dunes and Ma-le’l Dunes in Humboldt County.

In her May 20, 2018 letter to the Wildlife Conservation Board, Pickart was equally as enthusiastic about the Tolowa Dunes Stewards efforts at beachgrass eradication.

“I have visited the Tolowa Dunes many times over the years and watched as the Tolowa Dunes Stewards took on what seemed an overwhelming goal for a small non-profit, and slowly but surely made a meaningful contribution to biodiversity on the North Coast,” Pickart wrote. “The Tolowa Dunes are truly a biodiversity hotspot as well as a place of great beauty. They support a unique ecosystem that is home to rare and threatened plant communities, plants and animals.”

In his support letter to the Wildlife Conservation Board on behalf of the Tolowa Dunes Stewards, Dan Everson, a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that the organization’s beachgrass eradication efforts benefits several plants and animals protected by the Endangered Species Act, including the Oregon silverspot butterfly and the northern tidewater goby.

Jerabek noted that the grant the Tolowa Dunes Stewards received to enhance its efforts to remove European beachgrass can also be a benefit to Del Norte County. Removing beachgrass frees the dunes to their natural processes, which is to migrate, she said. Restoring the Tolowa Dunes may result in the nearby coastal lagoon, Lake Tolowa, breaching naturally more often, Jerabek said.

“(That way) the county doesn’t have to do artificial breaching,” she said.

Jerabek noted that despite receiving the $300,000 grant, the Tolowa Dunes Stewards still needs volunteers. She also encourages people to purchase a Whale Tail license plate, stating that the program supports restoration programs throughout the California coast.

“Your donated hours will provide a much-needed match for this large grant,” she said. “The work isn’t physically difficult.”

For more information about volunteering with the Tolowa Dunes Stewards, call 707-954-5253 or visit the organization’s Facebook page.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .