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Planting the future at the Randall Preserve

Land of Four Seasons

Under blue Tehachapi skies, a creek chuckled and splashed as it flowed, newly-invigorated by recent rain and snow. A Northern Flicker flashed the bright orange underside of its wings as it swooped from an oak tree, and a Red-tailed Hawk circled slowly overhead, sharp eyes watching the activity below. At the ground level, hundreds of baby plants were being carefully tucked into the soil to start their lives as a future woodland.

This was the scene recently as a team of volunteers was busy planting trees, shrubs and perennials at The Nature Conservancy's Frank and Joan Randall Tehachapi Preserve near Keene during January 24, 25 and 26. The restoration project took place at the former Loop Ranch, and was designed to enhance wildlife habitat alongside Tweedy Creek.

The area includes a creekside terrace that has been heavily impacted by cattle over the years, with few trees or larger plants remaining. Cattle have a role to play in grazing down the non-native annual grasses that can fuel California's wildfires, but cows can also damage riparian areas alongside creeks and streams.

So an exclosure fence was built to keep cattle out of the creek itself and the surrounding terrain, and the recent planting project was initiated to restore the habitat by planting trees including Arroyo Willow, Fremont Cottonwood, Valley Oak, Gray Pine and California Buckeye.

Shrubs and smaller plants were added too, including Mulefat, Scalebroom, Narrowleaf Milkweed and Bladderpod.

As these little plants grow year after year into their adult size, they will provide shelter, cover, food and nesting sites for the birds, mammals, pollinators, and other wildlife that inhabits the Tehachapi Mountains.

The restoration effort was led by Randall Preserve manager Rachel Mason and TNC staff members Luis Ojeda and Gildardo Punzo, a pair of restoration veterans who traveled down from Northern California to help oversee the project. More than a dozen volunteers from Tehachapi, Bakersfield and other parts of Kern County assisted.

The three-day project began on Tuesday, January 24 with taking willow, cottonwood and mulefat cuttings from the Panofsky-Wilson Preserve near Caliente. This small nature preserve is owned by the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, and that Conservancy allowed TNC to take cuttings from healthy trees in the riparian area surrounding Tehachapi Creek, which was flowing clear and strong.

Taking riparian cuttings for restoration reminded me of when I first started volunteering with The Nature Conservancy in 1990, doing the same thing to restore old pastures along the South Fork of the Kern, at TNC's Kern River Preserve.

That preserve is now owned by the Audubon Society, and the cuttings that I helped plant there have grown into a full-fledged riparian forest, with trees that are 30 to 40 feet tall. When you walk among them in the summer, all cool, green and shady with lots of birdsong echoing throughout, it is wild and natural. You'd never guess that humans had done the replanting.

At Caliente on Tuesday, the cuttings were trimmed into a uniform height of about two feet tall, and soaked in water overnight.

The next morning, volunteers assembled at the Randall Preserve field alongside Tweedy Creek and planted the cuttings, as well as seedlings of other trees and perennials brought by Luis and Gildardo.

After planting, a wax paper milk carton with the top and bottom open was placed around each little seedling or cutting to provide some protection from animals, wind and weather. A pair of bamboo sticks was stuck in the ground to help anchor each carton.

On the third day, a drip irrigation system was installed to help the baby plants get started. This will be removed after these native plants become established and grow their roots down deep into the soil.

Stewardship of a nature preserve involves not just leaving things as they are, but can also require actively managing the natural resources, and enhancing or restoring them when possible. The Frank and Joan Randall Tehachapi Preserve is now up to 81,000 acres, and I'm sure there will be ongoing efforts by TNC to keep improving the preserve's value to native plants and wildlife.

I know that for me, there are few better feelings than to be outside on a beautiful Tehachapi day, planting the future. . .

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].