Since August of 2013, big things have been going on in Big Canyon, one of several large tributaries of the Upper Newport Bay. The City of Newport Beach initiated a habitat restoration project led by Irvine Ranch Conservancy, which has so far resulted in enhanced aesthetics of the canyon, a healthier balance of native flora and fauna, and an improved experience for those who visit.
The project has been a true community effort, with about 15 volunteer programs held in the past two years. The nature reserve area also benefits from nearby restoration projects led by the Newport Bay Conservancy and the Coastal Commission’s ROOTS program, supporting the overall health of greater Newport Bay.
An additional two acres are being prepared for upcoming planting and restoration, and targeted invasive plant removal throughout the canyon is ongoing. To help lay the groundwork for successful restoration in Big Canyon, Conservancy teams are focused on elimination of non-native artichoke thistle, fennel, Italian thistle, Mexican fan palm, mustard, pampas grass, pepper-tree, castor bean and tree tobacco. Already, more than five tons of ice plant have been pulled out and replaced with native species.
Native plants are critical for supporting a healthy habitat for wildlife in Big Canyon, and non-native plants compete with the native species for resources such as light and water. It seems simple, but hands-on weeding is a critical first step to repairing the land.
“Prepping a site by doing a couple years of weeding first helps purge the soil of weed seeds so that what we eventually seed and plant will have a better chance of becoming established,” explained Conservancy Ecologist Riley Pratt, the project manager for the ongoing Big Canyon project.
While the habitat restoration makes progress, keeping people on official trails is another aim of the project. Over the years, park users have created unsustainable paths that are prone to erosion. Official trails are meant to be respectful of nearby habitat, and are constructed to avoid erosion. Conservancy staff have been working to repair and replant the “social” trails that cause damage in the canyon and undermine habitat restoration efforts. Repairing the damage done by these unofficial trails has helped slow erosion and increases habitat value in the area.
Enhancements to the area have also been made to make Big Canyon more visitor-friendly. During a general cleanup of the area, 5,280 pounds of construction debris were hauled out of Big Canyon. At three different points along the trail, there are now informal seating areas made of large boulders, providing great places for hikers and bikers to chat with friends or have a moment of respite as they take in the natural surroundings of Big Canyon. There is also an informational kiosk at the center point of the Big Canyon trail, donated as part of a recent Eagle Scout Service Project.
So far, the overall project has focused largely on trail-side improvements that directly enhance the experience for those who visit Big Canyon. Over the next few years, the project will include construction of a new trail and the installation of a footbridge that will turn the current horseshoe-shaped trail into a complete loop trail for hikers and bikers.
This ongoing work is supported by nearby restoration projects led by Newport Bay Conservancy and the California Coastal Commission’s Community-Based Restoration and Education Program. Both groups have been working near Big Canyon in the Upper Newport Bay for several years and have participated in several IRC led events in Big Canyon as well. This new project builds on the foundation set by their successful community volunteer programs.
Members of the public are welcome to help continue the progress in Big Canyon. Public volunteer events are held on the second Thursday of each month. The Big Canyon volunteer activities are open to participants 14 years of age and older (minors must be accompanied by a parent or guardian), and require no prior experience. All tools and training will be provided, and participants must pre-register at www.LetsGoOutside.org/activities.