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The Key to Effective Habitat Restoration? Think Big.

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By linking intact habitats through restoration projects, native habitats become bigger and stronger. 

Bee Flat Canyon is a nearly 300-acre area in Limestone Canyon Nature Preserve, home to a rich variety of plants and wildlife. It is also home to an ambitious restoration project that leverages partnerships and scientific investigation to help turn about 100 acres of degraded land into healthy native habitat and eradicate weeds in the entire sub-watershed.

The preserve is part of the OC Parks system, operated by the County of Orange. Through the county’s partnership with Irvine Ranch Conservancy, the sensitive and protected land is managed in accordance with local and federal regulations, to the highest levels of stewardship. This management agreement allows for recreation activities such as hiking and biking, but also helps the county meet requirements for habitat restoration. Major funding for this project is provided through the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) Measure M2 Freeway Environmental Mitigation Program, allowing for the three organizations to join forces to benefit the land. 


The Conservancy recommended Bee Flat Canyon for habitat restoration based on an innovative return on investment analysis of potential restoration sites. Bee Flat had very important characteristics such as connectivity with large areas of intact native habitat, number of sensitive species, and being part of a riparian corridor, all of which led Conservancy scientists to designate it a high priority site. The canyon has other factors that would lead to a high return on investment for OCTA and the Conservancy, such as being surrounded by large areas of intact native habitat that could complement the proposed restoration areas.

By analyzing the project from an ecological landscape-scale perspective, the Conservancy is able to make better use of resources to make the restoration both successful and cost effective. For instance, specific restoration sites within Bee Flat were identified because of their proximity to intact, already healthy habitats in the canyon.

 “Instead of a 10-acre restoration site being isolated on its own, our methodology creates a linkage that in turn creates a much larger stretch of healthy habitat,” says Lars Higdon, Restoration Project Manager for the Conservancy. “Many species need that large habitat space to survive, and we’re providing the missing puzzle pieces that complete the larger landscape.”

Working on such a large scale means that numerous resources need to be at the ready – from human labor to equipment to native seeds and plants. Bee Flat Canyon includes four different native habitat types: Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral, Oak Woodland and Perennial Grassland. These four areas not only mean four different plant communities, but sometimes different methods for planting and maintenance to make the effort successful. This is where the extensive restoration experience of the Conservancy team comes into play.

“Preparation of different sites for restoration is often similar, but seeding and planting can be different for each habitat type,” says Higdon. “Coastal Sage Scrub does better when the seeds are hand-scattered on the surface, while native grasslands are more successful when pushed into the soil with a tractor-pulled seed drill.”

The amount of restoration needed also varies, with some areas needing only passive restoration – simple weed control to give the native plants a competitive advantage over the weeds – while others need full restoration from bare soil, with complete planting and lots of continued maintenance to control weeds. Regardless of the approach, the end goal is the same for each site: to reduce competition for resources such as sun and soil nutrients and allow the native plants room to grow and out-compete the weeds.

With the spring growing season now over and most plants turning dormant for the summer, Higdon and his team are looking forward again to the rains of winter, when new areas of the restoration site will be planted and seeded. While Bee Flat is a highly visible restoration site, seen by visitors from trails throughout Limestone Canyon, there is an opportunity for the public to become directly involved. The Conservancy hosts public volunteer work projects throughout the year, including in Bee Flat Canyon. Volunteers can help plant seeds, control weeds, and monitor restoration progress. Look for the restoration site along the trails, and look for opportunities to get involved in helping restore nature throughout the Natural Landmarks.