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Stewards of Hope

by Ann Croissant

At 6 a.m. on January 16, 2014, the city of Glendora awoke to blaring sirens and the acrid smell of hot smoke as first responders waged war against a wildfire that threatened thousands of lives and homes in the foothills. The Colby Fire blazed through the dry brush, parched from Southern California’s severe drought, and decimated close to 2,000 acres before firefighters finally quenched it.

The scorched land stands as a reminder of the devastating effects of rampant wildfires, but also presents fertile ground for important fire ecology research. In the days that followed, up through the ashes of the charred trees and foliage, new shoots of an endangered plant species emerged in the blackened soil, offering not only hope for recovery, but also an intriguing puzzle for those dedicated to the preservation of wild lands, stewardship care, and determining the good that can spring forth from the bad.

Since my retirement from teaching at APU, such concerns have been my passion. My work with the Glendora Community Conservancy, which emphasizes water and watershed protection, land management, and community outreach activities, and the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy, which provides restoration, consultation, maps/resources, research, and publications, has allowed me to remain active in managing and maintaining urban and wild land properties in Los Angeles County. My husband, Gerald Croissant, Ph.D., professor emeritus of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and I helped found these two conservancies in 1991 and 1997, respectively, and serve as board presidents. Through them, we share our training, experience, and skills with the communities for the public good and help prepare the next generation to care for the land and keep learning from these events. These conservancies serve as community-based land trusts, set aside through grants, land gifts, and fundraising for purchase, care, and management of green space and natural resources. They promote healthier communities with a greater variety of choices for mental, physical, recreational, educational, and even economic wellness.

During the Colby Fire, conservancy board members and volunteers responded immediately by working with local agencies, transporting first responders and journalists to locations on the trails, sharing expertise and training in clearing rocks and debris, and trimming hazard trees to increase safety and access when needed. The discovery of the resilience of the endangered Brodiaea filifolia now leads to new fire management research and projects. The conservancies had previously saved the species from extinction in L.A. County, knowing that the rare plant lived in only four other counties. The news quickly spread that the endangered plant was the first to emerge after the fire, surfacing within three days in such large numbers that the plant appeared to thrive and actually depend on fire for its rebirth. And with rebirth, there is hope today and for the next generation. The finding also begs the question: Could this plant be fire dependent?

That query now sparks even bigger questions about the similarities with human conditions and how that translates to our lives, risks, and challenges. Investigating plants living in high-risk areas reveals strategies about surviving and thriving under adversity. By observing how these plant communities work within natural systems and overcome the circumstances of habitat and conditions, we can apply many of the same strategies when facing similarly stressful challenges.

The conservancies differ from other environmental groups by serving the ­public as a third sector, reducing the constraints of bureaucracy by working directly with the people of cities and regions. They seek to promote the preservation of land and buildings for historical, educational, ecological, recreational, scenic, or open-space opportunities. The nonprofit, all­­-volunteer conservancies focus on projects, education, and wellness that sustain, co­­nserve, steward, and connect with communities in “preserving what’s best” and “restoring what’s possible” for human well-being, natural resources, economic value, environmental health, and watershed benefits. Through grant writing and fundraising, conservancies also promote land acquisitions to protect water, watershed, and other natural resources, and provide educational and outreach opportunities. Involving individuals as volunteers or sponsors in the important work of stewardship proves vital to preparing the next generation, which receives no substantial training opportunities in schools. The conservancies collaborate with communities, neighborhoods, schools, ­­churches, businesses, and service clubs to find solutions. Examples inclu­­de how-to workshops, watershed tours, field trips, and assistance in selecting, providing, and planting native shrubs and trees at no cost for greening and other benefits of community forests. One of the newest conservancy projects, which miraculously escaped the Colby Fire, involves a 300-tree oak woodland restoration in soils that once grew hundreds of citrus trees. This Children’s Forest Project, dedicated to and primarily planted by children and families, improves water resources and watershed, restores natural habitat, and serves as a lab for building community skills in stewardship.

This comprehensive approach earned the conservancies regional, county, state, and national recognition over the last decade for work including the first watershed plan of the new millennium for the San Gabriel Watershed, Reconnecting the San Gabriel Valley (2000); the first San Gabriel River Watershed Management Plan (2002); and the National SSI/Sustainable Sites Initiative Case Study ­(2007). Numerous other research and writing projects have been developed for watershed workshops, invasive plants conferences, conservation education, the Land Trust Alliance, and the Southern California Academy of Sciences. Topics include stewardship care, best management practices, and endangered species management. In addition, a variety of restoration projects on conservancy properties, as well as county and city parks, occurred.

It has been said, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Stewardship, as a principle of Scripture, calls for an individual and corporate response. As we face the challenges and tasks of Earth care, neighborhood care, home and family care, and self care, I pray that we will exercise faithfulness through stewardship of time, self, community, and circumstances—in times of disaster and rebirth.

Ann Croissant, Ph.D., education professor emerita, co-authored Wildflowers of the San Gabriel Mountains (Stephen Press LLC, 2007) with her husband, Gerald, and photographer, Shirley Debraal. glcroissant@csupomona.edu

"New shoots of an endangered plant species emerged in the blackened soil, offering not only hope for recovery, but also an intriguing puzzle for those dedicated to the preservation of wild lands, stewardship care, and determining the good that can spring forth from the bad."

Originally published in the Summer '14 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).