Once part of a cattle ranch, almost 300 acres of Bee Flat Canyon had been chewed through, taken over by weeds and mustard seed that ruined its natural ecosystem and invited wildfires.
But over the last decade, including three years of just weeding and weeding the remote canyon walls, Bee Flat is healthy again, green with plants native to this region and ready to support the animals that would normally call it home.
The ambitious restoration project was recently completed by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy in partnership with the Orange County Transportation Authority and OC Parks.
The restoration’s goal was to improve the wildlife habitat, reduce hazard of wildfire and improve the soil and water quality in the 293-acre subwatershed of the Santa Ana River located inside the Limestone Canyon.
Bee Flat Canyon “just had a long history of neglect and degradation,” said Robert Freese, senior project manager for the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. “It was part of the cattle ranch for years and years, so a lot of the vegetation got hammered by that and it’s been subjected by wildfires repeatedly over the last hundred years or so.”
Because so much of the natural vegetation was ruined by grazing cattle and fires, invasive weeds including non-native grasses and mustard seed were able to move in.
“We’ve sort of pushed those back and put in the native species and we hope that those will continue to grow in size and spread and it will be sustainable long term,” Freese said.
The team spent three years steadily removing weeds until it was safe to plant seeds without fear of any invasive species interfering with their growth. Now, the canyon is filled with wildflowers, California sagebrush, poppies, purple needlegrass, laurel sumac, toyon and coastline oak.
And a host of wildlife has been spotted in the canyon again, including mountain lions, bobcats and foxes that roam across the area along with some highly endangered birds.
“We certainly have seen our share of bees coming back to the area,” Freese said. “Especially in good wildflower years, some of these fields will be just buzzing with pollinators during the spring months so that’s kind of neat to see.
“So yeah, it’s kind of living up to its name.”
“It’s an ongoing battle, but I think we’ve definitely helped tip the balance towards nature,” Freese said. He hopes visitors will be able to enjoy the revitalized landscape and get a sense of what old California used to be.
The OCTA helped with a grant from funding it has set aside from Measure M, the half cent sales tax, to do environmental projects that offset its transportation work elsewhere.
“It is necessary to pay to get these environmental enhancements done,” Freese said. “These days, nature just doesn’t take care of itself like it did in centuries past, it’s something that has to be actively managed and planned for and conducted.”
The conservancy manages about 40,000 acres of wild land owned by OC Parks, Irvine and Newport Beach. All of it is under the name of the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks, which stretches from Weir Canyon near the 91 Freeway through the canyons to Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park near Laguna Beach.
The 10-year project to restore Bee Flat Canyon, which is part of OC Park’s Limestone Canyon, did not go without hardships – one of the worst droughts in California hit in 2012, lasting for five years, right in the middle of the project’s efforts.
The canyon has no irrigation system, so the seeds were all planted again and again with the hope that the weather conditions and soil would work in their favor. And even when the weather and soil were good, some seeds don’t germinate and others are eaten by critters.
“You can’t just go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and find the seeds that you need for these restorations,” Freese said. “You have to be carefully planned out years in advance how much seed we need, how much species where we can put there, so it’s a lot of planning work.”
The Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s seed farm in Irvine produced all the plants used in the restoration project. For every square foot in the canyon, 20 to 30 seeds were needed.
The restoration work is labor intensive. Along with growing the seeds, the conservancy regularly had to go back in and weed out invaders.
“There’s always new weeds that show up, they blow in on the wind and maybe hikers bring them in on the bottom of their shoes, so we have to patrol these sites periodically,” Freese said. “You never can declare a complete victory, that’s why there has to be ongoing maintenance and monitoring.”
Now that the Bee Flat Restoration Project is complete, the Irvine Ranch Conservancy is focusing on similar landscape restorations in Limestone Canyon and Bommer Canyon, among others.
Bee Flat Canyon is a nature preserve, not a recreational park, but visitors will be allowed into the canyon for docent-led tours and activities such as hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and bird watching.
“We do recognize the importance for people to get to know these lands and love them, and that means that we do want to let people come out and enjoy them,” Freese said. “But not love them to death.”
But for now, because of coronavirus restrictions, tours and activities will be held on a limited basis. Visitors can register online at letsgooutside.org for upcoming opportunities.