By Stacey Pogorzelski and Tiffany Higgins

A dozen people gather on a levee in the Hamilton wetlands. They walk in pairs down the side of the levee toward a seasonal wetland where shorebirds and ducks feed in water left by the last rain. The volunteers measure off a square meter of earth, mark the corners with flags and sprinkle seeds of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and Douglas’ mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana), and others. They then walk gently on the area to press the seeds into the soil.

It is late fall, which means planting time at the Hamilton/Bel Marin Keys Wetlands Restoration Project, and these volunteers are some of the many community members, government agencies, and non-profit organizations working to restore this area to native habitat.

This ambitious restoration project is recreating seasonal and tidal wetlands, as well as other habitats surrounding these wetlands, from the former Hamilton Army Airfield. The airfield was built on agricultural fields created by draining (reclaiming) marshlands near Novato over 150 years ago. The 2600-acre project, a partnership between the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the California State Coastal Conservancy, includes new and improved habitat for birds and other wildlife, as well as completion of part of the Bay Trail. The U.S. Congress authorized the Hamilton Wetland Restoration Project in 1999 and added the Bel Marin Keys (BMK) property to the project in 2007. The BMK wetland restoration area is east and south of the BMK residences.

Christina McWhorter, executive director of the Novato Baylands Stewards, a non-profit organization formed in 2019, has been running the restoration project since 2012. For McWhorter, it’s not just about restoring wetlands by planting native plants–it is about creating authentic community. Her collaborative leadership has galvanized and attracted a thriving volunteer restoration group, all working together to create habitat and absorb increased stormwater runoff and higher tides resulting from climate change – and have fun doing it.

When asked how building community has helped the project thrive, McWhorter says, “It is the core of the project. We wouldn’t have a restored wetland without the volunteers.”

The director explains that the Hamilton/Bel Marin Keys Wetlands Restoration Project is “the concurrent restoration of the land, people’s personal connection to nature, and restoration of community.”

Seed Pancakes and Seed Egg Rolls

Volunteers have many choices of activities, such as pulling weeds like Russian tumbleweed (Salsola tragus), collecting and planting seeds, watering seedlings in containers, and planting seeds and plants. Other tasks include maintaining the project vehicles, improving the nursery garden, and sheet-mulching invasive species such as bristly ox-tongue (Helminthotheca echioides). On a recent workday, some volunteers and Conservation Corps North Bay crewmembers wove coyote brush (Baccharis sp.) branches through a fence to give it a more natural look, while others dug creeping wild rye (Elymus triticoides) from the planting beds to be outplanted in a seasonal wetland. Staff offer a short group meditation one afternoon a week, and dogs are even welcome at the nursery. Volunteers come on their own or as part of community groups, such as the C Street Village (a Marin co-housing group) and the Wetland Wonders, (a group of families with elementary school age children).

Jeanine, from Novato, has volunteered on the project since 2015. She started with project bird counts, a key way to measure how the newly created wetlands are welcoming more birds. She then switched to the nursery, which she finds “absolutely amazing.” She loves the variety of tasks and “the camaraderie. Everyone feels included, and each one is important and part of the big picture. It’s a community effort.”

Jeanine loves that the work they do “is like a science experiment.” For example, we experimented with “seed pancakes and seed egg rolls,” wrapping seeds in rice paper, pasta sheets and covering with burlap to improve germination. “It’s citizen science,” says Jeanine. These new methods of sowing seeds are some of the experimental techniques used in this dynamic project.

A Symphony of Wildflowers

The wetlands restoration effort involves different habitats including tidal panne, seasonal wetlands, dry uplands, and tidal wetlands. The seasonal variation in salinity, hydrology management of both tides and stormwater drainage, and the annual fluctuation in rainfall (which is increasing due to climate change) are some of the big challenges for the project. Survival rates of outplanting and germination of seeds have been challenged by ongoing drought. Over the course of the entire project, the project staff, volunteers, and community groups have planted 85,000 to 95,000 plants, with a survival rate ranging from 25 to 70%.

One recent success has been in the Bel Marin Keys project area. To construct homes and lagoons in the 1960’s, earth was removed, leaving “borrow pits” behind. Prior to the restoration, this area already “had a nice band of saltgrass, frankenia, and pickleweed,” McWhorter explains. “Previously, however, these ponds were shaped more like bathtubs” with straight sides. During restoration, the ponds were graded so that the edges sloped more gradually, then in fall 2020, restorers applied a slurry of annual seeds, dirt, and water sprayed on the area. This hydroseeding allowed the coverage of a large amount of land quickly, and even in the dry winter of 2020-2021 achieved a “substantial annual native cover.” In spring 2021, there was a significant bloom of, common fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia), and in fall, a great show of hayfield tarweed (Hemizonia congesta lutescens). For McWhorter, the successive waves of plants are like the sections of a musical group synced to come in at different times. “I think of it like an orchestra, the different movements as the next species comes in.”

In 2021-2022, with the fast-growing annuals already onsite, the Bel Marin Keys plantings will now focus on perennials, including creeping wild rye (Elymus triticoides), alkali heath (Frankenia salina), and species of juncus, carex, and eleocharis. McWhorter says these perennials are the slower “tortoises” that will become the backbones of the site.

From an Airstrip to Wetlands: Finding Home

Nancy, a volunteer from Novato, has been volunteering with her husband since 2013. Walking with her husband along the old Hamilton Airfield levee, they watched the land transform from an airport landing strip to wetland.

In the beginning, “There were a lot fewer volunteers, just a handful. Christina [McWhorter] built it slowly over the years,” recalls Nancy. “I started coming Wednesday morning. The Wednesday morning crew slowly grew. Christina started hosting volunteer appreciation parties every fall.”

This work has connected Nancy to California. Previously, she recalls, “I was very disconnected from the land. I moved to California as a teenager from NY. I loved NY, the seasons, the ground, the air.” She missed the wetlands that she remembered which then covered much of Long Island. “I loved the smell of the wetlands. I never felt like this [California] was my home, ever.”

However, that changed when Nancy began “working in the wetlands with the soil, being on my hands and knees, propagating plants in the field, pulling weeds. Quickly it became important to me. I started to feel connected to California. 50 years after moving to California, I feel California is my home.”

As Executive Director McWhorter says, “It’s the beautiful simplicity of being together.”

More information about the project can be found at the Novato Baylands Stewards (NBS) website, https://www.novatobaylandsstewards.org/

To volunteer, contact NBS at nbstewards@gmail.com

A nursery/wetlands field trip is being planned for January or February.  Check the website in the new year for details about the field trip and other volunteer opportunities!

collecting seed of Rosa californica p

Rosa californica 3 Stacey Pogorzelski

Rosa californica 3 Stacey Pogorzelski