Restoration for People and Planet

by Alycia Matz

It was eight a.m. on a Monday in mid-June. The day’s heat was already making itself known, with haze on the horizon and the sun’s rays baking the earth. Even so, volunteers dutifully slathered on their sunscreen, donned their hats, and pulled on their work gloves. They teemed with energy, eager to journey out to the field site. I was among them.

By our enthusiasm, one may never guess that the task for the day was pulling yellow star-thistle. Originally from Eurasia, yellow star-thistle is among California’s most invasive plants, made all the more pernicious by a ring of spines encircling the flower heads. These spines are no joke—at ½-1” long, they leave a mean scratch. Yet, we were hardly phased. We chatted animatedly as we worked, fostering a connection with one another, all while simultaneously nurturing our connection to the land.

Increasingly, more people are coming to understand that humans and nature are not separate, but inter-connected. This idea was espoused in Aldo Leopold’s renowned work, A Sand County Almanac, in which Leopold describes his concept of the land ethic: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals or, collectively, the land.”

Of course, this notion of inter-connectedness is something that indigenous peoples have known for centuries. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a celebrated ecologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, states that, according to an indigenous stewardship principle, “What we do to the land we do to ourselves.” In this sense, ecological restoration is reciprocal and mutually beneficial—in restoring land, we restore ourselves.

To be clear, ecological restoration is not to be viewed merely as a moral obligation, a means of atoning for our contributions toward an ever-warming climate. It is so much more than that. Numerous studies have demonstrated that nature experience improves our physical, mental, and emotional health. Volunteering is also known to have positive effects, such as increasing our overall life satisfaction, well-being, and sense of self-worth. After volunteering with a few nature-based organizations, I can vouch that these findings are affirmed by my own experiences. But don’t just take it from me. Here’s what others in Marin shared with me about their experiences volunteering in service to our community, our environment, and our planet.

Carolyn Losée tackles the invasive plant Salsola soda along Corte Madera Creek. Photo by Sandy Guldman

Carolyn Losée grew up as an environmentalist. Throughout her life, Carolyn has cultivated a deep connection with nature, earning a BA in Environmental Studies and later pursuing an MA in Cultural Anthropology/Archaeology. However, it was around 2017 that her commitment to land stewardship kicked into high gear. At a Climate Action Salon hosted by acquaintances, Dr. Judith P. Klinman gave a presentation on Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, a global effort to address the climate crisis from the ground up by “recruiting, training, and mobilizing people…to push for aggressive climate action.” Since then, Carolyn has worked independently and with organizations such as the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), Friends of Corte Madera Creek, and Environmental Forum of Marin (EFM) to enact positive change.

“I’m all about making a change where I live—right here, right now,” Carolyn relayed. Troubled by the invasive plants surrounding her condo, Carolyn took the matter into her own hands, removing Scotch broom around her HOA. Believe it or not, she received pushback, getting reprimanded for restoration efforts.

While frustrated by the experience, Carolyn didn’t let this hurdle stop her. “Stewardship is a human right, and a big part of the human experience is stewarding the land, and it’s also neighborliness. I’m extending [neighborliness] not only to humans but to all the species that live here.” Indeed, Carolyn found community in both the human and non-human worlds when participating in EFM’s Advocacy Training Program. Her Master Class Project was to restore biodiversity at Richardson Bay Audubon Center & Sanctuary by planting native species. This undertaking required Carolyn to collaborate and coordinate with many people and groups, including CNPS, One Tam, and the Boy Scouts.

Upon reflecting on how this experience affected her, Carolyn shared, “There’s something powerful about the collective spirit of humans acting beneficially for our home—for our environment.”

In asking Carolyn for her advice for someone looking for a volunteer opportunity, she exclaimed, “Just go out and do it—and if a group isn’t already stewarding the property you’re interested in, make inquiries and get permission first. People in the neighborhood will ask you what you’re up to, whether you’re putting in native plants or weeding—and through this, you’re being a role model, you’re educating them. And the beauty of it is, you don’t have to drive anywhere. There’s a real satisfaction in stewarding your own home.” Wise and powerful words.

Mark Palmer has been volunteering at parks and with other local, environmentally-minded groups ever since he was young. “My family has a long tradition of caring for one’s community and enjoying gardening and the outdoors. Volunteering in nature combines all these joys with healthy activities, and meeting people with similar values,” he recounted. Call it a win-win-win.

Mark Palmer heads off to install young trees at the Ecology Study Area. Photo by Sandy Guldman

After retiring and moving back to Marin in 2015, Mark started dedicating even more of his time to volunteer work. His contributions run the gamut from planting to weeding, and from trash removal to trail restoration. His efforts span much of Marin, having volunteered with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Marin County Parks, Marin Water, and Friends of Corte Madera Creek.

“The hardest part is keeping up with the younger volunteers!” he chuckled. All joking aside, Mark acknowledged the point of volunteering is not about who does what, or how much any one person accomplishes—it’s about the joy of working together in stewardship of our shared environment.

There’s also something to be said about how participating in ecological restoration has the potential to change one’s relationship with both nature and with the community. “Volunteering has strengthened my love of nature, and it has also expanded my relationship with the community. I’ve learned about the evolution of community endeavors and organizations, and have partaken in discussions on aspirations and collaborations.”

In asking Mark if he had advice for people looking for a volunteer opportunity, his response was simple, but spot-on: “Have fun! Make it a weekly or monthly adventure.”

From Carolyn’s and Mark’s words, I feel it’s no stretch to conclude that volunteering is the opportunity for endless self-discovery while simultaneously being part of something bigger than yourself. In a world where climate anxiety gnaws at our hearts and technology pulls at our attention, I challenge you to step outside. Pull a weed. Plant a native tree. Say hi to your neighbors. You may find yourself pleasantly fulfilled in ways you never imagined.

Marin Creeks Symposium:

Lessons Learned from People with Boots on the Ground

by Sandy Guldman

After almost a year of planning, the Marin Creeks Symposium was held on October 29, 2022, in the cafeteria at the Kentfield campus of the College of Marin. An audience of 60 gathered to listen to nine presentations about projects on several different creeks and a panel Creek. Nine posters and maps were displayed, as well as a 3-D relief map of the Corte Madera Creek Watershed made by Dewey Livingston. There was also time for catching up with friends after the COVID hiatus.

The symposium was funded and planned by these sponsors: Marin County Resource Conservation District (Sarah Phillips), Mill Valley StreamKeepers (Betsy Bikle), SPAWN (Scott Webb and Preston Brown), Marin Conservation League (Susan Stompe), Friends (Ann Thomas, Laura Lovett, and Sandy Guldman). The College of Marin also sponsored the project by providing the venue and parking passes for presenters. Mia Monroe, National Park Service, was also active in the planning.

Presentations were limited to freshwater projects that had been implemented or were under construction. The goal was to identify problems and what had or hadn’t worked to address them. We did not include projects in tidal areas because there are so many—that’s a topic for another symposium. Problems identified include the following:

  1. Private ownership of waterways is a major impediment to implementing projects; sadly, there is no easy solution. Eminent domain is rarely used, and almost never for habitat restoration. Sometimes, also rarely, reluctance can be overcome with minor changes to a project.
  2. Lack of project maintenance by incorporated communities strapped for cash requires on-going commitment of volunteers, which often peters out.
  3. Poor water quality caused by runoff from storms and excessive irrigation, or sweeping of debris into waterways degrades efforts. This can be solved by better stormwater management, strict water use monitoring, and more effective trash control. Increased regulation will help in the long term.
  4. Insufficient involvement of indigenous land use practitioners in projects.
  5. Insufficient implementation of projects in disadvantaged communities.

Many attendees said they look forward to another symposium next year. Those of us who planned this year’s event suggest that people working in the Baylands organize the next one!

Scott Webb of SPAWN, Leslie Ferguson of the State Water Board, and Sarah Phillips of the Marin Resource Conservation District were among attendees at the symposium. Photo by Ann Thomas

Life and Tines of the Threespine Stickleback

by Gerhard Epke

Like the California roach that I wrote about in a recent edition of Creek Chronicles, the threespine stickleback is a native fish here in Corte Madera Creek. Sticklebacks are small and indistinct but when inspected a little more closely an interesting and endearing little animal emerges. Some of these interesting characteristics are physical and behavioral traits unique to sticklebacks but their adaptability is another trait, and one that has helped sticklebacks become widespread across the Northern Hemisphere in rivers, lakes and oceans and common in research aquariums.

Threespine sticklebacks typically grow to about two inches in length. Their mouths are at the front of pointy, downward-sloping heads, and their bodies taper back to a narrow peduncle, where the tail fin attaches. This parallelogram shape and a pair of large eyes helps them hunt for food, especially at night. Stickleback diet includes bugs, larvae, eggs and other smaller fish. Their three eponymous spines are the foremost rays of their dorsal fins. These spines, along with bony side plates, are used for protection against predators. The spines are not particularly hazardous to people, but can be locked into an upright position making it hard for larger fish such as a trout to swallow them. Stickleback’s pectoral fins extend out sideways and flap often while the fish hovers, otherwise motionless, in the water. This behavior is reminiscent of their distant relationship with seahorses.

The threespine stickleback is the most common fish in our creeks. Photo by Charles Kennard

Also like seahorses, males do the domestic and childcare work in stickleback society. During the non-breeding time of year, sticklebacks form loose shoals, which is a less organized grouping than a school. In the spring, males turn red and branch off to build a nest out of vegetation and sand that is glued together with a sticky secretion. If courtship is successful, the female follows the male into the nest where she lays eggs and then he fertilizes them. The female then leaves while the male incubates and guards eggs, and later, fry. Until the young fish are large enough to school with other small fish, the males are diligent caretakers, often slurping up wanderers in their mouth and spitting them back into the nest.

Threespine sticklebacks are known for developing distinctive physical forms and adaptive life histories in response to different physical conditions. They can function at a wide range of ambient temperatures and are capable of living in freshwater, saltwater, or a combination. The population in Corte Madera Creek seems to live in the estuary and ocean as adults, but come upstream to the freshwater to reproduce. In places where populations are cut off from certain predators, such as inland lakes, they rapidly evolve to lose their spines and bony plates. Conversely the brook stickleback of the Great Lakes region has five spines and there is even a ninespine stickleback along the Atlantic that can have as many as a dozen spines.

A fish resources report contracted by Friends of Corte Madera Creek in 2000 contains clues about the behavior of the local population. A. A Rich observed sticklebacks in Corte Madera Creek, San Anselmo Creek, and Sleepy Hollow Creek, but not in Ross Creek, Fairfax Creek or Cascade Canyon. In Sleepy Hollow Creek, sticklebacks were the dominant fish species and reached their highest concentrations at almost two fish per square meter. This report also noted that the sticklebacks were all young of the year, reinforcing the idea that the fish are only using the stream for breeding and for the first year of growth before migrating down to the estuary.

Threespine Stickleback populations in the Corte Madera Creek Watershed.
(Fishery Resources Conditions of the Corte Madera Creek Watershed by A. A Rich and Associates, 2000)

To see a stickleback, grab your snorkel and head down to Sleepy Hollow Creek. If the lighting is right, standing near a pool with a pair of binoculars works quite well. As a last resort one can find them in Fisher-man’s Wharf at the Aquarium of the Bay in the ‘Rocky Shore’ and ‘Oddly Shaped Fishes’ tanks.

Native Plants in Your Fire-Smart Landscaping

by Laura Lovett

In the face of increasing risk of fires sweeping our neighborhoods, along with hardening our structures against fire, we should assess our landscaping with the goal of reducing fuels. Features such as a landmark tree, a screening hedge, and sculptural bushes may be fire hazards, depending on the plant species, but the same effects may well be achieved by using native plants.

A yard filled with plants native to the area can form the basis for a fire-smart landscape, as well as provide ecosystem benefits and require less irrigation. Native plants have an important role to play in fire-smart landscaping because they are a natural and historical part of this ecosystem. Including natives in our home gardens provides for the entire ecosystem, not solely for human needs.

With careful planning, you can have an aesthetically pleasing and fire-smart yard. Reduction of plant fuels is a key component, but defensible space doesn’t require the removal of all vegetation to be effective. We will not be able to completely eliminate fire, but we can take steps that will alter the behavior of fire in ways that reduce flame length and fire intensity.

The Marin Chapter of the CNPS has many resources to help you create a beautiful, fire-safe and wildlife-friendly garden. Photo by Laura Lovett

Since 2019, the Marin Chapter of CNPS has been in an ongoing dialogue with the Marin County Fire Department and the Marin Wildfire Protection Agency about ways to have habitat gardens while also addressing community needs for fire safety.

In our eagerness to import all sorts of new species from around the globe for both agricultural and
ornamental use, humans have deliberately or accidentally introduced many plants that not only thrive but grow excessively well here. Many of these invasive plants are also fire-prone, damaging our landscapes twice over.

Climate scientists predict that we will have hotter and drier weather in coming decades, with less rainfall and more drought years. A landscape of California native plants requires significantly less water to thrive. In fact, many plants, once established, do just fine on winter rains. Even plants from other Mediterranean climates require more water to stay healthy than our native ones do. Keeping plants hydrated is important for fire resistance. An unhealthy, struggling plant is a fire-prone plant.

Native plants are the base of the food chain. Over millennia, our native pollinators and other creatures have become specifically adapted to our native plants for their food, shelter, and reproductive needs. They cannot make use of imported plants; without natives they starve. Our native trees are particularly important, often supporting hundreds of small mammals, birds, and invertebrates.

The rainy season is the perfect time to start thinking about which parts of your garden need to be addressed for fire safety and what would be on your wish list to create a glorious garden that is not fire-prone.

The Marin Chapter of the CNPS has assembled lists of California native plants recommended for use as replacements for those species considered fire prone by FIRESafe Marin. Plants are grouped into seven general plant sizes and functions: large trees, small trees, hedging shrubs, medium height shrubs, groundcovers, large grasses and vines. Fire-prone plants are noted in each category together with our recommendations for replacements.

Each plant has a link to a plant card that includes information about sun exposure, watering needs, flowers and fruit, deer resistance and more. The lists can be found at
When planning a garden that includes native plants, these are some keys points to consider:
This is not a list of fireproof plants. All plants will burn under the right conditions. Do not expect to plant it and forget it!

For defensible space, plant placement and maintenance are as important as the plant species you choose. Maintenance includes proper watering; it is particularly important to keep your plants hydrated during fire season. If you don’t maintain your plants, you have wasted the benefit gained from making smarter choices to start with. Information about plant placement and maintenance is available in depth on the FIRESafe Marin and Marin Master Gardener web sites. We urge you to review their recommendations be-fore you decide on plant locations and spacing.

Failure to maintain both your house and your landscape in a fire-safe condition can result in loss of life and property during fire! Your first concern in the landscape should be to create noncombustible zones around your structures; the first five feet out from the structure should not include anything that is flammable. This includes plants, decorative bark, woodpiles, trash cans, wooden gates, barbecues, decorations, etc.

Native plants provide superior environmental benefits. All replacement plants on the list are native to California. They provide superior ecosystem services to us and to the other creatures with whom we share this earth, particularly birds and insects. They are the irreplaceable foundation of nature’s food chain. Native plants are tough, beautiful, and highly adapted to our climate. We don’t need to look abroad for ideas on what to put in our gardens. This list includes just some of the many lovely and garden-friendly native plants that should do well around your home.

Native plants do better when planted at the right time. Native plants are not grown on an artificially sustained schedule as happens at commercial nurseries. Native plants tend to be available for planting when they are most likely to thrive. This means that plants are healthier when they come to you, but some species may be available only during certain months of the year.

Local nurseries that sell native plants include: The Watershed Nursery, Richmond; CNL Native Plant Nursery, Mill Valley; Green Jeans Garden Supply, Mill Valley; O’Donnell’s Nursery, Fairfax; and Sloat Garden Centers. CNPS also features many suitable plants at the Marin Chapter’s spring and fall plant sales.

This article was adapted from information on the CNPS Marin Chapter website
information on the CNPS Marin Chapter website:

Fish Die-off Triggered by Excessive Human Waste Nutrients in the Bay

by Morgan Cantrell

A harmful algal bloom of Heterosigma akashiwo in the San Francisco Bay caused a widespread fish die-off in August and September that impacted the Corte Madera Creek Watershed. Our community observed dead white sturgeon and striped bass along the shores of the Corte Madera Marsh Ecological Reserve and various agencies around the bay issued warnings to avoid contact with the water during the bloom.

A five-foot-long white sturgeon was among the casualties of a late-summer algal bloom in San Pablo and San Francisco bays. These fish can live for decades, feeding in the shallow edges of the bay. Photo by Morgan Cantrell

Algae blooms become harmful when they release toxins and/or consume too much of the oxygen in a body of water. This was the largest algal bloom in the SF Bay in 18 years and researchers worry that they will become more frequent.

Our wastewater effluent is contributing significant levels of nitrogen and phosphorus into the bay, creating conditions that combine with high water temperatures to cause large algal blooms like the one last summer. By finding ways to curb our pollution, we can reduce ecological damage and avoid future threats to public health.

We are advocating for more stringent wastewater treatment requirements and increased use of recycled water, two proven solutions to this challenge.
What can you do?

Call and write letters asking for the regional water board to require reduced levels of nutrient discharge from treated wastewater and fund the initiatives around the bay:
San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board
1515 Clay Street, Suite 1400
Oakland, CA 94612
Phone: (510) 622-2300

Keep an eye out for algal blooms (patches of discolored water) and dead fish along the shores in the future. Post pictures of dead fish on the iNaturalist community science app to help scientists and agencies investigate.

Ask our water district ( to invest more heavily in recycled water.