The Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s 14-acre Native Seed Farm has recovered enough following the damaging 2020 Silverado Fire, public activity is now resuming with volunteers being welcomed back to help grow the plants needed to restore thousands of acres of Orange County’s wildlands.
The conservancy manages about 40,000 acres of wildland 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.
Since the seed farm was created in 2009 – it was relocated to a larger area in 2016 near the 241 toll road – it has produced hundreds of pounds of seeds a year that are used in restoring the wildlands the conservancy is tasked with preserving.
The Silverado fire broke out near Limestone and Black Star canyons in October 2020, burning 13,390 acres, much of it land the conservancy stewards. It damaged the farm, including 3,500 feet of pipeline and sprinkler systems irrigating the plants. Although the irrigation system hasn’t been completely restored, seed production has recovered, officials said. The conservancy is in the process of installing a more fire resilient irrigation system, which is expected to be completed in January.
“Thankfully the restoration work has helped us recover well and we will continue working on the projects the plant community have regenerated,” Matthew Garrambone, the conservancy’s program director, said. “One more winter for the open space and we will be back to where we were prior to the fire.”
Already before the fire, the conservancy had been struggling through the pandemic, having to keep its army of 500 volunteers at home. Many had just embarked on a restoration project planting and watering 480 Coast live oak acorns in OC Parks’ Limestone Canyon. The fire only exasperated efforts leaving it up to the 46-member conservancy staff to secure the safety and survival of the plants through the winter by hand watering and weeding the groves.
Between the pandemic and the fire, the conservancy, which is funded through the public agencies, was placed in a unique situation: Needing the community’s help to restore what was lost. The IRC reached out via its community newsletter that goes out to 20,000 people, who came to the rescue via small donations, its officials said.
“We don’t need to normally ask for help from the people,” Communications Manager Scott Graves said, “but it was a situation where we suddenly needed it and it was so reaffirming, really great, to know the community had our back. We are very grateful for all the support we have received from the public.”
Now that we are past the height of the pandemic and areas closed by fire have been able to reopen to visitors, the IRC is encouraging the public to join its Let’s Go Outside! initiative, which advocates for people to put down their phones, turn off their TVs and take in the open spaces on foot or by bike. Not only will people enjoy exploring the system of trails available, but also learn about the native flora and fauna that make up the California landscape, such as the Coast Indian paintbrush, the Coast golden bush, Foothill needle grass and Narrow leaf milkweed.
There are a variety of programs through the conservancy that the public can get involved in as a volunteer or just as a spectator, such as habitat restoration and enhancement, wildfire prevention, invasive species control and helping with research. And they can sign up to volunteer at the seed farm.
“Our goal is to try to bolster and support our native plant communities. If we can support them, then we can support the rare and uncommon plants that are a part of that community,” Garrambone said.
“Besides the land, the pandemic and fire caused a real break in the community building and engagement aspect of the farm,” Garrambone said. “We are kind of a go-to spot for people. It’s a special place for a lot of people and we are happy to welcome them all back.”
Find out more about the seed farm, volunteer opportunities and opportunities to access the conservancy lands at letsgooutside.org.