Two students and two recent graduates of the Environmental Studies Program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences have started a trail-blazing summer as interns with the Catalina Island Conservancy, where they are spending eight weeks assisting with conservation and education programs.
The project, managed by Lisa Collins, is a collaboration between the conservancy, the Environmental Studies Program and the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, housed in USC Dornsife.
The interns are working with the conservancy to remove fennel, an invasive plant, and have begun building a hiking trail adjacent to the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. Two graduate students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts have joined the project to develop animations that will explain the conservation effort to non-scientific audiences.
Alexandria Cheung and Sabrina Lawrence-Gomez graduated from USC Dornsife in May with bachelor’s degrees in environmental studies. Miller Zou and Daniel Kasang will continue their studies in the program this fall as a junior and senior, respectively.
The interns began their work on June 12 when they boarded the USC vessel Miss Christi to Catalina Island. They spent their first week at the conservancy field lab facility Middle Ranch learning about Catalina Island ecology, plant identification, and techniques for surveying and collecting native plants.
With training from the conservancy staff, the students are tackling a problem with fennel that has more than a century-long history on Catalina Island. The students are working with Charlie de la Rosa to remove the plant, which is pervasive on the island. De la Rosa, who supervises the conservancy’s invasive species removal projects, said that once the plant takes root, it takes over.
Fennel physically crowds out other plants above and below ground. Since it grows taller than much of Catalina Island’s native vegetation, it prevents other plants from getting sunshine. Its root system is so dense that nothing else can grow in the same soil.
Fennel, native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region, has the scent of black licorice and has been used in cooking for centuries. It is believed to have been introduced to California in the late 1800s, and it has thrived in parts of the state, including Catalina Island and some of the other Channel Islands.
The interns are spending much of their summer on Catalina Island removing fennel, plant by plant, as part of a project to construct a hiking trail. They are digging up the carrot-like taproot of individual plants to extract fennel along the first stretch of the new trail. The next step will be “passive restoration” of native vegetation.
“There are a lot of seeds of native plants in the soil,” De la Rosa said. “With the removal of the fennel, the seeds of those native plants will germinate.”
The uprooting of the fennel this year will be followed by annual monitoring by conservancy scientists to deal with fennel seeds that are left in the soil.
“If we can remove new fennel plants before they flower, eventually we will exhaust the fennel ‘seed bank,’ ” De la Rosa said.
Kasang said the project is helping him understand how simple conservation sometimes can be.
“If you take out the problem, what’s naturally occurring comes back. I always hear about remediation and how costly it is, where here most of the remediation is simply removing the problem,” he said.
For the trail construction, the interns will work on a section of hillside known locally as Deer Valley that is just outside the boundaries of the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center at Big Fisherman’s Cove on the road to Two Harbors.
The trail will follow the hillside’s natural contours to points of interest overlooking the cove and will improve an existing trail created over the years by people and wildlife climbing the hillside. Its winding path will cover about 1,000 yards when completed. This summer, the cohort will establish the first 60 yards of the trail, clearing vegetation along the rest of the pathway in preparation for future work crews.
When the trail is finished, USC educators will be able to take visitors up the hillside and show them a part of Catalina Island’s environment that is different from the rest of USC’s Catalina campus.
“We were trying to find an area that has different vegetation compared with other habitats near the lab,” Collins said. “This is the only north-facing trail near the Wrigley Marine Science Center, so it has endemic plants that aren’t anywhere else on the Catalina campus. And we picked an area that has enough fennel that the students will be able to see a difference – a ‘before’ and ‘after’ that’s a result of their work.”
The participants from USC Dornsife and the conservancy are working with another organization – the American Conservation Experience – that has expertise in trail building and has worked with the conservancy for years to provide volunteers for conservation projects on Catalina Island.
Chris Baker, executive director of the American Conservation Experience, spent a week with the interns talking about “sustainable trails” that fit into the local environment and provide rewarding experiences for people hiking on them.
Baker helped the interns and conservancy staff mark the entire route with flags, and a plant ecologist with the conservancy, Sarah Ratay, inspected the path to be sure it does not impact any rare species.
Lawrence-Gomez said the project has provided a good introduction to the Catalina Island Conservancy.
“It’s been nice to see how the conservancy works and how everything comes together to manage the resources,” she said.
For Zou, the internship also helps to illustrate a connection between people and the landscape.
“I’ve learned that conservation is not just about science, it’s about people and politics as well,” he said.
In late June, the environmental studies interns worked with two other USC students, both MFA candidates from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts. Collins said the two students, Lisa Chung and Michelle Yang, have a strong interest in science education and using animation to communicate science to a broader audience.
“I’ve worked with animation graduate students before, and my experience with them has been fantastic,” Collins said. “They think about science in completely different ways than scientists themselves.”
Working closely with the Catalina Island Conservancy is actually part of the Environmental Studies Program’s strategic plan, said program director Jim Haw.
“Eventually we want many of our students to experience what we call ‘Catalina Throughout the Curriculum,’ ” Haw said. “The idea is that environmental studies students would first encounter Catalina on a field trip in their freshman year and for those who get the island under their skin, this would grow into other experiences lasting a week, a month or even a full academic term.”