The San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy began work on an ambitious restoration project last week off Del Dios Highway, removing 5.5 acres of non-native trees and adding plants for a new riparian habitat.
The Conservancy is using a $143,750 grant to fund the project, which aims to restore the land for sensitive bird species that make their home in the river valley below Lake Hodges.
The grant money, from the National Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was a welcome surprise for the conservancy, said Leslie Woollenweber, resources specialist.
"It's a good start," Woollenweber said, noting that this is just a small portion of a larger effort.
They still have 1.85 miles of river valley where trees need to be felled and other areas that are more logistically challenging, some of which might require helicopters to get trees out.
"It will be a significant amount of funding because of the lack of access and the amount of material," Woollenweber said. "This portion is something we can show the success of. The progress we make here can help us get another grant."
Work began on Nov. 9 near Calle Ambiente, across from Cielo Village and below the Lemon Twist stand, now being rebuilt after it burned in the Witch Creek Fire.
The restored riparian habitat is expected to benefit the least Bell's vireo and southwestern willow flycatcher, both federally endangered birds. The yellow warbler and yellow-breasted chat should also benefit.
Most of the trees to be removed are eucalyptus, which eliminate the dense cover that many species rely on for forage and nesting.
California Conservation Corps crews will continue to work on tree removal until Jan. 15, when they have to stop for raptor nesting season. From January to March 15, the conservancy plans to do native plantings but then they need to be out by Sept. 15 for another nesting season.
Woollenweber said the idea is for the thick cover of natives to grow back in, with native trees like willow and sycamores taking the place of eucalyptus. New plantings like wild roses, blackberry and wild grapes are ideal for the habitat as they create a dense cover, bear fruit and attract insects for food, she added.
Due to the challenging terrain, all of the work is being down by hand — workers hauling pieces of trees out on foot.
In some spots, where the vegetation is very dense and water runs in the riverbed, Woollenweber said they will use a herbicide to kill the tree instead of taking it down. The trees will die but remain standing for a long time, with their snags serving as a home for woodpeckers and beetles.
They will also use the herbicide method for some trees closer to the dam.
The restoration area is not meant for public access, but the trailhead to the longest continuous piece of the Coast to Crest Trail is nearby. The Santa Fe Valley Trail goes west for a little over a mile; another trail takes hikers east up the slope and all the way to Lake Hodges Dam. It then connects with a trail that heads to San Pasqual.
"This restoration will enhance the scenic value as well as improve bird-watching," Wollenweber said.