Resource Conservation District Doing Good Things in the Santa Monica Mountains

A drawing of what the Liberty Canyon wildlife overpass is expected to look like from the point of view of an animal living in the Santa Monica Mountains

Ever wonder who keeps an eye on whether there are any endangered steelhead trout or red-legged frogs left in Malibu’s creeks? Or who comes up with the plans for restoring areas near the mouths of Trancas and Topanga creeks back into lagoons?  It’s the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM).

In the agency’s recently released annual report, the district was challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, but found new ways to survive and thrive. 

“We entered March 2020 and went from a staff crammed into a sometimes too small but highly-energized office, to a staff of faces crammed on too-small screens,” wrote Clark Stevens, executive officer. 

“Thanks to the support of our community, RCDSMM not only persevered, but even expanded our work,” Stevens continued. “We added entirely new distance-learning content to our environmental education offerings, gave over 100 community stakeholders a [say in] the future of Topanga Lagoon, completed (with our partners) the definitive website on wildfire resilience and completed design phases for the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing Project.”

The district also completed a number of other vital projects. 

It worked with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to analyze which areas of the Santa Monica Mountains would be best for oak tree survival as the climate changes. The zones were identified at the satellite level, and now the agency knows exactly where oak trees should be planted in the future for the best chance of survival.

In addition, the district’s research and restoration team conducted ongoing monitoring to track the health of mature oak trees. It also enlisted volunteer hikers to “adopt” and water newly planted oak seedlings on public lands until they become established. “We decided to call on hikers to water a tree or two while they trekked the mountain trails,” an official wrote.

When invasive insects known as shot-hole borers started taking a toll on native trees in the Santa Monica Mountains, the agency started an innovative program. It used volunteers to teach community members how to recognize and report evidence of the beetles in native trees in neighborhoods, parks and wild areas.

Almost a dozen new educators participated in the agency’s fall educator training sessions, where they learned about bird identification, climate change impacts, local ecosystems and native fish. The group even had a field trip to the Malibu Lagoon. 

Amphibian and turtle surveys throughout the Santa Monica Mountains continued—a project that started in 2000 in collaboration with the National Park Service, Pepperdine University and the U.S. Geological Survey. Stream team volunteers joined RCD biologists to comb the creeks in search of frogs, turtles and newts to monitor trends in population abundance and diversity.

The district finished the architectural design and construction of a demonstration “house” that allows homeowners to see best management practices for hardening their structures against wildfire. The 120-square foot, 12-foot-tall interpretive structure displays different fire safe construction materials, techniques and components (like ember-proof vents) on each of the four walls. In addition, the structure includes rainwater capture, bioswales, a “cool roof” and passive solar. 

Critical efforts were made to restore refugia (vernal) pools in local creeks, which are habitat for several threatened and endangered species of frogs and newts. Unfortunately, due to wildfires, these pools filled with silt and ash, but four government agency partners came to the rescue to help restore them.

The agency continued its decades-long monitoring of the endangered Southern California steelhead trout in Topanga Creek through snorkel surveys, habitat mapping, redd surveys (the gravel beds where salmonids lay their eggs) and tagging. The documentation is used in conservation and restoration decisions.

The Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains is part of a national network created by the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) during the dust bowl days more than 80 years ago. There are 96 resource conservation districts just in the state of California. 

A resource conservation district is not a rule-making regulatory agency. Certain federal benefits are available to counties and cities only through these special districts. RCDs can lease or own land, publish research, contract restoration projects and educational programs, and sometimes operate facilities. 

If you wish to support this type of work for the community, donations can go to: