Santa Barbara Island is like Kansas — smack in the middle of the Channel Islands, where most of the action takes place on the edges. But recently, it was the center of action, when a community-college class and other assorted volunteers ascended the square-mile island’s cliffs for some extreme restoration.

Karen Telleen-Lawton

Karen Telleen-Lawton

The project is the work of Laurie Harvey, a seabird biologist hired under the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program to restore decimated populations of ground-nesting seabirds.

The MSRP was created to settle lawsuits after the U.S. Geological Survey found more than 110 tons of DDTs in the sediments at the ocean bottom up to 50 years after dumping by Montrose Chemical Corp.

The restoration is easier decried than done. Harvey and other biologists are using several methods, including social attraction — blasting the cliffs with a CD of xantus murrelet and cassin’s auklet calls. The social birds will come only where there are others around. They are definitely attracted to the solar-powered speakers, cuddling close and on top of them. But to encourage nesting, the habitat must be restored.

Harvey and the others have chosen several tempting sites around the island. In the past year, volunteer groups yanked out sections of crystalline ice plant that invaded 90 percent of the island. Murrelets and auklets prefer nest sites in rocky crevices and small shrubs. Seeds were gathered from the remnants of the island’s sea cliff scrub plants, including island silver lace, buckwheat, giant Coreopsis, salt bush, Suaeda and yarrow. They sprouted in a nursery built beside the island’s ranger station. To survive their first precarious year, fresh water was brought in by boat in 450-gallon steel totes, unloaded by crane and pumped to the top of the island. Now, they’re ready for our team of extreme planters.

Early in the morning, we hike up the island’s central spine, cross a saddle with a view of all but one of the eight Channel Islands, and descend switchbacks to the south side. The habitat is dormant European grasses broken up by occasional native shrubs such as boxthorn, the island night lizard’s favorite, and giant coreopsis like free-form candelabras.

Our work is before us, delivered by helicopter from the nursery the previous day. Dozens of barrels of water, hoses, tools and 17,000 pounds of native plants are laid out at what I assume is the cliff edge. Then I see that the color-coded planting flags are on a steep crumbly slope slanting below the array of plants.

After dividing the tasks of digging, shuttling, planting and watering based on relative fear of heights, we set to work. Working carefully, our only casualties are the occasional loss of a plant or empty pot over the cliff.

Harvey is a good taskmaster for volunteers, allowing us sufficient free time to enjoy the island’s treasures. There are three loop trails to hike; harrier hawks, peregrine falcons and horned larks to watch; and great snorkeling under the watchful eyes of dozens of elephant seals.

We pack up on day four, hauling our camping gear down to the pier. Ice chests, backpacks and work gear are hand-packed into big tarps and swung by crane onto a waiting skiff. The skiff shuttles back and forth between pier and the anchored NOAA boat until arriving teams and departing ones have traded places.

Waiting on the dock, I ask Betsy, a music major and one of the ecological restoration students, about her impressions.

“I almost wish I’d studied science instead of liberal arts,” she says. “There’s a lot of value in what goes on in the laboratory. I’ll encourage my son to study science, so he can have an outdoor life.”

She paused thoughtfully, then added, “One thing I learned in this class: It’s easier not to mess something up in the first place than to have to restore it.”

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations supporting sustainability. Graze her writing and excerpts from Canyon Voices: The Nature of Rattlesnake Canyon at

Karen Telleen-Lawton is an eco-writer, sharing information and insights about economics and ecology, finances and the environment. Having recently retired from financial planning and advising, she spends more time exploring the outdoors — and reading and writing about it. The opinions expressed are her own.