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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Cleveland School Students Help Nip Invasive Plants in Bud on Santa Cruz Island

Cleveland sixth-graders clip back an invasion of oyster plants on Santa Cruz Island.
Cleveland sixth-graders clip back an invasion of oyster plants on Santa Cruz Island. (Karen Telleen-Lawton / Noozhawk photo)

You may think the Cleveland Elementary School mascot is the Dolphins, but for a couple of days in early May they became the Cleveland Clippers. That’s because each sixth-grade class spent a day on Santa Cruz Island clipping the heads off of thousands of invasive plants.

For most students, it was their first trip to the islands and their first boat trip.

Their excitement was contagious as they crammed around the bow of Island Packers’ Island Adventure in Ventura Harbor. They transformed the ship into a party boat — until we hit some rough water mid-Channel. Then the squealing died down as many held on with both hands and a few “fed the fish.”

Mid-channel, Captain Jimmy provided a great environmental stewardship lesson by stopping to pick up a stray helium balloon. Somebody’s party favor could have injured multiple fish, birds and marine mammals, he told us, if they ate the krill-like flecking mylar, the jellyfish-like balloon or the kelp-like string.

After multiple wildlife sightings, we landed at Scorpion Anchorage and hiked up to an early lunch with amazing views at Cavern Point. The kids learned about the Chumash midden there, speculating about why they might have shelled shellfish right here. Channel Islands Restoration Executive Director Ken Owen explained the restoration project to the students before we hiked down to the work site.

In the upper campground we paused to watch cute, cat-like island foxes graze for goodies. Our project site was nearby, on both sides of the Scorpion Loop Trail. There we spread out in groups of five or six to locate pockets of oyster plants (Tragopogon porrifolius) in various stages of bud, flower and seed.

Each student was equipped with a pair of safety scissors, with which we clipped off the heads and carefully bagged them. Most found the task to be pleasant, with the worst difficulty being dealing with burrs from invasive rip gut grass that found their way through our socks as we hiked through the golden fields.

After a couple of hours of hard work, we admired the huge pile of stuffed black plastic bags. Then, covered with white sap and burrs, we hauled them back to the mouth of Scorpion Canyon. We had an hour or so to visit the Visitor’s Center and relax at the beach before the arrival of the boat.

The field trip was a culmination of a year’s work by CIR board member Cindy Kimmick with sixth-graders and their teachers, Sam Adams and Kevin Sullivan. Since the fall Kimmick, with occasional help by other CIR board members (such as retired geology professor Tanya Atwater and myself), had provided the students science and natural science lessons in topics including GPS mapping and the story of the near decimation of the island foxes. CIR was able to offer the trip free of charge using grants from the Garden Club of Santa Barbara, the Bentson Foundation and Susan Shields.

The highlight for some was the knowledge that thousands of bagged seeds will prevent millions of new plants — an invasion literally nipped in the bud. But likely most would name an additional favorite: watching hundreds of dolphins approach the boat and surf our wake. It was an enthralling show seemingly just for the graduating Cleveland Dolphins.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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