Vol. 25, No. 3 Summer 2015
Summer 2015 GRASSLANDS | 6
An Extension Perspective on California Grassland Restoration
by Elise S. Gornish1
Grassland systems are some of the most economically, socially, and
environmentally important habitats in California. Unfortunately,
widespread development and massive degradation have eroded and
continue to erode the persistence and health of these systems (e.g.,
Cameron et al. 2014), making them one of the most endangered
ecosystems both within and outside of the state (Sampson and Knopf
1994, Peters and Noss 1995). As a result of grassland loss in
California, restoration of these systems is becoming a more critical
component of grassland conservation activities. Restoration in
California grasslands generally facilitates revegetation and soil
recovery by encouraging natural community reassembly processes
that might otherwise take decades to occur in the absence of
management (Beltran et al. 2014). This process includes extensive
weed control before, during, and for several years after planting
Estimates of rangeland ownership vary widely, depending on the
classification of grasslands in different habitat types, but generally,
from one-half to two-thirds of California’s grasslands characterized
as rangeland habitat are privately owned (L. Macaulay, University of
California, Berkeley, pers. comm.). Therefore, the onus of restoration
is increasingly falling on private landowners. However, despite the
variety of valuable benefits that grassland restoration can provide to
landowners, including forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife
including pollinators, enhanced infiltration, and enhanced nutrient
cycling, restoration activities on private lands are not sufficiently
widespread to adequately cope with habitat degradation. As a
member of UC Cooperative Extension, I have the opportunity to
interact with diverse stakeholders at workshops, field days, and
society conferences. At these events, I have conducted informal
surveys to understand the factors that drive landowner restoration
decision-making strategies. These factors can vary across landowner
types, but they appear to all be connected by a single theme:
uncertainty. And, until academic researchers and Cooperative
Extension staff can adequately address the uncertainty associated
with grassland restoration, the deployment of successful, widespread
restoration activities on private lands will remain relatively
Here, I outline some of the more convoluted aspects of restoration
that might hinder widespread adoption and suggest several ways that
these issues could be addressed in order to better serve the
informational needs of the private landowner.
Restoration success is hugely context-dependent (Young et al. 2015).
Techniques that prove effective at a site during one year might not
demonstrate particular utility the next year. This variability is likely
due to differences in weather, which can be more important than
applied management for modifying plant communities (e.g., Swiecki
and Bernhardt 2008). Additionally, site-specific factors such as
topography, soil moisture, soil type, soil microbial biomass, land use
history, and micronutrient availability can directly and indirectly
mediate restoration outcomes. Because landscapes are
heterogeneous, successful restoration practices employed at one site
might not be efficacious at a nearby, seemingly similar site. Research
that attempts to understand mechanisms driving differences in
germination, growth, and survival is critical for developing broad
guidelines for grassland restoration that can accommodate site-
specific characteristics. This type of research, which merges plant
population biology with restoration ecology, is gaining more traction
at the level of universities and experimental stations (e.g., James et al.
2011). However, until this becomes a more common research
initiative, practitioners should be considerate of context dependency
and perhaps explore the use of trait-based approaches where
restoration candidates are identified based on their display of
particular traits that confer resilience to local site characteristics
(Funk et al. 2008).
Uncertainty is also associated with benefits that can be derived from
grassland restoration. Despite examples of ecosystem services that
might offset restoration costs in the short- and long-term,
landowners lack information needed to confidently predict
anticipated outcomes from restoration activities. Many studies have
identified ecosystem services that can be enhanced with restoration;
for example, effective restoration can arrest topsoil loss and rebuild
soil carbon (Lal 2006), which increases forage production.
Restoration and revegetation strategies can also markedly improve
wildlife habitat, providing more valuable grasslands for hunting and
recreation activities. Perhaps there needs to be improvement in the
communication of this information from researchers and
Cooperative Extension to landowners. This type of information can
be effectively transmitted during field days, through publications in
the popular press, and via a strong social media presence. Moreover,
formal studies that directly link reseeding activities to other
management goals, like forage production, are relatively uncommon.
However, this avenue of research will be useful for highlighting how
to accomplish multiple vegetation goals from single management
Finally, uncertainty in restoration outcomes makes it difficult to
assess whether management investment will pencil out financially
in subsequent seasons. Depending on factors such as seed mix, seed
source, and seed rarity, native grassland seed can be extremely
expensive, and coupled with extensive pre-treatment activities such
as weed management, site preparation, and drill rental, restoration
1Elise Gornish is a new Cooperative Extension Specialist in Restoration Ecology, UC Davis. Dr. Gornish focuses on restoration of grassland and arid
systems in both natural and working landscapes. She also conducts research and outreach on invasive annual grasses. The invasive species she most
loves to hate is the invasive winter annual grass medusa head (Elymus caput-medusae).
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7| GRASSLANDS Summer 2015
can cost upwards of $3,000/acre. This cost is simply untenable for
most private landowners. Avenues of less costly restoration and
revegetation practices have been investigated, including strip seeding
(Rayburn and Laca 2013), which can reduce seed quantities and
labor costs. Using revegetation-based approaches involving non-
local germplasm or non-native (desired, non-invasive) species in the
short-term can enhance long-term establishment by natives (e.g.,
Davies et al. 2015) and replenish soil nitrogen (SER International
2004). Using seed from regional sources in the early stages of a
revegetation project (D’Antonio and Meyerson 2002) can also
enhance invasive species control because non-local germplasm can
confer greater competitive response to newly invaded weeds (e.g.,
Davies et al. 2010, Herget et al. 2015). Costs for restoration or
revegetation activities on private land can sometimes be partially
offset by state programs, such as the California Department of Fish
and Wildlife Landowner Incentive Program (LIP), as well as through
associations with local groups, such as Habitat Conservation
Planning branches and the Center for Land-Based Learning’s
Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship
Despite these advances in the field, the cost of restoration can still be
prohibitive for most landowners. Research developments in the field
of horticulture could provide landowners with technologies to make
native plant propagation a successful enterprise without taking large
amounts of land out of production. Including regular cost/benefit
analyses in restoration experiments (e.g., Palmerlee and Young 2010)
is another way that researchers can add value to existing decision-
making tools that help managers develop more successful,
monetarily feasible restoration programs.
Several of the above suggestions involve creative approaches to
grassland restoration and revegetation to minimize costs and efforts
and make habitat improvements feasible. However, considering that
many acres of privately held grasslands in California are working
landscapes, I believe that realistic attempts to partner with private
landowners to restore functional plant communities will only be
successful when the needs and goals of all stakeholders are
considered. Ultimately, large-scale successful restoration of
grasslands on privately owned land will be possible through the
cultivation of networks among academia, Cooperative Extension,
agencies, non-profit organizations, and landowners and will rely on
bidirectional communication among these groups.
Beltran, R.S., N. Kreidler, D.H. Van Vuren, S.A. Morrison, E.S. Zavaleta, K.
Newton, B.R. Tershy, and D.A. Croll. 2014. “Passive recovery of vegetation
after herbivore eradication on Santa Cruz Island, California.” Restoration
Cameron, D.R., J. Marty, and R.F. Holland. 2014. “Whither the rangeland?
Protection and conversion in California’s rangeland ecosystems. PLoS ONE
D’Antonio C.D., and L.A. Meyerson. 2002. “Exotic plant species as problems
and solutions in ecological restoration: A synthesis. Restoration Ecology
Davies, K.W, A.M. Nafus, and R.L. Sheley. 2010. “Non-native competitive
perennial grass impedes the spread of an invasive annual grass.” Biological
Davies, K.W., C.S. Boyd, D.D. Johnson, A.M. Nafus, and M.D. Madsen. 2015.
“Success of seeded native compared with introduced perennial vegetation
for revegetating medusahead-invaded sagebrush rangeland.” Rangeland
Ecology & Management 68:224–230.
Funk, J.L., E.E. Cleland, K.N. Suding, and E.S. Zavaleta. 2008. “Restoration
through reassembly: Plant traits and invasion resistance.” Trends in Ecology
and Evolution 23:695–703.
Herget, M.E., K.M. Hufford, D.L. Mummer, B.A. Mealor, and L.N.
Shreading. 2015. “Effects of competition with Bromus tectorum on early
establishment of Poa secunda accessions: Can seed source impact
restoration success? Restoration Ecology 23:277–283.
Extension Perspective continued
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Summer 2015 GRASSLANDS | 8
California’s New Front Yard:
Creating a Low-Water Landscape
Now Registering for Fall 2015 Locations
CNGA is taking this popular workshop series on the road beginning
Fall 2015. Registration is open for Fairfield and Sacramento workshops.
Spring 2016 workshops will be offered in Merced and Santa Cruz.
Fairfield: Thursday, October 1, 8 a.m.–3 p.m.
Willow Hall, Fairfield Community Center, 1000 Kentucky Street
Sacramento: Thursday, October 29, 8 a.m.–3 p.m.
Coloma Community Center, 4623 T Street
Presentations in the morning will be followed by afternoon
demonstrations and hands‐on activities that will show you
how to carry out your project from beginning to end.
$25/CNGA Members | $30/Non-Members. Included in your fees are
morning refreshments, lunch, and course materials.
Come to one of these workshops to find out more about landscape
alternatives, including the use of native grasses, and forbs in the
drought-tolerant landscape. Workshops will include the latest research
and practices on design, installation, and maintenance of a low-water
landscape, as well as proper plant selection, lawn removal methods,
irrigation, and long-term care.
To register visit www.cnga.org or call 530.902.6009.
Extension Perspective continued
James, J.J., T.J. Svecar, and M.J. Rinella. 2011. “Demographic processes limiting seedling recruitment
in arid grassland restoration.” Journal of Applied Ecology 48:961–969.
Lal, R. 2006. “Enhancing crop yields in developing countries through restoration of soil organic
carbon pool in agricultural lands.” Land Degradation and Development 12:197–209.
Palmerlee, A.P., and T.P. Young. 2010. “Direct seeding is more cost effective than container stock
across ten woody species in California. Native Plants 11:89–102.
Peters, R.L., and R.F. Noss. 1995. “America’s endangered ecosystems.” Defenders 70:16–27.
Rayburn, A., and E.A. Laca. 2013. “Strip-seeding for grassland restoration: Past successes and future
potential. Ecological Restoration 31:147–153.
Sampson, F.B., and F.L. Knopf. 1994. “Prairie conservation in North America.” BioScience 44:418–
SER International (Society for Ecological Restoration International Science & Policy Working Group).
2004. The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration. Tucson, AZ: Society for Ecological
Restoration International. http://www.ser.org/resources/resources-detail-view/ser-international-
Swiecki, T.J., and E. Bernhardt. 2008. “Effects of
Grazing on Upland Vegetation at Jepson Prairie
Preserve, Solano County, CA.” Final Report.
Vacaville, CA: Phytosphere Research.
Young, T.P., E.P. Zefferman, K.J. Vaughn, and S.
Fick. 2015. “Initial success of native grasses is
contingent on multiple interactions among exotic
grass competition, temporal priority, rainfall, and
site effects.” AoB PLANTS 7:plu081.