Sandhills Preserve Expands

With the latest purchase of rare Santa Cruz sandhills habitat by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, the Randall Morgan Sandhills Preserve reaches 204 acres.

by Diane Terry

Aug. 8, 2014—The Santa Cruz Sandhills, a rare habitat fostering seven endemic species, notched another victory on Aug. 6 when the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County announced the addition of 15 acres to the Randall Morgan Sandhills Preserve. The purchase brings the size of the Preserve, which lies between Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley, to 204 acres.

For those not familiar with the Sandhills habitat, it’s been nicknamed “the Galapagos Islands of Santa Cruz County” for its unique ecology and equally unique resident species. It's also facing an ongoing battle against human expansion and invasive species like French broom and acacia. Existing in small patches within a triangle formed by Bonny Doon, Scotts Valley and Boulder Creek, the white sands seem out of place in comparison with the surrounding emerald forest. But if you take a journey back 15 million years in time, this oddity makes a lot more sense, since this is when a shallow sea covered the Central Valley. When the Santa Cruz Mountains formed, this shallow sea floor rose, thus forming what we know as the Sandhills.

The Sandhills habitat is so rare that seven species call it their only home. Three animal species (the Mount Hermon june beetle, the Zayante band-winged grasshopper and the Santa Cruz kangaroo rat) and four plant species (the Ben Lomond spineflower, Santa Cruz wallflower, silverleaf manzanita and Ben Lomond buckwheat) found in the Sandhills exist nowhere else on Earth. Among the living species, scattered remnants of the life that used to reside in these sands when it was still a water world can be found, such as sand dollars, extinct sharks and other ancient marine fauna.

There are two types of habitats in the Sandhills: Sand Chaparral, characterized by dense shrubs like the silverleaf manzanita and a smattering of Ponderosa pines (this is what you find in the vicinity of the Observation Deck in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park); and the much rarer Sand Parkland, recognizable by its sparse Ponderosa pine canopy on steep ridges and abundant wildflowers in spring. Guided tours of the Randall Morgan Sandhills Preserve (for Land Trust members only) and Quail Hollow Ranch County Park (open to the public on a limited basis each April) are the best ways to see Sand Parkland.

The Randall Morgan Sandhills Preserve contains mostly Sand Chaparral habitat, but a pristine section of Sand Parkland habitat is protected there as well. Today, there are between 2,000 and 3,000 acres of undeveloped Sand Chaparral in existence and only about 240 acres of Sand Parkland habitat left in the world. Of these 240 acres, the Land Trust has protected more than 10 percent.

Besides fostering these unique plants and critters, the Sandhills serve the county as a natural filter for the Santa Margarita Aquifer—the source of water for 18,000 people in central Santa Cruz County. When the rain falls on these hills, the water percolates through the sand and into the aquifer, where it also feeds the San Lorenzo River, keeping the water clean for more water-users and important fish like the threatened steelhead trout and endangered Coho salmon.

Unfortunately, like most places that serve a unique role and foster a rare habitat, the Sandhills are under threat from human activity. According to the Sandhills Alliance for Natural Diversity, the Sandhills covered an estimated 6,000 acres before human development in the region, yet approximately 40% of that has been lost and the rest is facing steady degradation as a result of misuse and invasive species. Expanding residential development has caused quite the trouble within the Sandhills, along with sand quarrying and irresponsible recreational use.

As part of its Conservation Blueprint’s emphasis on biodiversity, the Land Trust has made a mission of conserving this unique habitat. Since 2008, when it purchased the first chunk of the Randall Morgan Sandhills Preserve, named for a beloved local naturalist, the Land Trust has added land to the preserve, including a substantial addition made in November 2013 of 51 acres near Scotts Valley with a $772,000 grant from the state Wildlife Conservation Board.

The Land Trust purchased the new 15 acres with $14,000 from its own Opportunity Fund and the help of numerous grants, including $239,600 from the Wildlife Conservation Board and $150,400 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.