BY ANASTASIA ZOLOTOVA
Formerly Rancho Cañada Golf Club, the vast swath of disused golf course surrounding Carmel Middle School is likely a familiar sight for anyone driving by on Carmel Valley Road. Until May 2018, it was considered an ecological wasteland, but now it is owned by the Monterey County Park District and is on its way to being restored to a wildlife habitat.
The goal of the project, officially called “Rewilding the Greens,” is to cover as much of the golf course as possible with native plants including live oaks, buckwheat and poppies in order to incorporate it into the larger Palo Corona Regional Park. Founder of the local nonprofit Watershed Institute and former county employee Scott Hennessy is spearheading this effort. Since last May, he has grown more than 12,000 plants and trees in his own greenhouse, donating them to the Palo Corona park free of charge.
“When I retired from the county I thought, ‘What should I do? Let’s see if I can get involved in some environmental work,’” Hennessy explains. “I’ve taken over the restoration at the golf course…and I’ve just sort of insinuated my way in.”
Hennessy and his team of volunteers can’t complete the project on their own efficiently enough, so the park district is seeking to create a partnership between the Carmel Unified School District, the local nonprofit MEarth and the park district itself to help in the effort.
In this proposed partnership, MEarth would provide plants and trees for the rewilding process on a larger scale in addition to those that Hennessy himself is providing. The school district and the park district would also create an environmental education program for pre-K students to seniors in high school. Through it, students would be able to have a hands-on approach to studying wildlife and helping to plant native flora in their “adopted” plots of land.
If it succeeds, Jackie Nelson, the environmental education supervisor of the park district, theorizes that the program could be opened to other school districts across the county.
“It takes a community to take care of the environment, so if we get everybody involved in it, then we’ll have better understanding and ownership and want to take better care of it,” she explains.
The plan is still in its early stages. Before it can become a reality, it first needs to be approved by both the CUSD school board and the park district board.
Even with a small band of volunteers, Hennessy has already seen an enormous change in less than a year. He describes the state of the former golf course greens: “The areas that I’ve converted and planted with buckwheat and poppies, you go there in June and it’s just buzzing with [pollinators]. I mean, there’s all kinds of birds and insects feeding on the plants.”
Since the land was opened to the public in the summer of 2018, hikers, birdwatchers and joggers alike may have also noticed the bobcats and coyotes enjoying the change too.
Interestingly, for most of recent history, Rancho Cañada has been private land. Before it was a golf course, the land was dedicated to dairy farming: the urbanization of the 185-acre plot of land dates back to the late 19th century. But Nelson explains why its recent purchase by the Trust for Public Land, a U.S. nonprofit whose mission is to “create parks and protect land,” was special.
“My favorite part of that purchase of the golf course was that the Trust for Public Land was actually the lowest bidder,” Nelson says, “but the family that owned the golf course wanted to honor the family tradition of keeping it as an open space, so they sold it to the lowest bidder.”
After the purchase, the land was then transferred into the ownership of the park district to begin the restoration process. This includes the Carmel River, which winds through the property on its way to the Pacific Ocean, and a 1,000-foot wildlife corridor, where development is banned.
Other future plans for restoration, Hennessy continues, include a possible wildlife bridge to help animals safely cross the Carmel Valley Road and a monarch butterfly habitat.
Students or community members may volunteer at Palo Corona Regional Park by contacting Scott Hennessy at email@example.com or attending the next CUSD school board meetings on Dec. 22 and Jan. 22 to voice their opinions.