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Saving Sunset Cliffs: City-Community partnership protecting peninsula treasure in Point Loma/San Diego

In some spots, the Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach and Point Loma rise over 300 feet above sea level.
In some spots, the Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach and Point Loma rise over 300 feet above sea level.
Savanah Duffy

If you’ve lived in San Diego longer than oh, about a week, you’ve probably come to discover that San Diegans share a love for a few specific things: dogs, surfing, organic food, Taco Tuesdays and, for many, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.

But if you’ve taken a stroll along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in the past decade or so (anywhere between Adair to Ladera streets or along the adjoining 50-acre hillside park), you’ll notice things have begun to change.

Erosion has been eating away at the cliffs, making the park a beautifully dangerous, albeit scenic, route to walk. This majestic 68-acre natural site has been in danger of crumbling away for years now, and it doesn’t look like Sunset Cliffs can come out on top without careful, considered effort from both the community and the City.

A Master Plan for the restoration and revegetation of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park has been under way since 2005. You can view the 134-page plan online at bit.ly/2Cf7aK4

Via e-mail, the City’s Sunset Cliffs Restoration Project team provided an update: Phases 1 and 2 are currently underway, but are not specifically addressing the precarious erosion — that aspect will be part of a drainage project still being designed.

Signage along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard warns park guests of the unstable cliff sides.
Signage along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard warns park guests of the unstable cliff sides.
Savanah Duffy

But just because erosion is not the focus of the first phases doesn’t mean the City is ignoring it. In addition to the drainage swales along the main trails created to disperse runoff, the City has implemented a long-term solution to reduce erosion that aligns with the Master Plan’s first priority — the recovery and preservation of Sunset Cliffs Park.

This has been a long process, but pedestrians on their daily jogs and tourists visiting to enjoy the breath-taking views can see the progress made.

“Studies have shown a well-designed hillside planted in native plants has very little erosion,” the City’s e-mail update read. “Revegation of native plants will help reduce runoff within the park and slow down erosion.”

Even with cautionary signs, seven deaths occurred at Sunset Cliffs in 2018.
Even with cautionary signs, seven deaths occurred at Sunset Cliffs in 2018.
Savanah Duffy

Goodbye eucalyptus trees

In 2018, the City worked on having all foreign species of plants removed and replaced with native vegetation. In writing, that doesn’t sound like a wildly controversial idea — after all, it is a natural park so you’d expect the natural plant life to be the focus — but the initial response from the public was not one of cheering and confetti-throwing.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council (SCNPC) volunteer and retired mathematician, manager David Kimball, said when he began spending his mornings weeding and gardening in the park back in 2005, he heard a lot of negative feedback from passersby. The removal of the (non-native) eucalyptus trees was an especially hot topic. Kimball said people would lament the removal of “the beautiful native trees.”

“But Eucalyptus aren’t native, they’re Australian trees,” he clarified. And while perhaps, visually appealing, they don’t hold much habitat value. For instance — the trees were victims of a beetle infestation that was killing them and making them a fire hazard. Kimball added that birds don’t typically enjoy the scent of the eucalyptus. Since their removal, SCNPC members expect to see more animal activity in the garden.

“Look, there’s a rabbit there,” he said, pointing at a disappearing creature along the path; a fluffy preview of more animal life to come.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council member David Kimball tends to the Native Plant Garden as he has been doing since 2005.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Council member David Kimball tends to the Native Plant Garden as he has been doing since 2005.
Savanah Duffy

Preventing erosion

There was some public speculation that the removal of the “foreign” plants might result in more erosion from the broken up ground, but the City maintains that the new native plants will reduce erosion and the restoration project team is moving forward cautiously. “During construction, the contractor is required to maintain stormwater BMPs to prevent runoff and erosion,” the City explained. “This requirement will be in force for the entire 5-year monitoring/maintenance period allowing the plant material to mature and provide erosion control.”

Although some people still aren’t happy about the removal of the non-native plants, Kimball said comments have become increasingly positive as the clear evidence of the restoration plan’s success is coming into bloom — literally.

“Once we kind of turned the corner and had something for people to look at that they thought was attractive, the feedback totally flipped,” Kimball said. “The garden will contain virtually every color of the rainbow once spring comes and everything is in bloom.”

For 2019, SCNPC corresponding secretary Rosamaria Acuña said one of the City’s goals is to finish what it started — completion of the revegetation process — by putting 27,000 new plants in the park.

This is in addition to the approximately 400-500 plants the volunteers have been adding to the 3-acre demonstration garden every year for the past 12 years, Kimball said. He added that a botanical survey revealed 75 native plant species in the park that, up until recently, were competing for life against the 75 foreign species.

This path through the plant garden allows pedestrians to walk safely while enjoying the beauty of the recently established native plants.
This path through the plant garden allows pedestrians to walk safely while enjoying the beauty of the recently established native plants.
Savanah Duffy

Community outreach

On Friday, Feb. 1, Point Loma Nazarene University students will come out to the garden to plant 300 more native plants. Twice a year, for the past 10 years, Kimball said an environmental science class of “really good, neat kids, energetic as all get out,” from PLNU have helped with the garden as part of their community service projects. Students have assisted with everything from planting to weeding to trail-building. “PLNU has made an enormous difference to this park,” he insisted.

It’s expected to take three years for the native plants to become established — providing Mother Nature supplies an adequate amount of rain. After those three years of weeding, planting and watering, Kimball says they will step back and allow the plants to do their thing.

According to SCNPC vice-chair Ann Swanson , the City is working on a drainage project. The first phase is in process; 30 percent complete. However, it must be reviewed by the City before it can be approved. If it passes muster, Phase 1 will include the removal of state donated houses — one on the corner of Ladera Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard — along with three others accessed through Lomaland Drive.

Also on SCNPC agenda for 2019 is informing the community on the progress being made in the park. Acuña said part of achieving that goal includes interpretive signs the City wants to put up throughout the park. Signs in the native garden will inform pedestrians about the plant species they see around them, while signs throughout the rest of the park will educate visitors about the ecological factors related to Sunset Cliffs.

“We’d like to help the public appreciate what they’re seeing,” said Barbara Keiller, SCNPA educational chair. She added that by informing visitors of how unique and special the park is, the council hopes people will naturally desire to help take care of it.

Dealing with the dangers

In keeping the park open to visitors throughout the restoration project, the City said instances of vandalism have occurred.

For Acuña, one of the biggest challenges has been “getting people to respect the cliffs, the ocean, and to leave no trace of their visit behind; they need to pick up their trash and keep an eye on their dogs.” The City added that “dogs running throughout the park unleashed have caused problems lately.”

But signs with fun facts about plant life and getting people to pick up after their pets are not the only topics the SCNPC wants to share with visitors — there are more serious matters to discuss. After seven deaths occurred along Sunset Cliffs in 2018, SCNPC worries about safety along the cliffs.

“Park-goers get as close as they can to the edge; we watch people jump!” said one resident at January’s SCNPC meeting. “We’re just waiting ... it’s just a matter of time before more go over the edge — or the whole cliff is going to let go because people go over the sandstone.”

SCNPC chair Gene Burger added: “Though the No. 1 issue is erosion, safety is becoming a super concern of ours. We don’t want to see people hurt using this park ... or dying.”

SCNPC discussed the need for park rangers, especially with the dramatic increase of visitors and traffic in recent years.

The next time you’re strolling along Sunset Cliffs sipping on your locally-brewed coffee and enjoying the golden hour, take a selfie with the Popsicle-orange ocean behind you, but be aware of where you’re walking. Don’t let your steps crush a baby plant or lead you to unstable ground. The City, SCNPC and the community have all played a role in keeping this magnificent natural land mass a Peninsula treasure.

IF YOU GO:

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is on the west side of the Point Loma peninsula, south of Ocean Beach. Access the park along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, between Adair Street heading south to Ladera Street. More information: sunsetcliffs.info