In the heart of California’s Central Coast, the former Fort Ord encompasses a sweeping landscape of vivid beauty and rich natural diversity. One of the few remaining expanses of large, contiguous open space in the increasingly developed Monterey Bay area, this area is a rolling landscape long treasured for recreation, scientific research, outdoor education, and historical significance.

-- Presidential Proclamation
Establishment of the Fort Ord National Monument
April 20, 2012

The establishment of the Fort Ord National Monument was widely hailed on the Central Coast as a boon for preservation, recreation and tourism in the region.

At the Watershed Institute, on the campus of California State University, Monterey Bay, the proclamation was viewed as another significant step in the ongoing effort to restore an endangered ecosystem. That effort long has involved CSU Monterey Bay students and faculty, as well as alumni whose inspiration springs, in part, from their days as “Weed Warriors” at their alma mater.

One of those alumni is Kevin Ghalambor.

“Basically, we want to take that and help it look like that,” said Ghalambor, as he indicates a barren area of sandy soil on one hand and a stretch of healthy coastal chaparral on the other.

Ghalambor is a Fort Ord Project team leader and biologist for Burleson Consulting of Sacramento. Burleson has contracted with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore 65 acres of land that once served as firing ranges on the former military base.

For Ghalambor, this is not just another job. It is a return to his beginnings in environmental restoration. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Earth Systems Science & Policy at CSUMB in fall 2001 and spent plenty of time as an undergraduate beyond the abandoned backroads of Fort Ord.

“My years at CSUMB gave me an intimate knowledge of the back country and native plants. And that has been very helpful to me in this project,” Ghalambor said.

He also was familiar with another outstanding resource – the Watershed Institute at CSUMB.

“The one thing I am particularly proud of is bringing in the people at the Watershed Institute. It is not the fanciest looking building, but I’m very familiar with how capable they are. They know what they are doing and have knowledge of the area that is really unmatched,” Ghalambor said.

The Watershed Institute has been involved in restoration, education and research on Fort Ord since CSUMB’s earliest days.

Weed Warriors at the Watershed Institute

Through the Weed Warriors program, the institute sends out CSUMB students and faculty to help remove non-native plants. Through Return of the Natives, grade school students are brought into the backcountry to learn about native plants, invasive species and habitat restoration.

Laura Lee Lienk, Watershed Institute co-director, said she is proud of the Institute’s long-standing effort and the role that it played in encouraging the establishment of Fort Ord as a national monument.

She said when U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to the Central Coast on a fact-finding mission earlier this year, he heard from a number of representatives who stressed the recreational uses that could be protected through the national monument designation.

“I think we really brought an additional viewpoint into the public discourse. CSUMB faculty lined up to say how students had been engaged for years in stewardship, education and research on this land,” Lienk said.

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As a student, Thor Anderson was attracted to Cal State Monterey Bay because of its hands-on approach to environmental research. After beginning his studies at Sacramento State, he transferred to CSUMB, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1999 and following up with a master’s in coastal and watershed science and policy in 2010.

Now he is a biologist for Burleson, helping to lead the Fort Ord restoration project.

“We’ve been working closely with students, really since Day One of this project. We’ve leaned heavily toward hiring people who have that level of experience and familiarity with the land here, ” said Anderson.

During the spring and summer, crews gather seeds from native plants and bring them back to the greenhouses for preparation and storage for later planting.

Seeds gathered during the dry months are broadcast in December and January to take advantage of the rainy season. The sandy soils of Fort Ord do not retain moisture well, but the winter rains do help the seeds get established. The Monterey Peninsula fog provides additional moisture and protection for the emerging plants.

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Melissa Boyd is one of the crew members. A senior from Chino, Boyd was attracted to CSUMB by its location, but came with little knowledge of the restoration work that was happening here.

She said she was in Professor Suzanne Worcester’s biology class during her sophomore year when she heard about a job with the Return of the Natives program.

Through the program, elementary students come to Fort Ord to experience plant growth and restoration first-hand. Then, they return to see the changes that result.

“It is cool for them to be able to come back and see what they have planted. I think that makes a real impression,” Boyd said.

Her work with the Return of the Natives program brought Boyd to the attention of Burleson and the organizers of the restoration project. Her flexible hours there fit well around her class work.
Now, she is looking into a graduate program in Hawaii as a way to continue her studies in environmental restoration.

Late this summer, Boyd was just beginning to work with a new student employee working on the Fort Ord restoration project.

See a photo gallery illustrating the restoration process.

“It’s only been a week or so,” Boyd said. “She has a few things to learn, but she’s picking things up really quickly.”

And the cycle continues. 

Story by James Tinney. Photos by Steve Zmak.