The California coastal prairie community is a native perennial grassland on moister, cooler coastal hills, bluffs, terraces, and valleys that are influenced by Pacific coastal climates: summer fog and heavy winter rains. Many diverse wildflowers and some shrubs also inhabit this zone.
Photos by Laura Cunningham
Classically, this plant community was defined as running along the coast of California from northern Los Angeles County into Oregon, although a form of coastal prairie probably occupied the prehistoric southern California coast. Inland in Marin County, drier, native grasslands are found in relict patches—the “valley grassland” of older texts. The transition to coastal prairie, however, is irregular, patchy, and discontinuous among species. Formerly abundant in an emerald carpet on the sea bluffs and coastal hills and valleys, only relicts of coastal prairie remain in parks and places where the bulldozers and cattle herds cannot reach.
There is a beautiful relict native coastal prairie along the L Ranch Road close to the trailhead for Marshall Beach. This is apparently too distant from the dairy operation so the cows do not get this far out, and a native grassland has persisted in a relatively pristine state. This represents part of a natural community that may have been widespread across uplands of Point Reyes National Seashore before livestock operations. [>>Stay tuned for a Virtual Coastal Prairie Tour based on this area!]
Distinct bunches of Idaho fescue grow in this upland coastal prairie unglazed remnant. We saw Tule elk tracks here, but no cattle.
California buttercups, iris, and blue-eyed grass.
California Native Plant Society field trip on a rainy year to the coastal prairie relict on Point Reyes National Seashore, April 2019.
Beautiful native harlequin lotus flower blooms in the unglazed coastal prairie remnant.
A small native annual lupine begins to flower.
Blue-eyed grass (actually a wildflower and not a grass).
Coyote brush grows with the coastal prairie, but we did not see it taking over.
Mariposa lily (also know as hairy star tulip) and wild iris grow with native bunch grasses.
This is evidence that ungrazed prairies have a high diversity of wildflowers and do not need livestock grazing to increase native forb diversity. These sites should be completely protected from grazing so they can provide local seed sources for future restoration efforts across the Seashore, and be used as reference sites.
Cattle cause soil disturbance, erosion, and replacement of native deep-rooted perennial bunchgrasses with European shallow-rooted annual grasses.
We have opportunities to restore these diverse and beautiful native grasslands, even with the decision by the National Park Service to continue and diversify cattle grazing and agriculture on Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Fore more detailed information on the California Coastal Prairie, see Laura Cunningham's blog on this imperiled vegetation community.
The former lush bunchgrass prairies along the Pacific coastal mountains in central California, once home to herds of Tule elk, wide-roaming grizzlies, and salmon-filled streams, carefully managed for thousands of years by Miwok and many other tribes, are now mostly grazed instead by herds of cattle. Mediterranean weeds cover the grazed pastures where coastal prairies once grew. Most of the central Coast Range mountains are in private hands and inaccessible to the public. Point Reyes National Seashore is a rare public park established to restore and protect these California plant and animal species and habitats.
Formerly, complex Biological Soil Crusts with living deep soil components interacted with the coastal prairie grasses, for thousands of years. Tule elk lightly grazed these plant communities on their far migrations. These deep-rooted grasslands stored large amounts of carbon. Only in the last 200 years have these native grasslands been fenced and heavy domestic livestock grazing been applied to them, destroying these delicate plant and living soil communities.
Across the Seashore these coastal prairies have been replaced by introduced weedy European annual grasslands due to heavy cattle grazing. The coastal prairies have largely been eliminated except in a few relict areas. Most of the cattle ranch-leases are now converted to weedy annual invasive plants, which do not easily store carbon.
But we can restore the glory of the original Coastal Prairie and herds of Tule elk. Explore this website to learn more!
Fore more detailed information on how cattle grazing impacts native perennial grasslands, and replaces them with weedy annual plants, see Laura Cunningham's blog entry on The No Bullsheet.