Meet Ken Owen, Conservationist and Founder of Channel Islands Restoration

At 5-years-old, Ken took his first trip to Catalina Island on a private boat, then explored the other islands on a sailboat built by his father. As an adult, he found himself unfulfilled at a computer software firm that went away with the crash, so he started studying native plants, which completely changed his perspective on the outdoors.

The turning point came when he returned to Santa Cruz Island after many visits, this time with botanist Steve Junak, who introduced him to endemic species, both plants and animals that exist on the Channel Islands and nowhere else in the world. He became involved in habitat restoration as a volunteer, and in 2002, founded Channel Islands Restoration to support future conservation efforts:

We can’t restore the whole world — it’s being degraded faster than we’re restoring it — but we can focus on areas that are particularly special, like the Channel Islands.

In our interview below, Ken sits down with Shoestring Adventures founder Alyx Schwarz to share what makes the Channel Islands so unique, how they are inspiring the next generation of conservationists, and how we can help preserve them for future generations.

Photos by Triptographer Kyle Miyamoto on Santa Cruz Island Backpacking Adventure

Alyx Schwarz: Could you begin by telling us a little about yourself?

Ken Owen: I’m Ken Owen with Channel Islands Restoration, a non-profit organization that does habitat restoration on the Channel Islands and the adjacent mainland, mostly in Ventura and Santa Barbara County, but in Los Angeles County as well. We work closely with the National Park Service implementing conservation actions that would not otherwise get done. I have an eclectic background in non-profit management. I was partner at a computer software firm that went away with the crash. I wasn’t very happy in that role anyways, so I started studying native plants, which led me to habitat restoration. In 2002, a partner and I started volunteering on Santa Cruz Island, which led to me founding the organization, and we’ve been growing ever since.

Alyx: Did you spend a lot of time outdoors when you were growing up?

Ken: My family did a fair amount of camping, and most of my play was outside. In 1968, when I was only 5-years-old, I took my first trip to Catalina Island on a private boat. In 1969, my father built a sailboat, so we did some cruising around the Channel Islands, including my first trip to Santa Cruz Island.

The real cathartic moment came later in life when I started studying native plants. After 20 years of visiting Santa Cruz Island many times, I went back with botanist Steve Junak who started introducing me to endemic species, both plants and animals that exist on the Channel Islands and nowhere else in the world. I became aware of how little people know about the outdoors they are enjoying. During a local hike in the Santa Ynez Mountains, I asked over 20 people if they knew anything about the plants on the trail. Only one could answer.

I became educated about plants by taking classes at community college and Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, where I learned from some really top notch botanists, who eventually encouraged me to start CIR. It completely changed my perspective on the outdoors.

I stop, I experience, I feel, I smell, I touch, I identify, I observe. It’s a totally different experience from anybody else who is rushing by me to bag a peak. I am much slower because I’m experiencing everything along the way.

Alyx: What does a typical day “in the office” look like for you as Executive Director of CIR?

Ken: Like many who work in the natural sciences, I started in the field and worked myself into a desk job, a necessary consequence of running an organization. My job involves lots and lots of emails and presentations. I do fundraising, publicity PR, staff supervision and a lot of restoration planning. It’s pretty ho-hum boring administrative work in many ways, but it gives me the freedom to say to my employees, “It’s time for you to get out of the office.” For instance, I took one of my desk-bound employees to Santa Cruz Island to volunteer for the University of California, which has a field station in the Central Valley. When we started CIR, we worked there at least twice a month, for several days at a time. I enjoyed going back after several years to experience my old haunts.

Alyx: What challenges are the Channel Islands up against?

Ken: Two major challenges for the islands are the introduction of invasive species and recovery from past land use practices. Every one of the 8 Channel Islands, even the one that’s 1-square mile in size, has had sheep on it at one time or another. The introduction of livestock can drastically change or completely devastate the ecology of an island.

Even though Channels Islands National Park, The Nature Conservancy, and the Navy, who own and manage seven of the eight Channel Islands, have done a spectacular job removing most non-native animals, we still have problems with the introduction of non-native plants. For example, a plant is brought over from Europe, deliberately or accidentally. Since the predator that used to keep that species under control is not present on the island, nothing can stop it from reproducing at a tremendous rate. Despite great efforts by the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy to control the growth of fennel on Santa Cruz Island, it has taken over some areas and degraded habitat for native animals.

Habitat restoration involves bringing back native plants by removing invasive species and replanting damaged areas.

Alyx: Can you give us an example of a native plant that reappeared after the removal of an invasive species?

Ken: The most dramatic example of this on Santa Cruz Island is a plant called the Santa Cruz Island silver lotus. It was almost listed as an endangered species because it was hardly found anywhere when sheep were on the island. Once the sheep were removed, populations of this plant exploded.

Another example is an endangered plant called sea-cliff bedstraw, which grows only on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. We did a project where one of the populations of this bedstraw was being choked out by a very common plant called periwinkle, which forms a mat. Once the mat was removed, the bedstraw seeds had access to light and rain. Seedlings began to pop up, and the population multiplied from 100 to 600+ plants.

Alyx: How can we help? What kind of support do you need as an organization?

Ken: As a non-profit organization, we can always use support. You can sign up to volunteer on our website. If you are not fit to pull weeds or want to support us additionally, you can join as a supporting member by making donations at various levels. While we are blessed to have many thousands of volunteers to do these projects at a very low cost, we still need a staff to coordinate, transport, train and supervise volunteers. Grants won’t pay for everything, like liability insurance, which is required for all projects.

Alyx: Can you tell us about your experience introducing kids to the Channel Islands and conservation?

Ken: With funding by grants, we’ve taken approximately 2,300 kids out to the islands on service field trips, mostly 4th and 5th graders from low-income school districts, who have probably never been on a boat or visited a national park. We raise money to pay the staff to organize the trips and provide transportation via bus and boat. They get to visit the island and do a service project.

For instance, we took hundreds of kids to Anacapa Island, one of the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, to remove an invasive species called ice plant.

My theory is that kids love to pull up plants and would do so in their mothers’ gardens if they were allowed to. We not only allow them to pull plants, we actually encourage it, so they have great time.

My first trip to Anacapa Island was in 6th grade, so I’m really glad that we’re able to take kids out about that same age.

Alyx: How have the Channel Islands influenced your passions for photography and videography? What inspired CIR.TV?

Ken: The CIR.TV domain is a work in progress, but we’re very interested in featuring CIR, as well as other conservation organizations in the much larger area, and working our way up to the Jane Goodall’s of the world, so that people who know nothing about habitat restoration or native plants — those same folks that I met on the trail — can see the islands and our beautiful mainland in the way that I do, the way that I didn’t in the past, but learned to see.

We’ve been recording video for years to share our work, but I recently bought a professional video camera to document a scientific expedition to the Revillagigedo Islands, located 250-miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, with a multidisciplinary group of conservationists, including botanists, marine mammal researchers, geologists, entomologists and herpetologists. I’m hoping to edit that footage into a documentary highlighting the important work being done. I think this would be perfect for CIR.TV to demonstrate that conservation is not all gloom and doom, climate change and what we’ve done to destroy things, but also how people can get involved. A lot of folks on the expedition were not scientists.

I would love for CIR.TV to be a one stop shop for videos on habitat, to answer questions like, “What is habitat restoration?” and “Why are invasive species a problem?” Our first film will likely feature CIR board member and famous geologist Tanya Atwater on the geological history of Southern California. I also want to inspire the next generation of ecologists by documenting young people working in nature, so other young people can see how fun it can be.

Alyx: What are your hopes and dreams for the future of the Channel Islands and CIR?

Ken: The Channel Islands are making a remarkable recovery thanks to many different organizations and dedicated people. There is also major conservation work happening on the islands off of Mexico. We have all formed a cooperative group called Californias Botanical Collaborative to pool our knowledge, and my hope is that this collaborative spirit continues.

We’re forever looking for ways to do more work in more places. There’s nothing more satisfying than going to restoration sites that we worked on 10-years ago and seeing that they’re still beautiful. Then I look across the street to a place that could be just as beautiful, but it’s overgrown with invasive species, and no one has funding to restore it. We can’t restore the whole world — it’s being degraded faster than we’re restoring it — but we can focus on areas that are particularly special, like the Channel Islands.

I would like to see more conservationists come along. That’s why I love teaching kids about conservation work.

I mention to people who are not happy in their jobs that you can change. I did it in my late 30’s, and now I run a non-profit that does really good work. We need more of the same.

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