Return of the Natives began in 1994 as the brainchild of a small group of Salinas educators who believed that schoolyards should be more beautiful than prisons. These educators saw a trend towards school grounds becoming cold and lifeless spaces, large expanses of asphalt and cement and sought to change that. RON began with a vision of schools that were as vibrant and interesting on the outside as they were on the inside, with opportunities for outdoor learning. Somehow, opportunities for kids to enjoy and play in nature had nearly disappeared.
Around the same time, a small group of scientists from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories began to document changes in the bay. Red tides, invasive species, saltwater intrusion, and pollution were signs that the watersheds that drain into the bay were suffering. As the saying goes, “all water flows downhill” bringing with it pollutants, seeds, and garbage. These scientists knew that the only way to reverse the damage was to travel up into our watersheds, work to restore them, and teach local communities about the importance of watersheds in our daily lives. This was the beginning of the Watershed Institute.
As luck would have it, these two groups of teachers and scientists found each other and decided that they could achieve great things by working together. The Watershed Institute was founded at the new University on the old Fort Ord Army Base. What better place for a new institute devoted to environmental science and education than California State University Monterey Bay?
Teachers, students, and community members participating in the Return of the Natives Project would help the scientists of the Watershed Institute by growing native plants for restoration, learning about local ecology and watersheds, and becoming environmental stewards. Local schools began replacing asphalt landscapes with greenhouses and gardens, teachers started attending workshops on the RON “Cycle of Restoration”, and students got to bring their lovingly grown seedlings to plant in local parks and public lands on restoration field trips.
RON volunteers continue to clean up and restore our creeks, rivers, and streams, improving not only our watersheds and marine sanctuary but quality of life for all who live in the communities across Monterey County. Many of RON’s restoration sites are located within the Bureau of Land Management Fort Ord Public Lands, the Creeks of Salinas, CA State Parks, and Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District lands.