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Volunteers at Burleigh Murray Ranch Are Saving an Ancient Orchard

This week the Park Champions Program launched a pilot project to rescue fruit trees in an orchard at Burleigh H. Murray Ranch outside Half Moon Bay.

More than two dozen volunteers turned out on Tuesday to participate in the Park Champions Program, an initiative by the California State Parks Foundation (CSPF) to help to improve the quality, safety, and preservation of our state parks.  The focus for the day was on a fruit orchard — possibly more than a century old — at the , a state park property in the foothills southeast of Half Moon Bay.

The volunteers were greeted and led by Cathy Moyer, founder and executive director of Volunteers for Outdoor California (V-O-Cal), which has been chosen by CSPF to organize and train volunteers to carry out the Park Champion projects.  V-O-Cal specializes in volunteer work involving large-scale trail maintenance and construction projects, habitat restoration, and related stewardship activities on public lands in partnership with public agencies and other nonprofit organizations.

After donuts, coffee and tea in the parking lot, volunteers hiked a mile up a dirt road to the orchard, where Moyer briefed them on the day’s work and gave them safety tips on the use of various brush-clearing tools.

The task faced by the volunteers was daunting. Thorny berries, stinging nettles, poison oak, poison hemlock, and other weeds and bushes had over grown the orchard. 

According to Joanne Kerbavaz, State Parks Resource Ecologist, the orchard hadn't been cleared since she started working in the San Mateo Coast Sector of the state park system 13 years ago.

Overgrowth had to be removed by hand so that in the next stage of the project, volunteers could evaluate, prune, and care for the fruit trees. The group took on the task with enthusiasm, spreading out along a brush-covered path through the orchard and cutting through the brush to reach the fruit trees.  Even after a break for lunch, when the allotted time for the day’s work had passed, almost all the participants asked to stay on longer and do more.

During the lunch break, volunteers enjoyed a picnic lunch supplied by V-O-Cal and Moyer explained the long-term goals of the Park Champions program.  The program is set up to teach volunteers how to carry out the planning and logistics for park projects in order to take that burden off state parks staff. 

To support the Burleigh Murray restoration project, the program will offer groups of volunteers project planning and management training. Curriculum includes how-tos on planning a volunteer project, working with state parks staff, and crew leader training. Park Champions is looking for people who want to serve as core volunteers to organize  projects.  Volunteers will work in teams so the work won’t fall to just one person. 

After the training, teams of volunteers will take over the project. V-O-Cal will serve as a resource to help with the technical side and answer questions, and CSPF staff will help with communication and outreach. 

A large number of the participants asked to be included in the volunteer training, which will be scheduled at a time convenient for the volunteers. Many were also interested in becoming core volunteers.

More volunteers are welcome. Those interested in restoring the orchard or assessing — and possibly restoring — the historic Burleigh Murray Ranch barn can sign up on the CSPF website or contact Park Champions coordinator Melissa Brett.

The Park Champions Program appears to be an example of the kind of partnerships that can help California State Parks survive and stay healthy despite budget cuts and other constraints.  

“We are pleased to be working with the Foundation [CSPF] on this pilot program, and excited to discover what living history is growing out there at Burleigh Murray," said California State Parks San Mateo Coast Sector Superintendent Paul Keel.

Keel said that the region especially appreciated the help from the Foundation and from volunteers "in a difficult time, when we are looking serious service reductions and park closures in the eye at our state parks.”

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