Leisure and Learning at the Lagoon

Since 1987 the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy has been engaging and educating the community about the significance of the reserve, thus promoting ecological literacy and environmental responsibility. The conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that currently owns 979 acres within the reserve, provides educational opportunities for residents of the various neighborhoods bordering the San Elijo Lagoon: Solana Beach, Encinitas, and Rancho Santa Fe. Executive Director Doug Gibson shares how far the conservancy has come, as well as what the future holds for its visitors and inhabitants.


Q&A with Doug Gibson, Executive Director of San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy

Tell us about San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy’s mission and history.
San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy is the nonprofit land trust for San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve. The conservancy’s mission since 1987 is to protect and restore the resources of San Elijo Lagoon, its watershed, and related ecosystems for all generations. Our vision is to be a guiding model in the stewardship of wetlands.

Some people may not know that San Elijo Lagoon was saved from being developed back in the early 1970s. Commercial plans would have destroyed this lagoon. The conservancy was founded by community leaders who advocated for the benefits of wetlands – now and for all generations.

What is most rewarding and challenging about being the executive director?
I’m a wetland ecologist. I have been the conservancy’s executive director and principal scientist for the past 19 years. The most challenging aspect may be that the conservancy’s work goes beyond the lagoon’s borders, meaning we conduct scientific monitoring throughout the North County lagoons and watersheds in which we are linked. The most rewarding aspect is that, with our programs for children, we play a big part in creating the next generation of environmental stewards.


What communities does the San Elijo Lagoon border?
The 979-acre San Elijo Lagoon is one of the county’s largest remaining coastal wetlands, located between Solana Beach and Encinitas, and inland to Rancho Santa Fe. There are seven miles of easy to slightly moderate interconnecting trails. The county-operated nature center is open daily and features exhibits about the lagoon’s cultural and natural resources. You can visit www.sanelijo.org/trails to plan your hike. The reserve is managed by San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, County of San Diego Department of Parks & Recreation, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

How can people get involved with the conservancy’s programs?
Every Saturday the conservancy’s naturalists lead guided tours of San Elijo Lagoon. It’s a great way to experience life between the tides – and no visit is ever the same! This summer you can experience free evening walks that capture the night life of San Elijo Lagoon. We also provide summer camps for kids in July that promote children’s connections with nature. More information about all our programs is online at www.sanelijo.org.

What are some exciting new developments or projects?
We are finalizing the construction planning for the lagoon’s restoration. This is a multi-year project that will reshape and contour parts of the wetland in order to influence optimal tidal flow, and add one to two more trails. Restoring a lagoon is complicated and involves a host of agency and community stakeholders at state and national levels who advise the process as it moves forward. We’ll announce an open house soon for our communities and neighbors to learn more. We are also making entertainment plans for the Birds of a Feather gala on Sept. 19. Tickets will soon go on sale. This important benefit raises funds for children in nature.


Does the conservancy need volunteers?
Yes, we cherish our volunteers. Joining Lagoon Platoon community habitat restoration events is a great way to meet others while working together to restore native habitat. Volunteers help to plant native species and remove non-native plants in disturbed areas of the reserve. We also offer an eight-week docent training class each fall to equip aspiring naturalists to lead walks for schoolchildren and visitors.

For those interested, we have an internship program for students in ecology and education career paths.

How does the conservancy help to preserve the lagoon’s resources?
Like rain forests and coral reefs, wetlands are one of the most endangered habitats in the world. More than 90% of Southern California’s wetlands have been lost. Our K-12 school programs incorporate action-oriented conservation skills that encourage students to practice sustainable behaviors and make pledges to reduce, recycle, and conserve water in their communities. Our habitat management program monitors water quality from creeks that connect the lagoon to the ocean. We are funded annually to breach the lagoon’s inlet each spring. Because of the historical railroad bridge, the inlet becomes clogged by sand and cobbles from winter surf. Left closed, the water would become unlivable for fishes, like halibut, that rely on lagoons for nurseries.

We also recently announced a $1.15 million donation by The George & Betty Harbaugh Charitable Foundation. It secures a piece of land once threatened with development, formerly called Gateway Park. We’ve reached 90% of our fundraising goal to complete the land purchase but help is still needed. Once acquired, Harbaugh Seaside Trails will join San Elijo Lagoon.

What are some of the natural resources, plants, and animals that can be encountered at the lagoon?
More than 700 species of plants and animals depend on the lagoon’s diverse habitats. Approximately 40% of all North American bird species have been observed in the lagoon. Some fly over 1,000 miles between their breeding and wintering sites. Here they can breed, rest, and refuel in undisturbed waters rich with crabs and molluscs, fishes, and other invertebrates. Resident birds depend on the lagoon’s resources year-round. The endangered Ridgway’s rail nests in cordgrass, a plant adapted to live both above and below water with varying salt levels.




Executive Director

Name: Doug Gibson
Community: Encinitas
Education: B.S. in Wetlands Ecology from SDSU
Family: Wife – Lauren; daughter – Heather (grade 9); son – Max (grade 7)
Interests: Trail running, skiing, biking, movies, beach, reading
Email: doug@sanelijo.org

San Elijo Conservancy

Name: San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy
Director: Doug Gibson
Email: info@sanelijo.org
Website: www.sanelijo.org
Mission: To protect and restore the resources of San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, its watershed, and related ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations.