In-Depth Look: Volunteer Dune Restoration Project at Fort Ord Dunes State Park | Cal Parks
Published: July 5, 2023

July is the start of Volunteer Appreciation Month, a chance to thank the thousands of volunteers who have donated their time protecting and preserving California’s state parks. To celebrate, we are showcasing our volunteer project at Fort Ord Dunes State Park doing critical dune restoration work.  

Fort Ord Dunes State Park is a coastal gem nestled along the picturesque Monterey Bay, California. Home to many endangered species, the park also provides nearly 1,000 acres of dedicated public land and four miles of ocean beach. 

Fort Ord Dunes State Park
The sweeping coastline and sand dunes of Fort Ord Dunes State Park.

The history of Fort Ord Dunes State Park is as interesting as the landscape itself. The area is home to The Rumsen, one of eight groups of the Ohlone, an Indigenous people of California. Purchased by the government in 1917, the area was a bustling military base that served as a training ground for soldiers until 1997. After years of abandonment, the army transferred 979 coastal acres of the 28,000-acre fort to California State Parks in 2009, calling it as we know it now Fort Ord Dunes State Park.  

Due to previous military activity, the park's landscape was left decimated with groundwater and soil contamination, landfill, military munitions, habitat loss, and invasive plants proliferating along the sensitive natural ecosystem. However, since the park first opened, California State Parks, the U.S. Army's Fort Ord Dunes Cleanup initiative, California State Parks Foundation, and many other park lovers has undertaken incredible restoration efforts. The park now stands as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of nature and the importance of dune restoration work.  

Fort Ord Dunes State Park
The Main Garrison in 1942 at Fort Ord. Oralrobert33, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

California State Parks Foundation’s Involvement in the Habitat Restoration of Fort Ord Dunes State Park:

Since 2017, California State Parks Foundation has contributed to the habitat restoration efforts of the park through our Volunteerism Program. At Fort Ord Dunes State Park, volunteers join California State Parks staff to restore the sensitive habitats on and around the coastal sand dunes. To learn more about the project, we interviewed two of our Volunteer Core Leaders (volunteers who lead volunteer workdays), Helen Ogden and Rick McGarrity, who help lead the restoration efforts at this park. 

The main invasive plants at Ford Ord Dunes State Park: (Left to Right) Ice Plant and Black Mustard

What is the dune restoration project at Fort Ord Dunes State Park?  

Helen: Our primary objective at Fort Ord Dunes State Park is to remove invasive plant species, such as ice plant and black mustard, and expand native habitats for endemic and native wildlife.  

Rick: These endangered creatures include the Smith’s blue butterfly, the snowy plover, and the California legless lizard. After removing invasive plants, we will plant native species and cover up social (unofficial and illegal) trails to protect their habitats. 

Protected Wildlife at Fort Ord Dunes State Park: (Left to Right) Smith's blue butterfly, Snowy plover, and California legless lizard.

What sort of native plants and animals are you working to protect? What methods are you using, and what are you protecting them from?  

Helen: Primarily, we aim to protect seacliff wild buckwheat and coastal buckwheat — the host plant for the Smith’s Blue butterfly. By removing invasive plants, we give the native plants room to expand their habitat and support the creatures that depend upon them for survival and speed up recovery.  

Rick: There is also the Monterey spineflower, and so many other native plants that are host species for other native insects. It is an ongoing effort to retain and expand the habitat of these plants and animals because of an increase in visitors to the park. 


Native Plants at Fort Ord Dunes Staet Park: (Left to Right): Seacliff buckwheat, Coastal buckwheat, and Monterey spineflower.

How do these restoration projects help improve the park's climate resilience and the park experience for visitors in the long term, such as protection against invasive species and sea level rise? 

Rick: Helen and I joke that if Fort Ord were left alone, two invasives would duke it out for supremacy: ice plant and mustard — eventually becoming a ‘mono plant’ park. ‘Mono plant’ meaning an area’s native biodiversity is being outcompeted by a few invasive and potentially harmful plant species. Neither ice plant nor black mustard is great for erosion control and wouldn’t sustain native fauna. Without the restoration projects, the park could eventually look like the side of any freeway in California. 

Helen: Appreciation fosters the desire to protect and preserve it. That is why it is essential to improve the native habitat — it gives visitors a chance to appreciate the incredible diversity of plant and animal life in our state parks. Climate change and sea level rise put many habitats at risk, so doing what we can to minimize that risk is our responsibility as good neighbors on the planet we share.

Plus, past initiatives intending to ‘protect’ the dune habitat have been detrimental. Ice plants were introduced to California in the early 1900s to stabilize soil along railroad tracks and freeways. However, it has now become a problem and does not do as good a job of preserving the dune ecology as native plants. 

On Their Experience Volunteering with California State Parks Foundation

Helen and Rick have been volunteering with California State Parks Foundation for five years. We asked them how this work has inspired them and what they would like to pass on to any current and future volunteers to the program. 

Helen helping a volunteer identify Black mustard.

How has volunteering with California State Parks Foundation helped you create a closer connection to Fort Ord Dunes State Park?    

Helen: My prior experience with this lovely landscape was to watch it roll by from my car as I traveled Highway 1. Once I got up close and personal, I was absolutely enchanted by the diversity of flora that inhabits that space and even caught a glimpse of the elusive Smith's blue butterfly! 

Rick: My memory of Fort Ord goes back more years than I care to remember. However, four or five years ago, I returned to the park as a volunteer to pull invasives. For the first time, I saw the natural beauty of the park. Learning about the dunes' biodiversity, clearing areas of invasive plants, replanting, and then watching the fruits of my labor blossom into beautiful native plants and flowers — it’s been an enjoyable journey. 

Rick piling together a massive amount of Black mustard collected during a volunteer workday.

Why is the volunteer experience with California State Parks Foundation unique or special to you?  

Rick: For most of my adult life, I have volunteered for one organization or another in my spare time. Maybe I'm a professional volunteer! However, working at Fort Ord Dunes State Park has allowed me to meet wonderfully talented and exciting people. It's also a great form of exercise for both my body and brain. To note, California State Parks Foundation is one of the best volunteer organizations I have ever associated with! 

Helen: I now have a personal connection to Fort Ord Dunes (and Garrapata State Park) through my volunteer work with the California State Parks Foundation. Those places are my home outside of my house, and their future is very important to me. Plus, as a writer of haiku poetry, the beauty of our state parks is an endless source of inspiration. 

What would you like to tell future volunteers to help encourage them to join in on volunteer workday projects?    

Helen: You will not regret it. I guarantee you will feel greatly rewarded by spending time in our beautiful state parks, and you will feel good about your role in protecting and preserving them for future generations to enjoy. 
Rick: Like many new things, the beginning can be interesting but awkward. Try it and if it holds possibilities, volunteer again. It quickly grew on me as a great place to learn and grow. Which is especially important for a retiree like me! 

A group of volunteers removing invasive plants during a recent volunteer workday.

With its diverse ecosystems, stunning vistas, and rich cultural history, Fort Ord Dunes State Park is a shining example of the successful restoration work that has transformed this once-abandoned military base into a flourishing sanctuary for wildlife and visitors alike.   

Today, visitors can explore the park's scenic trails, soak in breathtaking coastline views, and appreciate the natural landscape thanks to dedicated Volunteer Core Leaders such as Helen and Rick, and the many active volunteers, park staff, and park lovers who spend their time protecting a crucial and unique space like Fort Ord Dunes State Park. We hope you get the chance to visit!  

A BIG thank you to Helen Ogden and Rick McGarrity for participating in this interview and for their years of work with California State Parks Foundation!  

Interested in joining this unique community and celebrating Volunteer Appreciation Month with us?

During July, we will be hosting 10 volunteer workdays throughout the state (including Fort Ord Dunes State Park)! We invite you to join a volunteer workday and make an impact at a state park near you. Go to and sign up today. 

Group photo after a successful Pride in our Parks volunteer workday, celebrating Pride during the month of June!

Resources and Sources

  • Learn more about the Volunteerism Program 

  • What is a Volunteer Core Leader? Our volunteer community consists of dedicated volunteers, Volunteer Core Leaders, California State Parks staff and park partners, and our full-time staff at California State Parks Foundation. However, Volunteer Core Leaders are the secret sauce that keeps the program running. They are ambassadors for our organization, working to develop a rapport with park staff, get to know the unique culture and needs of their park, and support workdays. If this sort of work interests you, consider becoming a Volunteer Core Leader with us! Learn more here: 

  • Fort Ord Dunes State Park Brochure (California State Parks):  


Image Credits

  • Smith’s Blue Butterfly: Smith's Blue on Coastal Buckwheat. Taken by J. Maughn via. Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0. Included in wildlife collage.