In-Depth Look: Volunteer Habitat Restoration Project at Rio de Los Angeles State Park | Cal Parks
Published: July 17, 2023

Rio de Los Angeles State Park is a unique urban state park along the Los Angeles River that provides essential habitat to wildlife and recreational opportunities to the surrounding communities. One of the area’s last remaining riparian habitats — an ecosystem between land and a stream or riverbank — this urban gem is a testament to the commitment to preserving and revitalizing efforts of conservationists and volunteers alike. 

Lupines at Rio de Los Angeles State Park, California, USA. 2010. Laurie Avocado, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Nestled in the heart of Los Angeles, Rio de Los Angeles State Park boasts a rich history that sets the stage for its remarkable transformation. The area is home to the Tongva people, part of the Gabrieleño/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, an Indigenous nation of California. By the 20th century, the area became a sprawling railroad complex — known as the Taylor Yard — and played a vital role in the city's development into an industrial superpower. However, the site fell into disuse and neglect as the railroad industry declined in the 1980s.  

Recognizing the potential for revitalization, the state of California acquired the land in 2001 with a vision to restore its natural beauty and create a haven for the community. Abandoned as a brownfield filled with pollutants, concrete railroad lines, and toxic waste, conservation groups alongside California State Parks and California State Parks Foundation worked to restore and protect the area and its sensitive habitats. The park opened in 2007, calling it as we know it now Rio de Los Angeles State Park. 

1900-1930 view from Elysian Park, looking towards the Los Angeles River and location of what is now Rio de Los Angeles State Park and the Metrolink rail yard. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

California State Parks Foundation’s Involvement in the Habitat Restoration of Rio de Los Angeles State Park:

For over a decade, California State Parks Foundation has contributed to the habitat restoration efforts of the park through our Volunteerism Program. At Rio de Los Angeles State Park, volunteers join California State Parks staff and our park partners, Test Plot, Los Angeles River State Park Partners, Theodore Payne Foundation, and the Audubon Center at Debs Park, to restore the park’s riparian habitat. To learn more about the project, we interviewed two of our Volunteer Core Leaders (volunteers who lead workdays), Michael Knue and Brian Hembacher, who help lead the restoration efforts at this park. 

Volunteers planting Coastal live oak at a volunteer workday


What is the riparian habitat restoration project at Rio de Los Angeles State Park? What methods are you using?   

Michael: When I first started volunteering a couple years back, the restoration project had a concerted effort to pull out non-native invasive plants and replace them with native species. Native species we regularly plant include purple sage, California buckwheat, coastal live oak, California sagebrush (a.k.a. Cowboy Cologne), and mule fat! Of course, removing invasive species, digging holes and planting native plants is only the beginning. New plants need to be maintained consistently: mulched, watered, and weeded.  

The goal is not to return it to the landscape it was before Los Angeles burgeoned but instead to provide a place for Los Angelenos and the native wildlife to enjoy open and natural spaces.  

A few native plant species planted during a volunteer workday (Left to Right): mule fat, California buckwheat, and purple sage.


What sort of native wildlife are you working to protect? 

Michael: There are plenty of native and endemic wildlife in the area. However, one of particular importance is the Least Bell's vireo. The Least Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus) is a small migratory songbird that has found a home within the park's diverse habitat. Once on the brink of extinction because of habitat loss and development over the decades, this subspecies of the Bell's vireo has been listed as federally endangered since 1986.  

Since California State Parks and the City of Los Angeles came together to create a park in the old Taylor Railroad Yard, the Least Bell’s vireo has reappeared. By reviving this riparian zone near the river, we hope to encourage this bird to return to the park regularly as it migrates up and down the coast. These urban parks are sanctuaries for this species (and many others), providing vital refuge for wildlife and the community that comes to experience nature close to home.  

Getting a glimpse of these small birds can be elusive. However excitingly, many recent conversations at the park have stopped when hearing their bird song. So, we hope the restoration efforts are working!  


An adult Least Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus).

On Their Experience Volunteering with California State Parks Foundation:

Volunteer Core Leader, Michael Knue, alongside California State Parks Foundation staff at an Earth Day volunteer workday event.

How has volunteering with California State Parks Foundation helped you create a closer connection to Rio de Los Angeles State Park?   

Brian: Since retiring, I have been working as a volunteer with California State Parks Foundation at Rio de Los Angeles State Park and Los Angeles State Historic Park. From this experience, I have become quite emotionally attached to them as I have watched both parks be restored from the ground up. Being able to contribute a small part to the growth of these places and to see the community come to enjoy these spaces for various reasons — such as enjoying nature, playing sports, or just finding a quiet spot in a hectic city — has given me great personal satisfaction.   

Michael: My wife and I are urban people with rural roots. Although we love living in the city, there is an innate need to escape to wilder spaces. We are retired now. We can enjoy spending time devoted to our vacations. Since Los Angeles County provides many places to walk, hike, or bike and see things grow, we often spend several days a week hiking mountains, enjoying the views, plant life, and the critters that cross our path. Being able to spend most of our Monday mornings leading volunteers at Rio de Los Angeles State Park has become a large part of that. 


California State Park staff watering newly planted native plants at Rio de Los Angeles State Park.


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

Michael: What makes this experience unique is doing this “work” with friends, old and new. Together, we learn about nature through the experience of others, getting to know those who value the park as much as we do and the fun chit-chat with a friend that makes the day worthwhile. 

Brian: A California State Parks Foundation workday is all about the people that come to them. The benefits to the park and wildlife that call this place home are a significant bonus. I have yet to work in any context with such an inclusive, welcoming group as the folks that come to workdays. We all work towards a common goal of making their local state park more enjoyable for visitors and helping to restore the land to a more natural and sustainable state. Los Angeles has been known as a park-poor city, but Rio de Los Angeles State Park and the many sister urban state parks nearby have changed that. California State Parks Foundation is a significant part of that evolution. 

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

Brian: One of the best things I have experienced is many volunteers leaving one of our workdays only to ask when the next event will be. Even if we do not see them again, I am confident they are spreading the good news about the park and the fun and meaningful experience we have at every workday event. 

Plus, many young and veteran hands enthusiastically applied themselves to restore and nurture native riparian habits so the vireos could thrive. Joining a volunteer workday event with California State Parks Foundation has fostered a community where first timers can learn from the more experienced. 

Michael: "Giving back" may seem such a cliché at times, but it is another way to make a difference. No matter how small, improving this place that is our home and have giant impacts to our community and to the climate resilience of our state. We hope you all get to experience the joy and importance of volunteering at your local state park.  

Native plant restoration work being demonstrated to new volunteers.

Rio de Los Angeles State Park is a testament to community power and passionate volunteers' dedication. The remarkable efforts of volunteers have given this once-neglected urban oasis a new lease on life, allowing vital species such as the Least Bell's vireo to return. 

There is still much work to be done to restore the park's natural beauty, preserve its historical significance, and create a welcoming space for all to enjoy. As we continue our commitment to restoration and conservation, let's celebrate the remarkable achievements of volunteers at Rio de Los Angeles State Park and be inspired to protect and nurture the treasures of our urban state parks. 

A BIG thank you to Michael Knue and Brian Hembacher for participating in this interview and for their dedicated work with California State Parks Foundation! 


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

During July, we will be hosting 10 volunteer workdays throughout the state (including Rio de Los Angeles 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. 

Volunteer Core Leader, Brian Hembacher (center), posing after a successful volunteer workday at the nearby sister park to Rio de Los Angeles State Park, Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Resources and Sources:

  • 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, getting to know the unique culture and needs of their park, and supporting workdays. If this sort of work interests you, consider becoming a Volunteer Core Leader with us! Learn more here: 

  • Los Angeles State Historic Park Brochure (California State Parks):  

  • Learn more about the Taylor Yard:  

  • Learn more about the riparian habitat around the Los Angeles River: