Digging Nature:

ScrippsAssists Volunteers Work to Preserve Torrey Pines Reserve

By Jennifer O’Sullivan

Here I am Saturday morning—lying in bed, sipping coffee, perusing the Union-Tribune—when I realize I’ve got just 20 minutes to get myself into a pair of hiking boots and out to the Torrey Pines State Reserve where the ScrippsAssists volunteers are scheduled to perform their monthly trail maintenance.

For the past seven years, ScrippsAssists, a volunteer club consisting of members from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), Green Hospital, and Scripps Clinic, has been working under the supervision of rangers at the reserve with three general goals in mind, goals which extend to all the group's volunteer projects:

  • To improve the quality of life for the people of San Diego,
  • To demonstrate concern for the community reflective of the three participating organizations' values, and
  • To enhance employee morale by building a sense of teamwork through volunteer service.

Admittedly, "community" and "teamwork" are not words that come to mind as I creep and yawn my way up to the ranger’s station this gray morning. Given the sharp bite in the air (for San Diego, anyway), most of the volunteers have congregated around a lit fireplace inside the ranger's station. On the way in I meet Toni Tishon, scientific associate in the Department of Neuropharmocology and coordinator of the ScrippsAssists trail maintenance project. We are soon joined by Ranger Adam Stahnke and his intern who lead us around to a shed to collect shovels, wheelbarrows, gloves, and a handy implement I’ll later come to know as a MacLeod (a giant hoe with teeth). Soil recovery is the task at hand, a task which we will undertake alongside student volunteers from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Outreach Program.

We walk down to the head of the Guy Fleming trail, named for the first president of the Torrey Pines Association (founded in 1950). Like myself, the UCSD Outreach volunteers have never worked on the reserve before, but the ScrippsAssists folks get off to an impressive start, assessing trail erosion and plotting strategies for water runoff. Fortunately, Adam gathers us greenies for a quick lesson in general soil recovery. The idea is to dig out loose soil from under shrubs lining the trail and to use that soil to fill in gullies, thus creating subtle slopes so that water won’t pool on trails. This practice, referred to as “in-sloping” and "out-sloping," is seen as a better alternative to creating dirt "speed bumps" along the path.

The two essential reasons for soil recovery—preserving the hiking trails and areas beyond and ensuring the safety of those using the reserve—go hand-in-hand. Roots and posts become exposed by weather and people treading by, and begin to pose risks for those who follow. "It’s a job you won’t ever finish," volunteer Kelly Dryden, a research associate in the Yeager lab, tells me as we hoist a wheelbarrow full of soil up and over an exposed wood beam serving as a step foundation. We dump the soil just above the top of the beam for the keeper of the MacLeod to flatten. Kelly has been doing trail maintenance with ScrippsAssists for the past two and a half years and has observed that erosion is mostly due to water in the winter and foot-traffic in the summer, so trail maintenance truly is a year-round job.

Whatever the season, visitors and volunteers alike are invigorated by the ever-changing beauty of the reserve. As a passage from the Torrey Pines Association website puts it: "as the seasons change, the mood is revised and renewed."

It is an ongoing goal of the association to preserve and protect the Torrey pines and their scenic refuge. Toward this end, it issues the following challenge: can the rarest pine tree in the United States continue to coexist with one of the country's fastest growing cities? Judging from the high number of visitors hiking, running, and cycling on the reserve’s trails on a cold and rain-threatened February morning, I’d say this will be highly dependent upon the efforts of ScrippsAssists and their committed counterparts.

A voice calls out from further up the trail, "walkers coming!" We stop digging and lift our shovels upright. Another group passes by and thanks us for the work we’re doing. They move on. Soon I will too, my mood revised, renewed.


ScrippsAssists volunteers regularly maintain the trails at the Torrey Pines State Reserve.
















For more information on a variety of ScrippsAssists volunteer opportunities, go to:

For more information on the Torrey Pines Association, go to: