Celebrating Paul Heiple: A True “Weed Warrior”

It’s a warm summer morning at Arastradero Preserve in the foothills of Palo Alto. As the birds sing their morning songs and the coyotes drift off to sleep, volunteers begin to arrive. Today, like many days before it, will be spent wandering the preserve’s golden hillsides in search of yellow starthistle–an aggressive invasive plant. Hundreds of people have assisted in Grassroots Ecology’s hard-fought battle against yellow starthistle over the years, and most of them will not soon forget its fearless leader.

Paul Heiple arrives ready for action. He knows Arastradero like the back of his hand, especially all the spots that yellow star (and most of the preserve’s invasive species) like to hide. Leading the volunteers off-trail, Paul is the first to spot an exemplary specimen: soft bluish stems, round yellow flowers, and menacing spines. The plant can actually be difficult to find in some places at Arastradero these days–thanks largely to Paul and his incredible dedication.

Paul Heiple is a champion of restoring local ecosystems. For over 20 years, he’s been building a legacy of stewardship by educating others about the natural world, and, well … pulling lots of weeds. This month, we are celebrating his retirement from Grassroots Ecology.

Paul weeding the floodplain at Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills

Paul weeding the floodplain at Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills

Spending most of his professional career as a petroleum geologist, Paul learned that he could identify rock formations by observing the plants that grew on a given landscape. Wherever he has lived, Paul has become an expert on the local plants and wildlife. He retired from geology in 1999 and has had an impressive “second career” in habitat restoration. He has dedicated thousands of hours to improving the ecology of the Peninsula.

For over 20 years, Paul has been volunteering with Friends of Edgewood Preserve, leading groups to remove invasive species from the park and dramatically improving the native plant and wildflower communities. In 2008, Paul joined Grassroots Ecology as the staff botanist, where he has managed volunteers in habitat restoration workdays, led nature hikes, and taught classes to students of all ages.

Paul has been instrumental in several of Grassroots Ecology’s on-going volunteer programs, including Weed Warriors at Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto, and Byrne Brigade at Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills. Thanks to his efforts, Arastradero has seen a marked decline in yellow starthistle, among many other invasive species, with total eradication in some areas. He played a crucial role in revegetating Mayfly Creek, as well as a project that caged and protected over 500 oak tree saplings at Arastradero. He also initiated our annual medusahead removal project, now in its 8th consecutive year.

Leading a hike at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto

Leading a hike at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto

Paul’s most valuable contribution, though, has been the wealth of his knowledge and his passion for sharing it. Our entire staff sees Paul as a resource and mentor, and many credit him with teaching them all they know about restoration ecology. His expertise has been essential in planning revegetation efforts, developing weed management strategies, and engaging the community in our work. There aren’t many naturalist questions that Paul can’t answer. The phrase “walking encyclopedia” is often used to describe him. In fact, we frequently hold “Ask Paul” sessions during our monthly staff meetings.

Paul is also committed to developing the next generation of environmental leaders. He is a natural and dedicated teacher, and has been an amazing resource for field trips, hikes and lectures (see photos below). He is someone who is able to connect with youth, even those who may not seem interested at first glance, with his arsenal of fascinating nature facts and his infectious enthusiasm. He has led interpretive hikes for all ages at many of our sites, and has imparted his knowledge of geology, insects, and plants to cohorts of our College Interns, California Naturalists, and High School Stewards.

Paul has also contributed his knowledge and expertise as chair of the Portola Valley Conservation Committee, co-chair of the San Mateo County Weed Management Area, treasurer of the California Native Plant Society Santa Clara Valley Chapter, and as an associate at Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. He is active with the California Invasive Plant Council, and mentors local Boy Scout troops.

Paul officially retired on August 9th, the day of his 70th birthday. He looks forward to spending even more time with his family, including his new granddaughter, Phoebe. He will be dearly missed by all of us at Grassroots Ecology, but his love of nature and commitment to local ecosystems will undoubtedly continue. Keep an eye out–you just might see him leading a hike or digging up a pesky weed in your local park.