A Secret Too Well Kept: The NRS at 50

Turtle Pond Survey – Blue Oak Ranch (Web)
Researchers gather data in Turtle Pond at the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, one of 39 properties across the University of California’s Natural Reserve System. Photo by Michael Hamilton.

From our coastal waters to the Sierra Nevada, more than half a million acres of land are protected by the University of California for scientific research, education, and public service. This Natural Reserve System is patchworked across 39 properties and provides undisturbed study sites for research that may have worldwide impact. Since these lands aren’t routinely open to the public, many people don’t realize these areas even exist. However, a lot of these reserves are accessible in ways that aren’t well known; they may be entry points for public hiking trails, locations for tours of unique Bay Area habitats, or places where citizen scientists are invited to help collect study data. On this fiftieth anniversary year of the NRS, perhaps an introduction to these sequestered spots is overdue.

Eight NRS parcels are scattered around the Bay Area. Some better known locations may be the wildflower displays at the Jepson Prairie Reserve in northeastern Solano County; Año Nuevo Island Reserve, a key breeding ground for northern elephant seals; or Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, which backs up to public trails on the Putah Creek Wildlife Area next to Lake Berryessa. Other local NRS sites include Bodega Marine Reserve, McLaughlin Natural Reserve, Quail Ridge Reserve, Younger Lagoon Reserve, and the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve in the foothills below the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton.

The reserve system was established in 1965 with seven university-owned properties to preserve “living laboratories,” said Peggy Fiedler, director of the NRS. The need for pristine field sites was championed decades ago by Kenneth Norris, a UC professor of natural history who once lost his Palm Springs desert study site to bulldozers and building development. Norris cofounded the NRS (first named the Natural Land and Water Resources System) with acclaimed UCLA botanist Mildred Mathias and Wilbur Mayhew, a UC Riverside professor of zoology. Since then, the system has grown to encompass 759,000 acres through land donations and partnerships with land trusts or federal and state parks.

“Each reserve has a different ecosystem and a different ‘flavor’ based upon the interests and strengths of reserve manager or research scientists,” Fiedler said.

At the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve in San Jose, director Mike Hamilton is a self-professed technology geek with a doctorate in natural resources, policy, and planning. Since the property was donated to the NRS eight years ago, he’s been “instrumenting up” the 3,259-acre site with sensors, cameras, drones — and, someday, maybe robots — to help scientists monitor everything from soil moisture to mountain lion movements.

“Our mission is to extend our classrooms and laboratories on campus to the natural environment,” Hamilton said.

So far, Hamilton counts more than 150 research projects conducted across the undisturbed terrain at the base of Mount Hamilton. His public outreach efforts include streaming images from real-time cameras mounted around the reserve — at nesting boxes, ponds, and other ranch locations — to a baggage terminal at Mineta San José International Airport. Last year, more than nine million passengers went through that airport. “Maybe one-quarter of them picked up bags at that terminal,” said Hamilton. “Even if 10 percent of those people took a look, we’ve exposed thousands of people to science who would never have set foot on our reserve.”

The camera project officially ended in 2012, but Hamilton is planning to meld all the live feeds into a time-lapse display and return it to the Terminal B baggage claim area.

On a wider property scale, the NRS recently received $1.9 million — its largest single grant ever — to study climate change across 24 of the reserves. A UC Santa Cruz professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Barry Sinervo, is leading the Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts, which includes a network of more than 100 other scientists.

Sinervo called the diverse landscapes and historical records of the California reserves “a treasure” that will enable scientists to collect and analyze long-term data from an entire gradient of ecosystems. With this breadth and depth of information, researchers plan to capture patterns that can help create better models to understand and predict the effects of climate change.

“Climate change is happening now, and it’s happening fast,” Sinervo said. “If we can get people the most scientifically up-to-date perspectives about what’s happening — on our reserves and across California — then they can make better decisions about many of the issues that will come up, be they bills the legislature is trying to pass, or taking other actions.”

Although an application is required to pursue research, or any other activity, on the reserves, that doesn’t mean the land is completely off limits to the general public. Since 2010, the California Phenology Project, in partnership with the National Park Service, regularly brings volunteers out to NRS sites where they measure the status and stages of flowering and fruiting in more than 60 species of plants. This work helps researchers track the effects of climate change. In the aftermath of the recent wildfires, data collected from the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, burned by the Wragg Fire in July, may also help scientists learn how plants recover from catastrophic events.

But scientific research isn’t the only thing that brings people onto the reserves. Many locations host education programs, ranging from wildflower tours for schoolchildren to art classes for adults. At the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, Hamilton is eager to start the Adventure Risk Challenge, a program that blends outdoor adventures with academics to boost leadership and literacy for at-risk high-schoolers. Opportunities to visit other reserves vary by location.

“So much goes on at the reserves and they’ve been a secret too well kept. We’re trying to change that,” said Fiedler. “It’s a rare collection of unique ecosystems and people devoted to them.”

Negotiations are underway to add a fortieth property to the NRS network — perhaps the deal will be closed in time to become a gift that ushers out the fiftieth anniversary year.

Elizabeth Devitt covers open space for the Monitor.