A match made in stewardship: California Naturalists and UC Natural Reserves

California Naturalists
UC’s California Naturalists program trains members of the public to be environmental stewards. Many courses are hosted at NRS reserves, such as this one at Sagehen Creek Field Station Image: Courtesy UC Environmental Stewards Program

By Greg Ira and Helen Doyle, UC Environmental Stewards Program

People like places they can call their own. It’s not about ownership, but about a personal connection. Whether a beach, a local park, an empty lot, or a redwood grove, people build relationships with places just as they would with another person. The more people visit and learn about a place, the stronger their connection and sense of responsibility to it.

The University of California administers an adult education program specifically designed to deepen people’s relationship with place and the environment. Through natural history lessons, field experiences, and a capstone project, the California Naturalist Certification Course cultivates environmental stewardship—a sense of interdependence, reciprocity, and respect between students and nature.

California Naturalists
Lectures such as this one held at the NRS’s Sagehen Creek Field Station are a key part of the California Naturalists curriculum. Image: Courtesy UC Environmental Stewards Program

Training Docents and Citizen Science Volunteers

Built around a UC-designed curriculum on California’s natural history, each UC California Naturalist Certification Course involves over 40 hours of learning and service spread out over 10 weeks. In addition to reading assignments, field experiences, and presentations by experts, every class participates in a community science project. These may range from a local bioblitz to water quality monitoring to phenology monitoring. Students learn established research protocols, collect data useful to science, and gain data analysis skills. The capstone or stewardship project combines what has been learned into an environmental or community service project. Course graduates often make excellent natural area docents or citizen science volunteers.

The courses are led by a network of local organizations that share a mission of public education and environmental service. The 65 local California Naturalist partner organizations have conducted 422 courses and trained over 7,600 participants who in turn have gone on to volunteer over 240,000 hours of service across the state.

It’s no wonder, then, that the UC Natural Reserve System and the California Naturalist Course are close partners, working together to host programs, offer students opportunities to participate in research, practice techniques in restoration, and more.

California Naturalists
California Naturalists often aid reserves with projects as part of their training. Here, students lend a hand with trail maintenance at the NRS’s Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. Image: Courtesy UC Environmental Stewards Program

Stewardship at Stebbins Cold Canyon

The Wild Davis California Naturalist course at UC Davis, led by Evolution and Ecology assistant professor Laci Gerhart, exemplifies a relationship built around service to the Reserve. Soon after Gerhart started offering the Wild Davis course for California Naturalist certification, she saw an opportunity to build a relationship with the Stebbins Reserve after it was burned by the LNU fire complex in 2020. The fire caused heavy damage to reserve trails and desperately needed volunteers. These days, Gerhart says, “all students’ capstone projects are in service to the reserve.”

“After class ended last August, I connected with Joseph Belli at Pinnacles. He trained me to do telemetry, and I’ve been tracking condors and doing outreach/education two Fridays a month ever since. It’s one of the highlights of my life, and I wouldn’t have made that connection without CalNat.

Tara Johnson, California Naturalist, 2022

One example has been the creation of an AI-trained program to sort and identify camera trap images. “This project could have system-wide applications for wildlife monitoring across the reserve system,” says Reserve Manager Paul Havemann. Havemann now maintains a long list of potential capstone projects for each new student cohort to choose from.

Gerhart and Havemann agree that this collaboration benefits both students and the reserve. “With each group of students, we’re testing protocols and figuring out which parts work. This is a great way to work out the kinks before implementing something more broadly,” Gerhart says.

 “We’re all guilty of getting into tunnel vision with respect to our perspectives on management practices and research plans. Laci’s students and their projects provide a fantastic opportunity for crowdsourcing new perspectives and ideas…and for getting some of the work done,” Havemann says. In addition to the camera trap program, students have contributed to interpretation signage, trail maintenance, and data collection to help the Reserve formulate monitoring programs that integrate CalNat students’ community science efforts.

California Naturalists
Members of the California Conservation Corps on a California Naturalist course field trip to the NRS’s Norris Rancho Marino Reserve. Image: Courtesy UC Environmental Stewards Program

Coastal insights at Norris Rancho Marino Reserve

One of the longest running California Naturalist courses is held at Camp Ocean Pines on the Central Coast. The NRS’s Norris Rancho Marino Reserve is located literally next door. Instructor Chris Cameron invariably brings students to the reserve on a daylong field trip to explore habitats ranging from rocky tidepools to the Monterey pine forest. Course participants also learn about the mission of the Natural Reserve System and some of the ongoing research being conducted on site.

Reserve director Keith Seydel feels their presence sparks many ideas. “Having different eyes on our property allows us to see new opportunities for research and management practices,” he says.

In our immersive week-long course, we had a wonderful time learning about and experiencing nature first hand. The creek was overflowing as the snow melted, wild flowers were blooming, a pair of American Dippers were nesting along the creek—it was all amazing.

Amelia Black, California Naturalist Sagehen Creek Field Station Course, 2023

During their intensive week-long course, most students don’t have time to complete their capstone project on site or contribute directly to reserve maintenance or research. Yet Seydel remembers one happy exception to this rule. “After seeing our gray whale bones scattered by cattle that had broken through a fence, one group of California Naturalists was motivated to put the skeleton back together for their capstone project.”

Seydel says that the strong partnership he has with Cameron strengthens reserve ties with the surrounding community. “Our capacity for public outreach is limited. Teaching and collaborating with the California Naturalist program gives us a great opportunity to engage with many locals, as well as with participants from outside the area.”

California Naturalists
Reserve scientists enrich California Naturalist courses by introducing participants to their research. Here, stream scientist David Herbst shows students aquatic invertebrates at the NRS’s Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory. Image: Courtesy UC Environmental Stewards Program

A deep dive into Sagehen Creek Field Station

For students seeking a more immersive experience, the NRS’s Sagehen Creek Field Station has offered a weeklong residential California Naturalist course at its Sierra Nevada site for multiple years. Ash Zemenick, until recently the manager of the reserve, has used the course’s existing curriculum as a foundation, and customized components to make the most of reserve features. This process helps ensure that course content and delivery is locally and culturally relevant and fits with the mission and priorities of the local host partner.

Zemenick also expanded the pool of instructors with experts from local organizations and UC campuses. “When I took on the course leadership, we decided to invite different local and university instructors to present lectures and hands-on activities in their areas of expertise,” Zemenick says. Some teach at the reserve while others draw the students to nearby locations.

“The CalNat course helps with all three of our goals—research, education, and outreach—but particularly with outreach to our local community, to pull them in as naturalists and to enjoy the land,” Zemenick says.

About half the participants in the most recent Sagehen course have been locals, with others coming from other places around the state. “People love the Sierra and jump at the opportunity to experience and learn about local habitats firsthand,” Zemenick says. Participants also contribute to the site’s longstanding iNaturalist biodiversity monitoring project that currently includes more than 17,000 observations of more than 1,500 species by over 500 observers.

California Naturalists
A California Naturalists course assists with a habitat restoration project at the NRS’s Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory. Image: Courtesy UC Environmental Stewards Program

These are just three examples of collaboration between these two distinct but complementary programs. California Naturalist courses have also been led at other NRS reserves, including Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve and Yosemite Field Station. New opportunities for collaboration are being explored at sites including Bodega Marine Reserve. Across the state, California Naturalists have donated over 240,000 hours of volunteer service since 2018, worth over $6 million. Environmental stewardship requires both stewards and environments, and these two UC programs bring these ingredients together for the benefit of all Californians.

For more information on California Naturalist courses, contact Greg Ira, Director, UC Environmental Stewards program, or visit our map of partner sites (https://calnat.ucanr.edu/Take_a_class/).

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