When California joined the Union in 1859, the West was considered a place of wide vistas, pristine landscapes, and limitless frontiers. To build a new civilization at the edge of the Pacific, early settlers tamed vast tracts of wilderness. They dammed rivers, diked marshes, put grasslands to the plow, and washed away entire hillsides in search of gold.
Ensuing decades saw towns, farm fields, and roads spring up around the state. By the early 1900s, scientists were bemoaning the loss of natural sites where they could conduct research without human interference. Not even public lands were suitable, because government agencies often sold lands, timber, and mineral resources, while management policies often limited the scope of research.
In the late 1950s, a group of University of California scientists banded together to start a network of natural areas managed specifically for academic use. They were weary of seeing wildlands that had once served as outdoor laboratories get bulldozed to build dorms and rec centers. They needed samples of natural ecosystems where their equipment would remain undisturbed, and they and their students could study plants, observe animals, and measure ecosystems over the long term.
Led by newly-minted UCLA professor Kenneth S. Norris, the effort to establish a network of natural research areas quickly gained support from UC President Clark Kerr. "This is a state with enormous variety; identifying the ecological areas and preserving them forever under University control is something that in the long run will loom as having been of increasing importance over the years," Kerr wrote.
In January 1965, the Regents of the University of California established the Natural Land and Water Reserves System, as the Natural Reserve System was first known. Seven University-owned sites became the system’s first reserves. Today the NRS consists of 39 reserves that include more than 750,000 acres across the state. Its reserves are available not only to students, teachers, and researchers from the University of California, but to qualified users in science, art, the humanities, teaching, and other disciplines. No other university-operated network of field sites in the world can match the size, scope, and ecological diversity of the NRS.