This story is part of NRS reserves transformed by Proposition 84 funds, a series describing the facilities improvements and expansions at NRS reserves supported by Proposition 84 bond funds.
By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
The Quail Ridge peninsula rises from the southern shore of Lake Berryessa like the corrugated carapace of a tortoise. The peaks of its steep hills curve from Highway 128 north to the narrow canyon stoppered by Monticello Dam.
The ridges are so steep, and the views so vertiginous, that real estate marketers in the 1970s touted the area as “the Swiss Alps of California”— never mind the lack of snow. Mountain-themed advertisements lured buyers as far away as Europe, some of whom bought tracts sight unseen.
In the early 1990s, the University of California acquired 80 acres on the peninsula as the nucleus of the UC Natural Reserve System’s Quail Ridge Reserve. Scientists considered the reserve’s remarkable stands of native grasses, and habitats typical of the inner Coast Range, valuable additions to the NRS’s library of ecosystems.
By this time, the peninsula had been subdivided into a patchwork of dozens of parcels. Landholders included government agencies, land trusts, and private individuals.
In the first decade of the Quail Ridge Reserve’s existence, difficult access to the site and lack of facilities greatly restricted research and teaching activities. Then Virginia “Shorty” Boucher was hired as the UC Davis Natural Reserve’s Associate Director in 1999. Her vision was to identify the research potential of the site, solidify access and ownership, and expand facilities to support more and better research.
“It was kind of the Wild West out there. We had to figure out easement issues and build relationships with the other land owners,” says current reserve director Shane Waddell. “We used a lot of lawyer time to establish the university’s rights.”
Expanding the reserve’s footprint, reserve staff realized, would simplify access considerably. Since that time, the University has sought to acquire additional peninsula parcels when they come on the market.
The additions have included more than 1,000 acres from the Quail Ridge Wilderness Conservancy, the land trust established by Frank Maurer and Lenora Timm to preserve the biological richness of the peninsula. Their lifelong passion continues through the conservancy’s establishment of an endowment to support student research experiences at the reserve.
“As we have consolidated ownership, it has gotten easier for us to manage the peninsula as a whole. That includes providing access to researchers and classes, but also weed management, wildfire response and personal safety,” Waddell says.
Acquiring inholdings also supports the mission of the NRS. Adding to the reserve “expands the footprint for research and teaching, and furthers conservation by making continuous wildlife corridors,” he says.
The passage of Prop. 84 by California voters in 2006 enabled the reserve to obtain four more parcels. The ballot initiative gave the UC Natural Reserve System access to $20 million to improve facilities or purchase land, with an equivalent financial investment from the University.
Quail Ridge received two Prop. 84 fund allotments. The first purchased a 120-acre parcel at the northeast border of the reserve. The match came from a California Coastal Conservancy grant to buy a 37-acre site on the reserve’s southern edge.
The smaller parcel included a rare prize: housing. Since the reserve is extremely steep and has unstable soils, building sites are hard to find. Construction is also expensive due to the reserve’s location.
“For us, acquiring an inholding with an existing building was the best way to get facilities, rather than try to build from scratch,” Waddell says.
With a three-bedroom house and a small studio outbuilding, the small parcel could house up to eleven guests. This nearly tripled the reserve’s previous four-bed capacity.
As the acquisition of these two properties was advancing, staff identified another Prop. 84 opportunity. A 10-acre inholding, set in the reserve’s central core and the site of numerous research projects, came up for sale. Located at the bottom of the largest and deepest canyon on the peninsula, it included a pond and level land suitable for outdoor classes. The reserve used the donation of a 40-acre parcel on the southwest corner of the reserve, plus some University funds, as a match. The second set of transactions closed in 2011.
All told, the reserve used $485,000 of NRS Prop. 84 money to purchase four parcels, adding a total of 207 acres to the reserve.
Waddell and his UC Davis NRS colleagues have leveraged the Prop. 84 acquisitions together with other improvements to advance the reserve’s research and teaching potential.
For one thing, it invested in making the long-neglected road system safe. “Research is tough if you can’t get to your work site,” Waddell says.
Reserve staff also installed gates and fences against trespass, and posted required signage across the reserve. “Because of the complex mosaic of federal, state, NGO, and private ownership, we had to install a complicated array of signs reflecting the different rules and prohibitions—not an easy task given the extreme topography and the patchwork of parcels,” Waddell says.
Drawn by the access, safety, and housing improvements, researchers and classes steadily increased their visits to the reserve. The uptick in scientific use convinced the National Science Foundation to fund a wireless mesh network at Quail Ridge. Initially used for computer science research, the network also enabled scientists to transmit environmental data from instruments to reserve headquarters. The network went on to serve as the backbone for an automated animal tracking system, also funded by NSF.
The improvements in cyberinfrastructure and visitor housing attracted still more researchers. These helped persuade a private foundation to support the construction of eight tent cabins with capacity for up to 40 people.
Most recently, the reserve pointed to growing use numbers to obtain NSF funding for a new field station. The former hunting shack has been replaced with a new structure that is not only ADA accessible but has classroom space, a kitchen, and two bathrooms. On a hilltop overlooking Lake Berryessa, the building serves as a jumping off point for researchers and as a destination for classes and campus groups. It serves as the bustling heart of the reserve, which now spans 2,500 acres.
“The development of Quail Ridge has been a ratcheting process, leveraging one project on top of the other to expand and improve facilities for researchers and classes,” Waddell says. “You have to have the essential pieces in place before you take the next step,” Waddell says.
Quail Ridge Reserve was heavily damaged by wildfires in August 2020. The reserve welcomes donations to help the recovery process.