Building respect for science

Q&A with Heather Henter, UC San Diego Natural Reserve System

By Emily Loui and Mario Aguilera

UC San Diego Reserves
Heather Henter is academic coordinator of the four UC San Diego Natural Reserves. Image: Kathleen M. Wong

Tell us about the UC Natural Reserve System and your role at UC San Diego.

The UC Natural Reserve System (NRS) is a network of 39 (soon to be 40) largely undisturbed properties across the state, set aside to fulfill the mission of the UC: education, research and public service. We are different from state/national parks or other wild lands because we are part of a university, thus research and education are a focus. These sites are living laboratories for researchers and classrooms without walls for students. And because we are a system, we can address important topics like climate change ecosystem-wide. The network includes most habitats in the state, from coast to desert to alpine.

UC San Diego Reserves
Scripps Coastal Reserve includes the top of the bluffs as well as nearshore waters off La Jolla. Image: Kathleen M. Wong

Every UC campus manages a share of these 39 properties. Here at UC San Diego we manage four reserves. Dawson Los Monos Canyon Reserve in Vista contains one of the last intact riparian forests in northern San Diego County. Elliott Chaparral Reserve is adjacent to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the UC Elliott Field Station, and thus is part of a large expanse of undeveloped land that supports species sensitive to habitat fragmentation, such as mountain lions. Kendall Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve protects the last intact estuary in Mission Bay, which at one time was entirely surrounded by marshes. The Scripps Coastal Reserve is the reserve most people are familiar with. Also called “the cliffs” or “the knoll,” it‘s a short walk from campus and includes the mesa in the La Jolla Farms neighborhood, the intertidal area north of the Scripps Pier, and the submarine Scripps Canyon. Three of these reserves, Dawson, Kendall Frost and Scripps, were part of the seven founding reserves of the system, which was created in 1965.

The headquarters of the UC NRS is in the UC Office of the President. Here in San Diego we have three part-time staff. Isabelle Kay serves as the manager of all four San Diego reserves, Larry Cozzens is the reserve steward, and I coordinate undergraduate education programs.

UC San Diego Reserves
Spring wildflowers at Elliot Chaparral Reserve. Image: Lobsang Wangdu

Why is the UC Natural Reserve System important?

The UC NRS is the largest university-run reserve system in the world. The properties cover more than 750,000 acres, and from 2011-2014 had over 110,000 users, 862 peer reviewed research publications, and $454 million in grant funding. Because our reserves here in San Diego are accessible, they get a tremendous amount of use by students. In the last academic year, more than 4,000 UC San Diego undergraduates (15%) visited a reserve as part of their coursework. Most of these students were in the Division of Biological Sciences. 

How do they impact the average person?

Natural habitats provide “ecosystem services,” or fundamental services that benefit humankind. Let’s use one reserve, Kendall Frost Marsh, as an example. Kendall Frost is an estuary, a place where rivers (fresh water) meet the sea (salt water). Estuaries are some of the most productive, and threatened, habitats in the world. But estuaries provide services that we could not live without. 

UC San Diego Reserves
Students doing wetland research at Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve. Image: courtesy Heather Henter

For example, Kendall Frost Marsh helps keep the water clean in Mission Bay. Over a large area of San Diego water, from rain or irrigation, drains into Rose and Tecolote Creeks and ultimately into the marsh. The rich plant and microbial community in the marsh filter out herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals and excess sediments that would otherwise end up in our swimming beaches and fishing spots. The marsh also provides flood control services. The mud and organic matter act like a sponge to absorb excess water during storms. Both water filtration and flood control are particularly important in a highly developed area like Pacific Beach. The productive plant life in the marsh takes up CO2, a powerful greenhouse gas, and produce O2. The microorganisms recycle nutrients. The protected waters of the marsh serve as nurseries for many animals, including economically important fish species. If we had to pay for these services the price tag would be enormous. 

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

UC San Diego Reserves
Dawson Los Monos Canyon Reserve protects the watershed of Agua Hedionda Creek. Image: Lobsang Wangdu

I work mostly with undergraduate students at UC San Diego, and many of them have not had many opportunities to experience nature or to experience ecology as a hard science. So I love taking students to the reserves and listening to the giggles as they get covered in mud at Kendall Frost, hearing them debate the best way to set up a transect or hear their pride when they have used DNA data to add a new spider species to a professional database. As a mother with two kids in college myself, my absolute favorite moments are when I overhear students say, “I told my mom abut the experiment we did at the reserve…”  If something we do in class makes enough of an impression to tell mom, I have succeeded as an educator. 

How can alumni get involved with the UC Natural Reserve System? What could alumni do to change the way they live to impact the NRS?

UC San Diego Reserves
Tidepools at Scripps Coastal Reserve shelter species such as the giant green anemone and sea hare.

All of the reserves are protected, but the neighboring lands may not be, and these neighboring lands have a big impact on the success of our reserves as sanctuary for wildlife. At Kendall Frost Marsh, the city of San Diego is currently going through a planning process to decide the future fate of surrounding areas. A great way for local San Diego alums to make an impact would be to join the Re-wild Mission Bay campaign run by UC San Diego alum Rebecca Schwartz. 

And vote. Vote for leaders that respect science and understand the peril that lies ahead if we ignore climate change.

What are your thoughts on the future of the NRS?

UC San Diego Reserves
Sycamores line the banks of Agua Hedionda Creek at Dawson Los Monos Canyon Reserve. Image: Kathleen M. Wong

All across the country American citizens organized “March for Science” events on Earth Day this year. The fact that we have to hold demonstrations to encourage our leaders to respect science is frustrating at best and very frightening at worst. As an educator, the only thing I can think to do is to redouble my efforts to educate people—students, citizens, kids—about science. And the Natural Reserves are great places to do that because people can get involved. They can watch once-endangered peregrine falcons flying over Scripps Coastal Reserve, they can plant natives in the restoration area above Kendall Frost Marsh, and with our nascent docent program they will soon be able to participate in citizen science projects at Dawson Los Monos Reserve. I think that participating in science will lead to respect for science. So my answer is that in the future the UC NRS will be more important than ever both as refuge for wildlife and as a space for people to experience the wonder and awe of nature and re-gain their respect for what we can learn from the natural world.

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