When California joined the Union in 1859, the West was considered a place of wide vistas, pristine landscapes, and limitless frontiers. To earn a living, settlers dammed rivers, diked marshes, put grasslands to the plow, and washed away entire hillsides in search of gold. Meanwhile, towns, farm fields, and roads sprang up around the state. By the early 1900s, scientists were bemoaning the loss of natural sites where they could conduct research without human interference. Public lands were not 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 for roads and buildings. 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 sites already owned by the University became the system’s first reserves. Today the NRS consists of 41 reserves across the state. These encompass 47,000 acres owned by UC and provide access to millions of acres of public lands. NRS reserves are available to students, teachers, and researchers from the University of California, as well as k–12 classes, and members of the public attending courses, workshops, and events. No other university-operated network of field sites in the world can match the size, scope, and ecological diversity of the NRS.