The Value of Natural Reserves and Field Stations
In 1831, a young British naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin sailed to the New World on the research vessel HMS Beagle. Along the way, the ship put in at both mainland South America and the Galápagos Islands, landforms separated by over 1,000 kilometers of open ocean. The result of this famous journey was the theory of evolution—the foundation upon which modern biology, medicine, and ecology are built.
Darwin’s revolutionary ideas were based on direct observations of the natural world. By studying species in contrasting natural environments, he was able to see how isolation can lead to adaptation and changes in species over time.
Scenes from the NRS’s Angelo Coast Range Reserve, Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve, and Hastings Natural History Reservation feature prominently in a National Academy of Sciences video on field stations.
Darwin could make his firsthand observations in South America because he was aboard the Beagle. The Beagle not only carried Darwin to far-flung locales, but also provided him with a place to sleep, a supply of food and water, storage for his nets, traps, and specimens, and a society with which to discuss his findings and share his experiences. In other words, the Beagle served as a mobile field station enabling Darwin’s scientific research.
Today, scientists rely on field stations to access natural environments around the world, from the chilly Antarctic to the rainforests of Costa Rica to the peaks of California’s White Mountains.
Now, a new report on the value of natural reserves, field stations, and marine labs has been issued by the National Academy of Sciences. It finds that, like the Beagle, these institutions are instrumental to advancing research, innovation, and education. The value of these facilities has only increased in the current era of rapid environmental change. The growing human footprint, major losses in biodiversity, shifts in climate, and other problems threaten not only ecosystems but also world economies and human health.
"The report is extremely relevant to the Natural Reserve System," says director Peggy Fiedler. "It validates many of our current practices but also includes a number of cogent recommendations on how to keep the NRS thriving into the future."
The twelve-person committee charged with producing the report included two longstanding participants in the NRS, Mary Power, Professor of Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley and faculty director of the NRS’s Angelo Coast Range Reserve, and Mark Stromberg, director of the NRS’s Hastings Natural History Reservation from 1988-2011.
Contributing to Science and Society
Field stations monitor environmental shifts taking place around the globe. Their findings will enable humanity to adapt to emerging and unprecedented environmental conditions. They also serve as repositories of long-term observations that gain value over time. More multidisciplinary research that includes the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts is needed to foster “convergence” innovation and address global challenges.
NRS reserves have been collecting data on climate, species, land use, human cultures, and a wide range of other environmental data for more than 50 years (several were in operation prior to the founding of the NRS). The NRS has always hosted writers and artists alongside scientists, and currently supports artist-in-residency programs such as Arts2NRS. Many multidisciplinary studies take place at reserves, such as the Eel River Critical Zone Observatory based at Angelo Coast Range Reserve, which includes climate modelers, atmospheric chemists, geologists, plant physiologists, hydrologists who are tracking how water moves through the environment; and a group of geographers, anthropologists, biologists, and others who have tracked 20,000 years of ecological change on California’s Channel Islands.
Preparing the Next Generation of Scientists
Field stations offer rich and appealing opportunities for active learning. They have proven extremely effective at recruiting a diversity of students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, which are closely linked with innovation and economic growth. Field stations encourage persistence in STEM careers. By enabling visitors to experience both science and the natural world first-hand field stations provide natural venues for integrating research into public outreach and learning opportunities.
Thousands of students at every educational level, from kindergarten to postgraduate fellows, visit NRS reserves each year. More than 150 UC courses, on topics ranging from ecology to geology to painting to archeology, include teaching trips to reserves. Leaders at nearly every environmental agency in the West have trained and conducted research at NRS reserves. Younger learners are well represented at reserves, too. One longstanding program at the NRS’s Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve supports field trips to the reserve for all K-12 schoolchildren enrolled in Mammoth Lakes public schools; and more than 3,000 K-12 from Los Angeles County visit the NRS’s Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve each year. Because NRS reserves are often located in regions with few science museums and little UC representation, they provide rare glimpses of STEM careers in rural communities.
Empowerment through Outreach
Public understanding and participation in science increases human connectedness to the natural world, empowering citizen decision-making and involvement in public policy. Field stations should continue to offer public programs such as lectures and nature walks that make the most of their assets and natural features. Citizen-science programs are particularly effective at engaging the public in scientific issues while informing current research. The latest electronic technology interfaces can spark additional public interest in citizen-science programs.
Nearly half of NRS reserves conduct tours, offer lecture series, hold open houses, lead nature walks, and participate in community events such as fairs to inform neighbors of their activities and improve public understanding of science (other reserves are often too remote or have insufficient facilities to host events). Events capitalize on access to UC faculty and leading researchers, as well as opportunities to understand local ecology. Citizen-science efforts at NRS reserves include participation in the California Phenology Project, which tracks events in the life cycles of specific plants in eight NRS reserves and seven national parks, and the use of apps such as iNaturalist, an online field guide powered by public observations and participation.
Networking for Discovery and Innovation
Stronger affiliations could enable field stations to leverage resources, advance discoveries, and provide information across large geographic scales. Networks attract more social and intellectual capital, and are capable of tackling major scientific questions. Networking helps field stations share best practices, protocols, and responsibilities for data storage. The National Science Foundation should encourage field station networking by giving preference to proposals linking multiple field stations.
The report cited the NRS as a prime example of a field station network. The NRS systemwide office helps reserves operate in a coordinated fashion, leverage services such as environmental law expertise, maintain a data repository, establish instrument networks such as those used for climate monitoring, and make the most of existing resources. NRS staff gather for an annual meeting to discuss problems and ongoing initiatives, and share best practices for land management and other responsibilities via an email listserve and an internet-based discussion forum. Partnerships between the NRS and entities such as California State Parks, the National Park Service, and The Nature Conservancy, as well as a nascent international sister reserve program, extend the influence of the NRS even further. The NRS also participates in large-scale research efforts such as the Long-Term Ecological Research Network (LTER), which conducts research on ecological issues that can last decades and span huge geographical areas.
Modern Infrastructure for a Networked World
Internet connectivity and cyberinfrastructure tend to be neglected and underdeveloped at field stations. These services facilitate the incorporation of “dark data” (information not indexed or stored in a manner accessible to the scientific community) into databases and improve conditions for discovery. Installation, repair, upgrades, and technical support for these services should be included in all field station management plans.
While most NRS reserves have electricity, often provided by off-the-grid solar, and internet service, reserves sometimes piggyback service from nearby facilities, and connectivity speeds and data transmission capacity vary tremendously. Internet capacity problems limit student and researcher access to reference and other materials, and inhibit the transmission of raw data for tracking species movements or weather conditions. The NRS has been working with data experts at the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis of UC Santa Barbara, among others to discover, assess, and bring to light dark data stored in boxes and notebooks at reserves, but additional resources are needed to ensure that no valuable and historic data is lost.
Financial Security for a Modern Infrastructure
Aging infrastructure, the need for advanced technology, and evolving safety regulations are increasing financial demands on field stations striving to meet emerging challenges. Business plans that incorporate projected upgrading and maintenance costs are needed for reserves to attain financial sustainability. Field station leaders should have business and entrepreneurial skills in addition to scientific knowledge, and host institutions should provide mentoring in management, business planning, and fundraising.
Facility conditions vary tremendously across NRS, the result of historically inequitable funding models and a wide range of business plans. Most reserve managers have formidable academic and scientific credentials but far less experience in business and fundraising. Reserve funding by campuses has not generally taken into account the need to upgrade facilities and bring often-decrepit structures up to habitable standards. Problems such as leaking roofs, dry wells, and washed-out roads are dealt with as emergencies and not accounted for in reserve budgets. The NRS is in the final stages of a strategic planning process to assess the organizational structure, functions, strengths, financial requirements, and other needs of reserves in order to better serve the University and the people of California.
Measuring Performance and Impact
Field station effectiveness must be measured in order to document success. Numbers of visitors, archived data sets, grants awarded, and students educated at field stations must be developed and tracked. Usage data is critical to justify continued field station operations. When research based at field stations is published, the field stations should be credited in a manner recognizable to search engines. A common way to measure performance and impact should be developed for field stations across the nation and world.
The NRS is a leader in tracking metrics of reserve use and utility. The NAS report points to the NRS’s Reserve Access Management System (RAMS) as a model for tracking reserve metrics. A centralized data collection system, RAMS stores project information, usage days, grant awards applied, types of users (faculty, classes, K-12 schoolchildren, etc.), research papers published, and other reserve use information. These statistics show that, for example, more than 680 papers, book chapters, and books based on or about work at reserves were published between 2010 and 2012, and that 31,500 people spent 94,100 days at reserves between 2011 and 2012.
“This appraisal shines a spotlight on both the achievements and the hurdles facing natural reserves,” NRS director Fiedler says. “As strong as the NRS is today, it can only reach its full potential if it’s recognized for its contributions to the University, Califiornia, and the broader conservation community.”