Land donation expands Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve

Burns gift
The land parcel donated to Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve consists of undeveloped desert populated with Mojave species such as Joshua trees, yuccas, and piñon pines Image: Megan Lulow

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

The grandson of the couple whose lands were the basis of the UC Natural Reserve System’s Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve have donated an inholding of pristine desert. The gift protects a key portion of the Mojave Desert site, and enables the reserve to access state bond money to improve reserve facilities.

“This land supports really high quality habitat that is relatively easy to access for research and teaching,” says reserve director Megan Lulow.

Spanning a transition zone between desert valley floor and the granite boulder hills so distinctive to the reserve, the 14-acre parcel hosts plants such as antelope bitterbrush, Joshua trees, desert almond, and the reserve’s namesake piñon pines. Adjacent to the reserve’s access road, it is in the midst of the section most frequently used by classes and researchers. The gift increases the size of the reserve to 320 acres.

Burns gift
Located near the entrance to the reserve, the 14-acre parcel is easy for reserve users to access. Image: Megan Lulow

Gordon Burns, a justice in California’s First District Court of Appeal, donated the 14-acre parcel to the University this September. He is the grandson of Bruce and Jean Burns, who sold their longtime family home northwest of Yucca Valley in 1972 to the University to become an NRS reserve.

Gordon Burns remembers visiting his grandmother at the site as a boy. He recalls exploring the surrounding desert, shooting cans with a .22 rifle, and warming himself by the fire at night before heading off to bed.

“Bruce and Jean Burns wanted to ensure the land would be preserved into perpetuity, and really valued the UC NRS and its mission. They held on to this piece of the property in case their grandchildren wanted to build and visit sometime in the future,” Lulow says.

Burns gift
The reserve features distinctive hills of exposed granite boulders. These are set off by the snow-covered peaks of Mount San Gorgonio in the distance. Image: Megan Lulow

The gift of land has presented an opportunity for the NRS to re-connect with the Burns family, who are planning a visit to stay in the midcentury modern structure designed and built by Bruce Burns.

“It’s a win-win situation where the family is still able to have some connection with that property, but at the same time have it be protected and support the NRS,” Lulow says.

The land gift further enables the reserve to benefit from state bond funds. Proposition 68, passed in 2018, provides up to $10 million for NRS reserve facilities improvements or land acquisitions. Reserves must match 25% of the funds requested from the state. Valued at $127,500, the parcel affords the reserve access to $382,500 in bond funds.

Burns gift
Jean Burns, who lived on what is now the reserve for the second half of the twentieth century, wrote Tales from Piñon Ridge to describe life in this high desert region. Image: Megan Lulow

UC Irvine, the managing campus of Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve, plans to use the money to improve the functionality of the house as a field station. Most of the work

will involve converting the breezeway connecting the living room and kitchen into a dining area able to accommodate groups such as classes. All renovations will keep the existing envelope of the building intact.

Other aspects of the Burns reserve Prop. 68 project will include converting a large workshop building into a multifunctional art space and laboratory. There are also plans to use a section of the workshop as a kind of museum featuring photos and readings showcasing the reserve’s history and natural features.

The value of the donation will be counted as part of the NRS’s 50th Anniversary Capital Campaign. Launched in 2015, the campaign has raised nearly $94 million in land, cash, in-kind, and other contributions to the NRS.

“We’re extremely grateful to their grandson Gordon Burns for following in the footsteps of his grandparents to protect the land in its natural state and support the reserve system,” Lulow says.

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