By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
Peggy Fiedler, who made the UC Natural Reserve System an integral part of state and global efforts to understand the impacts of climate change on California ecosystems, has retired after more than eleven years leading the organization.
“Her leadership and interpersonal skills really grew the stature of the NRS within the UC Office of the President. I really take my hat off to Peggy for that,” says UC Santa Cruz professor Dan Costa, who chaired the President’s Universitywide NRS Advisory Committee during Fiedler’s tenure. “It was a combination of her interpersonal skills and her confidence in the importance of the NRS. She did it quietly working from within the system. By the time she retired, she had made the NRS as a major jewel in the crown of Research and Innovation.”
Fiedler’s first introduction to the reserve system came as a graduate student in the School of Forestry at UC Berkeley. She used Hastings Natural History Reservation as one of the six field sites in her dissertation research comparing the life history of rare and common mariposa lilies.
“I grew to love the NRS because it was such an important field site for me. At the time, it was hard to find sites that I knew would be protected, that I could get permits for, and that I could always get there any time of day or night,” Fiedler says.
As an expert on the conservation of rare plants, Fiedler joined the faculty of San Francisco State University as a professor of conservation biology, then worked as a consultant on wetland ecosystem restoration projects. She was named director of the NRS in 2010, after the retirement of former director Alexander Glazer.
One of Fiedler’s top goals at the NRS was to expose more undergraduates to field research. Her passion for the idea was personal. As a graduate student, Fiedler spent more than six months at field stations in Costa Rica as part of an Organization for Tropical Studies program.
“It was a transformative experience for me. So when I came to the NRS, I felt that with a network of field stations, we could attract undergraduates to a quarter-long field class, and thus bring more undergraduates into the natural sciences,” Fiedler says.
With help from then-NRS Program Coordinator Erin Marnocha, those efforts launched the NRS’s California Ecology and Conservation Program in 2015. The program forged new ground bringing together undergraduates from every general UC campus for seven weeks of intensive field science training and inquiry-based learning.
“It’s been an incredible success. We have kids coming in who are not sure whether they even like being outside, and after taking the class, going on to graduate school in the field sciences,” Fiedler says.
A primary theme of Fiedler’s tenure was demonstrating that the NRS network is far more valuable than the sum of its parts. For example, she championed the expansion of the NRS Climate Monitoring Network, which established weather stations featuring state-of-the-art technology at reserves, and supported the development of Dendra, a cyberinfrastructure service designed to manage environmental sensor data and provide easy access to the information.
This trove of climate data proved critical to the success of two $2+ million research initiatives: the Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts and the California Heartbeat Initiative. Both projects utilized ecological and climate gradients across multiple NRS reserves to better understand how climate change is affecting natural systems.
To ensure the NRS could continue providing quality programs and land stewardship, Fiedler oversaw the NRS’s phenomenally successful 50th Anniversary Capital Campaign. Between 2015 and 2020, the campaign coordinated the fundraising efforts of development officers at each of the nine general UC campus toward a single goal—a first in UC history. The campaign ultimately raised more than $90.4 million to support educational programs, land stewardship, facilities, and more across the NRS.
Among the major achievements of the capital campaign was the establishment of the NRS’s Samuelsen Conservation Scholars Initiative. Named for the first director of the NRS, Roger Samuelsen, the initiative enables students from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in environmental research. The initiative has already supported seven UC undergraduates to spend their summers doing original research at reserves as NRS Field Science Fellows.
Fiedler also worked to involve the NRS in statewide and global environmental and climate research. Fiedler served as co-principal investigator on an NSF grant to develop an international cooperative focused on managing Mediterranean-climate lands. The grant enabled exchanges among scientists from different Mediterranean-climate countries, and led Fiedler and the NRS to establish a Mediterranean-type Ecosystem Thematic Group within the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2012.
Similarly, Fiedler encouraged NRS involvement in the California Conservation Genomics Project, which is sequencing the genomes of 150 native species to inform future conservation, management, and science decisions. Dozens of samples have been taken from NRS reserves, enhancing the value of reserve science data. Since the project’s inception, Fiedler has helped guide its policies and science by serving on its executive committee.
Fiedler also co-led the establishment of the California Biodiversity Network (CBN). Made up of California State Parks, the National Park Service, NGOs, universities, and other institutions with conservation expertise, the CBN is an official advisory group the state of California and its “30 by 30” initiative: to conserve 30 percent of state lands and waters by the year 2030.
During her tenure, Fiedler also finessed the approval of five new reserves by the UC Regents. The addition of Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Deserve Research Center, White Mountain Research Center, Merced Vernal Pools & Grassland Reserve, Point Reyes Field Station, and Lassen Field Station expanded the total number of reserves from 36 to 41.
“Peggy knew how to motivate people across the University to help them take leadership roles. Each new reserve that came in under her time is an example of that,” Costa says.
Costa cited the addition of White Mountain Research Center as a standout example of Fiedler’s behind-the-scenes guidance. “If not for Peggy, who was steady at the tiller, White Mountain wouldn’t have existed any more; the University would have closed it.”
The NRS also expanded its relationships beyond state boundaries under Fiedler. The NRS Sister Reserve program encourages comparative studies across biomes, and fosters knowledge and training exchanges for students, researchers, and staff. The NRS has since established agreements with Gobabeb Research and Training Center in Namibia, and Eco-Alianza de Loreto in Mexico, with more to come.
“I’m confident that the NRS will continue to make great strides to become a more visible and treasured resource for the state and for the world,” Fiedler says.
Fiedler continues her work in biodiversity conservation as founder and executive director of The Red List Project. Established to generate funding for plant conservation, the organization works with industry partners to develop fragranced products based on the scents of threatened plants and biodiverse ecosystems, allowing people to appreciate the importance of plants in their daily lives. Proceeds from sales are distributed to in-country NGO conservation partners for science-based plant conservation.
Peggy Fiedler can be reached at Peggy.Fiedler@ucnrs.org.