An industrial mine and ecological research station aren’t typical bedfellows. One uses hulking machinery to extract resources; the other enlists scientists to study environmental phenomena.
In the foothills northwest of Davis, however, a University of California Natural Reserve has arisen atop a former gold mine. Since 1993, McLaughlin Natural Reserve has offered researchers access to thousands of acres of serpentinite soil outcroppings and a wealth of rare plant species.
When deeded to the university starting in the early 2000s, the site came with a few uncommon facilities for a reserve. These included a water tank large enough to supply a neighborhood, a set of high-powered electrical transformers, and buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in an industrial business park.
“We have pretty large facilities that we inherited from the mining company, but they were all really designed for industrial use. They were expensive to maintain. We wanted to improve them for the specific purposes that we have, which is not what they were built for,” says Paul Aigner, director of land stewardship at McLaughlin.
Aigner and reserve director Cathy Koehler were hired to run McLaughlin in 2002. They spent their first years modifying the former administrative building of the mine into a field station. They installed a kitchen, developed lounge and dining spaces, set up a classroom, and converted former offices into bedrooms.
Yet there were limits to the renovations the two reserve directors could manage on their own, on top of operating the reserve.
The passage of Proposition 84 in 2006 answered their dilemma. The legislation set aside up to $20 million for UC Natural Reserves to upgrade their facilities or purchase land, as long as the funds were matched dollar for dollar by other assets.
UC Davis, which manages the reserve, requested $700,000 in Prop. 84 monies to address a long list of improvements needed at McLaughlin. Matching funding included a National Science Foundation grant to build a greenhouse, a preliminary design and engineering study paid for by reserve funds, and the mining company’s gift of the 30,000-square-foot warehouse adjacent to the field station.
The highest priority for Aigner and Koehler involved renovating the field station to better accommodate visitors. Here, the building’s industrial bones proved to be a boon.
“It’s one of these pre-engineered metal buildings that was pretty easy to reconfigure because none of the interior walls are structural,” Aigner says.
The building originally had two showers, and just a few toilets. Those got uncomfortably crowded when the field station’s 23 beds and campground were full. Renovations upped the shower count to four, and increased the number of sinks and toilets in the restrooms as well.
Another replumbing task involved the kitchen, where the single sink caused bottlenecks during mealtimes. “Adding an extra sink doesn’t sound like much, but involved ripping into the concrete floor to put in a drain line. That’s the kind of thing we couldn’t do ourselves,” Aigner says.
A second range went in next to the new sink, equipping the kitchen with two separate cooking stations.
What came out of the sinks and showers got upgraded as well. The reserve’s domestic water system received a new filtration system augmented with a UV treatment unit.
Indeed, renovations brightened the atmosphere throughout the building. “The building had been very inward focused; the windows were all tinted, so you couldn’t see outside well. It was dungeon-like. We put in clear glass to improve the natural lighting,” Aigner says.
Fire safety at the field station also improved with the bond funds. The bedrooms originally had doors that opened only onto an interior hallway, while their windows were too small to serve as emergency exits. The renovation added an exterior door to each room, plus an overhead sprinkler system to the entire building, and an exterior fire pump house with a high-capacity diesel pump.
Outside, the field station got a handicapped parking space complete with a concrete ramp into the building, and a palatial greenhouse. The greenhouse has grown native plants for experiments as well as major revegetation projects. Roadway areas were also regraded and resurfaced to smooth potholes left by heavy mine company equipment.
The most exotic overhaul involved replacing the source of the reserve’s electrical power.
“The electrical power system left behind by the mining company was designed to operate an entire gold mining processing plant. It was meant to run huge machinery that was moving tons of earth. It was orders of magnitude beyond anything we could conceive of using, and we certainly had no capacity to maintain it,” Aigner says.
Prop. 84 paid to decommission the mine’s high voltage electrical substation, and replace it with a standard utility pole and lines maintained by PG&E.
Atop the warehouse acquired from the mining company, reserve staff installed a rainwater collection system to irrigate the greenhouse, landscaping, and various field experiments. With every inch of rain, the system collects an astonishing 12,500 gallons. Now the 650,000-gallon storage tank left over from the mine, which holds a three-year supply, regularly overflows in the winter.
Another leftover from mining days, the disused guard shack along the entrance road, got new life when it was remodeled into a one-bedroom residence. Two successive stewards have lived in the space since.
“Even now it’s been useful with COVID,” Aigner says. Since the guard shack is self-contained, the reserve has been able to accommodate the occasional researcher while keeping that person isolated from the summer interns living in the field station.
Work on the renovations began with the guard house in October of 2011—a job conducted by the reserve steward—and was completed by December of 2016. All told, the projects cost $1.424 million.
“Everything we did was definitely beneficial. There’s no doubt,” Aigner says. “It’s still kind of an industrial setting, but that’s improving.”