New cabins foster community at James Reserve

This story is part of NRS reserves transformed by Proposition 84 funds, a series describing the facilities improvements and expansions at NRS reserves supported by Proposition 84 bond funds.

James Prop. 84
New prefabricated buildings funded by state Proposition 84 and donations by longtime reserve supporters the Trailfinders have been placed near the reserve’s existing headquarters, the Trailfinders lodge. The cluster of reserve facilities fosters interactions and a sense of community among reserve visitors from different groups. Image: Becca Fenwick

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

Nestled in a canyon on the western slope of San Jacinto Peak, the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve is a place dear to the hearts of many. Educators Harry and Grace James bought the site in 1941 as a campsite for their Trailfinders School for Boys. In the 1960s, the couple sold the land to the University of California to become a UC Natural Reserve. Yet alumni of the school have remained loyal to the site, continuing to gather at and support the reserve across the intervening decades.

Life got more lively at the mountainside site once it became a reserve. Requests from students and researchers to visit grew as the nearby community of Idyllwild became a tourist destination and staying in the mountains got more expensive. Those approved to visit had two accommodation choices: pitch a tent in the reserve’s small campground, or bunk at its Trailfinders Lodge.

Built with donations from Trailfinders alumni, the lodge is sizable. It features a workspace, an office, kitchen, bathrooms, and an upstairs dorm area able to sleep 30. By the early 2000s, however, demand for the reserve had far outstripped the lodge’s capacity.

James Prop. 84
The modular units had to squeeze through thick forest foliage alongside the reserve access road to reach their installation locations. Image: Becca Fenwick

“The reserve needed more teaching and dorm space to host more than one group at a time,” says Becca Fenwick, who served as director of the James in the late 2000s. She is now director of Environmental Information Technology for the UC Natural Reserve System and the NRS’s California Heartbeat Initiative project.

Passage of Proposition 84 in 2006 made James accommodations expansions possible. The legislation provided up to $20 million to the NRS for facilities and land acquisition, with the proviso that the University invest an amount matching all funds requested.

“The project helped make the facilities into the hub and center of the reserve,” Fenwick says.

James Prop. 84
The two housing cabins in place and awaiting the installation of the classroom cabin. Winter mud and snow made the job extra challenging. Image: Becca Fenwick

The James Reserve was deeply fortunate to have the Trailfinders in its corner at this time. The stalwart alumni raised and donated a whopping $248,000 toward this unprecedented opportunity to expand the reserve’s facilities. Matched by the state, this qualified the reserve for a $496,000 project.

The most economical solution to the reserve’s housing shortage proved to be prefabricated buildings.

“Instead of having to go through architectural drawings, and the stages of a physical building project, we just had to set up foundations, attach the buildings, and make sewer and electric connections. The process was more straightforward and simple,” Fenwick says.

James Prop. 84
The classroom unit, like the rest of the reserve’s headquarters area, is encircled by conifer forest. Image: Aldo de la Mora

The reserve ultimately purchased four modular buildings. Two of the cabins have two bedrooms and one bathroom; these are intended to house small groups. A larger cabin holds four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen. The smaller cabins each sleep 10; while the larger cabin sleeps 20. Each cabin is outfitted with a kitchen. A second large unit, which also has a bathroom, is used as a classroom. It also houses vertebrate study skins, a herbarium, the reserve’s insect collection, and microscopes.

The additional buildings have doubled the reserve’s bed capacity to 70, and quadrupled the number of kitchens to four.

The plan called for the buildings to be trailered from Arizona, where they were constructed, up San Jacinto Mountain, then along the reserve’s wooded access road to an open area next to the Trailfinders Lodge.

Preparing the reserve drive for these oversized loads posed a lot of work for Fenwick and reserve stewards Augie Valadez and Taylor Jeffrey. The trailer company brought in a consultant to indicate where the road needed to be widened and straightened.

“There were 120-foot pine trees in the way. Valadez and Jeffrey taught me to use a chainsaw to fell those trees. There were no overhead wires in the way, so there was no fear if a tree didn’t go exactly where we wanted it to,” Fenwick says. “It’s not the skill I thought I would be learning in that job, but it was tremendous fun.”

James Prop. 84
This residential cabin features a spacious deck. Image: Aldo de la Mora

Fenwick and Jeffrey also performed much of the site preparation themselves. They enlarged the cleared area to accommodate the additional septic systems and a parking area, leveled the ground, and installed retaining walls. They also dug trenches for foundations and electrical cables that would connect to the reserve’s off-grid solar panel system.

Once construction began, the project proceeded quickly. The foundations were poured in October 2011, then the cabins arrived in November. The utilities were connected and the foundation wall was finished by the close of December 2011.

The project entered its final stages just as Fenwick was hired as reserve director at the NRS’s Yosemite Field Station. “For my first few months at Yosemite I was still going back down to the James to get everything squared away,” Fenwick says.

So the first time Fenwick got to experience the new facilities in action was October of the following year. New reserve director Jen Gee had invited NRS staffers from across the reserve system to the James for the NRS’s annual Management Workshop.

“It was a great feeling seeing staff from around reserve system stay at and use those new cabins,” Fenwick says.

Eating at the reserve is a breeze now that multiple groups no longer need to compete for kitchen time. “Mealtimes were a struggle before. There are now three more kitchens in the new facilities. That gives groups more independence to cook and eat whenever they want.”

And because the new facilities are ADA compliant, including the parking, the reserve can now better accommodate people with disabilities.

James Prop. 84
One of the bathrooms typical of the new cabins. Image: Aldo de la Mora

To Fenwick, however, the most important aspect of the new buildings is the social spark they ignite among reserve visitors. “Having multiple groups in the same area, using the same space, created more of the atmosphere and spirit of a field station. People could talk about science and the great things they were doing in the spirit of collaboration and community. That feeling is essential to a good field station,” she says.

It is fitting, says Fenwick, that the community of Trailfinders who helped fund the expansion have made this brighter, buzzier incarnation of the reserve possible.

“The Prop 84 funding was instrumental in taking the James Reserve to the next level, to a place where you can have groups interacting and have that catalyst for new collaborations and partnerships in science. Without those additional facilities, we wouldn’t be able to create those opportunities for people.”

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