Nature center replaces former Coal Oil Point office shed

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.

Coal Oil Point Prop. 84
Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve used Proposition 84 funds to repurpose a former residential facility into a nature center. The center replaces the reserve’s former offices, which were located in an uninsulated shed, and also provides nature exhibits, a lab, meeting rooms, and more. Image: courtesy Cristina Sandoval

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve is a quintessential slice of beachy Southern California. Located next to UC Santa Barbara, the assemblage of coastal strand, tidal lagoon, and sand dunes protects some of southern California’s healthiest shoreline habitats. The reserve grows native plants to revegetate the dunes and coastal scrub, protects the western snowy plovers that nest on the beach, and hosts field classes as well as science research.

For years, however, conditions for reserve staff weren’t so idyllic. Instead of a real office, employees used an old shed with no insulation to house their desks. Damp coastal air made the structure miserably chilly in winter and sweltering during heat waves. The sole amenity on site was a porta-potty.

“We had no place to have a meeting. We looked like this really shabby place that was barely even on the map,” Sandoval says.

Coal Oil Point Prop. 84
The center’s largest room is a perfect place for hosting public talks, meetings, and social events. Image: courtesy Cristina Sandoval

Reserve staff weren’t the only ones who suffered from the lack of a decent headquarters. Without plumbing or lab space, the office-cum-shed couldn’t accommodate users who needed someplace to analyze or process samples.

The lack of a real headquarters building also meant the public—including UCSB students and Santa Barbara residents—missed chances to learn more about the reserve.

“During tours, volunteers don’t talk about science much. It’s more about reserve natural history and conservation programs. There was no way to communicate our science to the general public without visuals or exhibits,” Sandoval says.

Coal Oil Point Prop. 84
A good microscope in the lab enables students to analyze samples soon after they are gathered from the field. Image: courtesy Cristina Sandoval

The passage of Proposition 84 in 2006 gave UC Santa Barbara a golden opportunity to improve reserve facilities. The campus proposed remodeling a former residential facility adjacent to reserve lands into a nature center. At nearly 5,400 square feet, the building could provide offices for reserve staff and still have space to accommodate a science center and public exhibits.

The University requested $505,000 from the state to bring the building up to code, including ADA accessibility, and provide office and classroom space for staff. The University matched those funds in the form of staff time to manage the project, plus infrastructure improvements that included reconstructing the reserve road; replacing a flood-prone culvert with a bridge; and replacing several sheds with two new storage buildings plus a workshop.

The bond money in turn enabled the reserve to raise $556,000 in gifts and grants to complete the project. Contributors included the Coastal Conservancy, the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund of Santa Barbara County, private donors, and the University.  

Coal Oil Point Prop. 84
Exhibits provide visitors with an overview of habitats and a taste of the science research and conservation efforts happening at the reserve. Image: courtesy Cristina Sandoval

With the additional contributions, Prop. 84 enabled renovation of the building’s kitchen, installation of a wet lab, the addition of two offices for researchers including storage for reserve reference collections, and construction of an additional restroom. Two large rooms were repurposed to display exhibits and serve as a meeting hub holding up to 50 people. The funds even covered the design of exhibits about reserve habitats and research, construction of a deck, and landscaping with native vegetation.

Construction on the project began in March 2017. The final punch list was completed in winter of 2018.

“It’s been a game changer for us having that building to do all those new functions,” says Sandoval.

For one thing, center is now more appealing to visitors to the reserve. “With the nature center we got a professional-looking building that elevated the whole reserve,” Sandoval says.

Coal Oil Point Prop. 84
The two staff offices in the nature center are a far cry from the drafty old shed that used to serve as the reserve headquarters. Image: courtesy Cristina Sandoval

Sandoval collaborated with a campus designer to develop the displays in the center’s public spaces. “I didn’t sleep well that year because developing exhibits is way above my expertise,” laughs Sandoval. Those describe the reserve’s varied coastal habitats, plover conservation efforts, and reserve research projects.  “We now can communicate our science with community so much better and easier.”

The center also helps reserve staff mentor student researchers, including about 60 UC Santa Barbara undergraduates per year. Desk space for researchers enables students to work on site and easily consult with reserve staff sitting just steps away.

Some of those students help monitor the aquatic invertebrates living in Devereux Slough, a coastal wetland on the reserve. The slough is a hotspot for birds, who flock to the buffet of food available in its mudflats and waters.

Coal Oil Point Prop. 84
Having a conference room has opened up collaboration opportunities with partners such as government agencies. Image: courtesy Cristina Sandoval

“You need a microscope to sort these species, identify them, and count them. Before the center they could sample but had no place to do the other parts of the research. Now we have a dedicated lab, with microscopes, and students coming in and out all day long,” Sandoval says. “We’re gaining information about why this wetland is important, but also training future researchers and stewards of California.”

Even the nature center’s conference room has improved the reserve’s relationships with partners. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds their plover meeting here, and the Coastal Conservancy too. This creates opportunities for even more collaborations because we provide a little introduction to the reserve that improves our interactions with these agencies,” Sandoval says.

Proposition 84, Sandoval says, was the catalyst that made the nature center possible. “The university provides the reserve with staffing, which is essential. But it can’t provide the large amounts of money needed for stewardship, maintenance, building construction. The university is not set up to provide that. Without opportunities like Prop. 84 we would eventually lag behind, our buildings would start falling apart, and big things would not get done,” Sandoval says.

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