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.
By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System
When Blue Oak Ranch Reserve joined the UC Natural Reserve System in 2007, living conditions on the site could be described as rustic at best. The driveway was a four-mile-long dirt road, and the only habitable building on the 3,280-acre spread was an honest-to-goodness barn with a small office-cum-residence in one corner.
With no other housing options, the reserve’s first director, Mike Hamilton, lived in that barn during the reserve’s earliest years. During that time, just a few hundred visitors came to study topics such as rattlesnake behavior, frog parasites, and water limitations for the native vegetation.
It’s no wonder; accommodations were on the uncomfortable side. “We really had a camping reserve then,” says UC Berkeley professor Todd Dawson, faculty director of the reserve.
Both Dawson and Hamilton knew the reserve needed more capacity to host visitors. After all, the site had great potential to draw hundreds of users each year. Located on the slopes of Mount Hamilton, the reserve was close enough for classes from UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz to visit for a quick overnight, while out-of-towners could be at the gate within an hour of landing at Mineta San José Airport. The Bay Area’s temperate climate also made the reserve inviting year round.
Luckily, a few things were in their favor. One was timing. State Proposition 84, which allotted up to $20 million to the NRS for facilities improvements and land purchases, had passed the year before the reserve joined the NRS.
Secondly, both Hamilton and Dawson had the experience to know what design elements are critical in smooth functioning reserves. Hamilton had managed the NRS’s James San Jacinto Mountains reserve before coming to Blue Oak, while Dawson had visited and worked at plenty of field stations in the course of his research as a plant ecophysiologist.
“Mike could see what things worked, what didn’t work, what people always were asking about and what their needs were. His years of experience in dealing with researchers and classes and a variety of different kinds of visitors put in his head the things that he felt needed to be in a reserve,” Dawson says.
Hamilton also got input from graduate students in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Design. He invited the students to stay at the reserve for several weekends to plan a field station of the future as part of a design studio. Their input informed the final floor plan of the Cedar Barn and the reserve’s off-the-grid power systems.
Under Prop. 84, the value of the reserve donation qualified Blue Oak Ranch to receive almost $4.9 million in state funds to build facilities, the largest share of bond money awarded to any NRS reserve. The size of the budget, unheard of for an organization that has long claimed duct tape as its official building material, freed the men to envision their ideal field station.
“We could think about how to make it so that when people came, it was comfortable, their spaces were designed in a way where people could interact, and they would have a lab, a classroom, a discussion space, a kitchen where visitors can interact while cooking. All of that was the fun part of designing it,” Dawson says.
A false start with architects who didn’t fully grasp the field station concept delayed the project’s inception. Then Dawson, Hamilton, and reserve steward Erik Viik found a design-build firm that was more open to listening to the reserve veterans’ advice. Once that happened, the project rolled ahead pretty smoothly.
The first order of business was dividing the cavernous barn into spaces appropriate for multiple uses. A large kitchen affording lots of space to chat and circulate was added under one wing, while space for a science laboratory complete with a fume hood, large freezer, benches, and equipment storage went into the barn’s opposite corner. A classroom and space for computer equipment went in upstairs, while multiple toilets, showers, and laundry facilities took pressure off the original bathroom in what has morphed from the director’s residence into staff offices and a meeting room.
The barn “really has ended up becoming a very useful design in terms of having multiple users there and big groups there at once. The kitchen is a fun place to prepare a meal in, the classrooms are really great place to get a cluster of four or five students talking to each other… the place really works,” says Dawson.
Two modular, low-profile residences, one for the reserve director and the other for the steward, went in a quarter mile from the barn. Housing for visitors was placed between these two areas. Two prefabricated cabins provide one-bedroom units with their own small bathroom and kitchen, while two more are configured to hold 16-bed dorm rooms. An additional eight indoor-outdoor cabins, housing up to 30 in structures consisting of three walls, a screened front, and bunks, were arranged in a circle across the road from the all-season cabins. These provide inexpensive but comfortable places to stay in the mild weather of summer and fall. Several of the accommodations as well as parking spaces are also ADA compliant.
A utility building on the other side of the barn was installed to keep the reserve operational. The sunlit space houses both vehicles and tools. Additional rooms house a battery wall powered by solar panels atop the structure’s single-slope roof, plus a reverse-osmosis system to treat water from a new well. A 10,000-gallon tank that stores potable water is augmented by four additional tanks storing a total of 40,000 gallons to supply the fire suppression system. These systems enable the reserve to operate entirely off the grid.
Even the drive to the reserve got more pleasant thanks to Prop. 84 funds. The hilly, four-mile-long dirt road got re-graded, compacted, and graveled to prevent erosion and improve traction on the heavy clay soils.
Construction on the project began during summer 2014 and lasted for two years. While the constant grind of construction and upheaval were inconvenient, the completed reserve is now a showcase for what a targeted investment in the NRS can achieve.
The reserve is now a magnet for classes such as the NRS’s California Ecology and Conservation program, which starts and ends its 50-day circuit of NRS reserves at Blue Oak, to meetings of groups such as UC firefighters, to GIS and drone-research training courses for ecology and conservation professionals from around the world.
Another measure of how the project has transformed the reserve can be seen in user statistics. Before construction, during fiscal year 2014-15, the reserve hosted a total of 96 visitors. That number increased sixfold within five years of the project’s completion.
“Patching things together is what the reserve system has done a lot of, but that results in a lot of rough edges,” Dawson says. “It really is a very special thing that the state has done to provide these kinds of monies to create a reserve like Blue Oak Ranch,” Dawson says.