Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve, named for one of the founders of the NRS, includes some of the most spectacular stretches of coast in central California. Its area extends from the sea up to a 700-foot-elevation ridge.
Habitats within the reserve include an extensive rocky shoreline, freshwater ponds, coastal grasslands, a mixed Monterey pine and coast live oak forest, and northern coastal sage scrub. Of the 185 terrestrial plant species on the reserve, 107 are native. The Monterey pine forest is one of only three naturally occurring such forests remaining in the state. Roughly one-quarter of the reserve harbors patches of coastal terrace prairie, considered among the most threatened and diverse plant communities in North America. The northern coastal sage scrub, found on the steeper, rocky slopes, includes a population of rare cobweb thistle. Ocean currents from the north and south meet and mix offshore, making the marine ecosystem exceptionally diverse. The adjacent waters were designated part of the state’s White Rock Marine Protected Area in 2007. One of the largest kelp beds in California, dominated by bull and giant kelp, also grows here. California sea lions, southern sea otters, and gray whales also frequent the area.
The twenty-four mammal species that have been observed include badgers, mountain lions, bobcats, and long-tailed weasels. The bird fauna, at 111 species, is rich thanks to the diversity of habitats. By contrast, amphibian, reptile, and freshwater fish diversity is relatively low. A small population of red-legged frogs are found in the reserve’s smaller stock pond, while a larger pond has non-native fishes.
The reserve is part of the San Andreas transform zone, which marks the boundary between the North American and Pacific plates. The San Gregorio-Hosgri fault zone lies offshore, and the Cambria Fault inland. The topographic relief of the reserve is probably related to block uplift between the two; relief and steepness increase toward the southeast. The coastline is dominated by an uplifted marine terrace bordered by a modern sea cliff to the west, a mountain front to the east, and is locally buried by alluvial fans. The nine short drainages on the reserve are highly dependent on winter storms and dry up in summer; two are dammed and feature ponds.
At the time of Spanish contact this area was at the boundary of at least two ethnographic groups, the Salinan to the north and the Obispeño or Northern Chumash to the south. The surveyed prehistoric sites provide a perspective of coastal adaptations over 5,000 years. The first occupants collected red abalone, creating thick middens of whole shells mixed with fish and mammal bones and a wide variety of artifacts. By the Late Holocene, populations responded to climate-driven resource instability by adding nearshore fishing and the harvest of more intertidal species such as the black turban snail. After the mission period, the reserve lands became part of a large ranch. The coastal prairie was used for dairy cattle and hay farming, then beef cattle ranching.
Managed by UC Santa Barbara, reserve lands remain in private ownership. The site is suitable for year-round use and located relatively near several UC campuses: driving times are 2.5 hours from UCSB, 3 hours from UCSC, and 4.5 hours from UCLA or UCB.
Special Research of National Significance
Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO). PISCO performs integrated studies of the coastal ocean, rocky intertidal and kelp forest ecosystems of the U.S. West Coast.