Colorado Desert Site Joins the UC Natural Reserve System

Colorado Desert Site Joins the UC Natural Reserve System 1
Dawn above the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, the newest site in the UC Natural Reserve System. Photo credit: Daniel Anderson

A historic clubhouse amid the arid badlands and cacti of the Colorado Desert is the newest addition to the UC Natural Reserve System. The Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center will provide students and researchers with access to adjacent Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The reserve includes an airy former country club on nearly four acres situated at the edge of the town of Borrego Springs. The property was acquired by a gift from Audrey Steele Burnand, who has family ties to the parcel. Her father, Alphonse Burnand, commissioned architect William Kesling to design the Streamline Moderne clubhouse in the 1940s.

Colorado Desert Site Joins the UC Natural Reserve System 2
Donated by Audrey Steele Burnand, the property is the site of a former country club built in the 1940s. Photo credit: Daniel Anderson

Steele Burnand’s gift will also help fund the expansion and operation of the building. Dorm rooms for up to 24 graduate students and longer-term housing for scientists conducting extensive research will be added. Reserve buildings will provide scientists, other researchers, and students with a place to sleep, shower, cook, and conduct laboratory work within the extreme desert environment. The reserve is also within a two-hour drive of the city of San Diego, making it relatively convenient to visit.

The site constitutes the 37th reserve in the UC Natural Reserve System. “This new reserve is the result of much hard work, perseverance, and profound dedication by those who understand the importance of the Natural Reserve System,” says Peggy Fiedler, director of the UC Natural Reserve System. “In particular, Alex Glazer, emeritus director of the NRS, and Rick Rayburn, the Park Service’s retired chief of natural resource management, deserve a great deal of credit for this reserve, which helps to keep NRS relevant into the twenty-first century.”

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The Steele Burnand Desert Research Center will provide visiting faculty and students with easy access to the 615,000 acres of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Photo credit: Kathleen M. Wong

The reserve will be administered by UC Irvine. Diane Pataki, director of the UC Irvine Center for Environmental Biology, will serve as the reserve’s faculty director. “This building is perfect; it will be our home base for research of all kinds,” said biologist Pataki, who worked for five years to set up a research station in Borrego Springs. “We’re so lucky to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to get this property.”

Through a cooperative agreement with California State Parks and the Anza Borrego Foundation, the reserve will offer students and researchers access to California’s largest state park. The 615,000 acres of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park encompass native fan palm oases, piñon pine-juniper forests, and even high elevation white fir stands. The park also shelters the unusual elephant tree (Bursera microphylla) more typical of Baja California, and the largest population of endangered desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in the United States. Archeological sites within the park feature petroglyphs, pictographs, and other artifacts left by the Kumeyaay and Cahuilla peoples.

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UC Irvine professor of biology Diane Pataki will be the faculty director of the reserve. Photo credit: Daniel Anderson

The reserve will encourage the study of environmental and ecological problems in the region. For example, climate change models indicate the Sonoran Desert will experience major shifts in water availability, making the area a magnet for global change research. Groundwater pumping from local aquifers is lowering the water table further, attracting the interest of scientists seeking to conduct hydrologic modeling and test remote sensing equipment. The area’s extremely hot conditions make it a good site to develop alternative energy technologies, while its profusion of wildlife offers fertile ground for natural history studies.

The UC Natural Reserve System is a network of protected natural areas throughout California. Its 37 sites include more than 135,000 acres, making it the largest university-administered reserve system in the world. Most major state ecosystems are represented, from coastal tidepools to inland deserts, and lush wetlands to Sierra Nevada forests. The reserves also serve as a gateway to more than a million acres of public lands. Founded in 1965 to provide undisturbed environments for research, education, and public service, the Natural Reserve System contributes to the understanding and wise stewardship of the earth.