Timeworn cattle ranch remade into NRS reserve

Sedgwick Prop. 84
Emblematic of Sedgwick’s original ranch buildings, the reserve’s historic barn blends nicely with the maintenance shed, a renovated structure made possible by Prop. 84. Image: UC Santa Barbara

By Kathleen Wong, UC Natural Reserve System

When sculptor and philanthropist Duke Sedgwick bequeathed his family’s sprawling Santa Ynez Valley ranch to the University of California, he wrote that he wanted to create a “conjunction of learning and land.” The more than 5,800-acre spread on the western slope of Figueroa Mountain certainly seemed ideal for a UC Natural Reserve. The vast property included two watersheds, a major earthquake fault, and habitats such as coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and grasslands dotted with massive valley oaks, affording endless opportunities for research. It even contained a collection of buildings that could house visiting students and researchers.

Formerly home to the Chumash people, the site had served as a working cattle ranch since the mid-1800s. In 1996, when Sedgwick Reserve joined the UC Natural Reserve System, the whitewashed barns and rambling, cowboy-style buildings characteristic of those ranching roots remained.

Building out good bones

Yet fashioning a modern field station from these building blocks would not be easy. “It was an old ranch, and it had very outdated utilities. In order to support our anticipated user community, the reserve needed to expand,” says Marion Wittmann, executive director of UC Santa Barbara’s Natural Reserve System.

A few structures, such as the main ranch house and studio, remained functional. But other buildings, such as the foreman’s house, multiple outbuildings, and the historic barn, were either uninhabitable or in dire need of refurbishment.

Basic amenities such as roads and utilities required attention too. Water from the reserve’s wells was not ideal for drinking and flowed through a maze of ancient, leaking pipes. The power lines and transformers were undersized for the anticipated community of staff and users. In addition, the rough, unpaved roads to the reserve and around the buildings were a struggle for ordinary cars.

Sedgwick’s infastructure “required wholesale renovation, and a vision for the future” Wittmann says.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
Phase I renovations included replacing Sedgwick’s electrical supply system. The new electrical yard has a transformer with sufficient capacity to meet the needs of the reserve’s growing user community. Image: Kate McCurdy

An ambitious master plan

UC Santa Barbara established a committee to review the reserve’s needs and envision its future. The 2002 master plan they developed was nothing if not ambitious. It called for restoring the habitable buildings, removing hazardous structures, upgrading utilities, and developing more housing and a hall for lectures and classes.

Realizing those dreams proved long and arduous. It would take the efforts of a whole community, including UC Santa Barbara staff, reserve volunteers, private donors, and funding from the people of California. The lion’s share of credit, however, belongs to reserve director Kate McCurdy. “Since Kate became director of Sedgwick 13 years ago, not a year has gone by without a capital project or effort to fundraise for building,” Wittmann says. “Her dedication has produced a visually pleasing and eminently functional reserve where people can connect with nature and researchers can get their work done,” Wittmann says.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
Phase I of the Prop. 84 project repaired reserve access roads. This photo shows the paved section of the road after the deep cracks were filled and the road resurfaced with slurry seal. aImage: UC Santa Barbara

Qualifying for bond funds

What made Sedgwick’s transformation possible was the passage of state Proposition 84 in 2006. The measure made up to $20 million in bond funds available for land purchases and facilities improvements across the NRS.

“Proposition 84 enabled us not to just put band aids on things but do things correctly from ground up, to enhance and renovate infrastructure that is going to last,” Wittmann says.

Sedgwick’s infrastructure was so antiquated that UC Santa Barbara applied for two rounds of Prop 84 funds. Phase 1 projects were dedicated to improving underground utilities. Phase 2 was to build visitor housing and a lab/office building.

To access state funding, however, reserves had to contribute an equal amount in either funding or in-kind donations. At Sedgwick, generous donors filled this need. “Sedgwick was well poised to jump on the availability of Prop 84 funds because for the previous five years, a cadre of reserve donors had been making large capital improvement contributions that qualified as match,” McCurdy says.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
The old roof on the studio was replaced and extended to cover more of the porch.

Extensive donor matches

Matching contributions for Phase 1 included construction of a 200-kilowatt photovoltaic system to generate electricity, design of a environmentally friendly meeting center and administration office, and initiation of the future Tipton Meeting House’s construction, all donated by the J.E. and Lillian Tipton Foundation. The Woodstock Property Owners Association, representing the ranchettes adjacent to Sedgwick, provided high quality drinking water and fire protection by connecting their private water system to the field station and a new reserve hydrant. Philanthropist Linda Duttenhaver donated to develop plans to renovate the circa-1907 barn. Others gave funds to fill in a dilapidated swimming pool and convert it into an outdoor classroom, pave the access road, and replace portions of the reserve’s 40 miles of interior and exterior fencing.

Meanwhile, the reserve was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to replace the reserve’s aged septic systems. Together with reserve staff time spent on labor and project administration, the gifts and the grant qualified Sedgwick to receive $960,000 Phase 1 Prop. 84 funds.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
Cuttings from native plants on the reserve were propagated in an on-site nursery and used to revegetate the reserve’s headquarters area. Image: UC Santa Barbara

Laying down a foundation

The Phase 1 projects “helped to improve a lot of the unsexy things like utilities and septic systems, and established a foundation for the rest of the reserve,” Wittmann says.

For example, the bond funds paid to extend the new water line to faucets and showers in the reserve’s main buildings. The old, undersized electrical system got a makeover in the form of a new transformer, power poles, and power lines, while additional work connected the reserve’s photovoltaic system, provided a few years earlier by a donor, to the grid. Key sections of the reserve’s interior fences were replaced to better control cattle and protect natural areas and buildings. Damaged by heavy construction vehicles, paved sections of the reserve’s one-mile entrance got resurfaced. And two unusable structures, the former foreman’s house and the chicken coop, were razed for safety and to make space for the new utilities. Areas disturbed by construction were replanted with native vegetation.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
Interior fences and gates like this one were repaired or replaced to protect buildings and facilities. Image: UC Santa Barbara

Several existing ranch structures were improved to meet reserve needs. Formerly Duke Sedgwick’s art workspace, the studio received an electrical upgrade and renovations to its leaky, too-small roof. The renovations have added meeting space for up to 25 people. In addition, the pole barn was enclosed and refashioned into a maintenance shop to meet Sedgwick’s myriad facilities needs, which range from tractor storage to vehicle repairs.

Work on these projects commenced in 2009 and was completed by 2015.

 “It was a long, arduous process to complete Phase 1, with little visible benefit—and a lot of dust and open trenches. But ultimately this work made the field station safer, more functional, and literally paved the road so we could allow users to stay overnight at the field station safely,” McCurdy says.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
The outdoor kitchen was renovated to include a shade canopy, propane grill, and a level concrete pad.

Improving visitor accommodations

To complete Phase 2 of Sedgwick’s master plan, UC Santa Barbara turned again to Prop. 84. This time, donations to complete the reserve’s Tipton Meeting House, a LEED Platinum building with space for events, offices, a kitchen, and other amenities, provided match for an additional $1.3 million in Prop. 84 monies.

One goal of Phase 2 was to improve the cooking facilities available to Sedgwick’s visitors. A shortage of indoor beds obliged many researchers and classes to camp. To fix and eat their meals, campers used a rudimentary outdoor kitchen that provided no shelter from the elements. Located atop a filled-in former swimming pool, the area was riddled with ground squirrel burrows that had tilted the concrete pavers into tripping hazards.

To address these shortcomings, the entire area was paved with concrete and an open-sided pavilion was erected around the outdoor kitchen. The former wood burning BBQ and fire pit were replaced with a propane-fueled grill and firepit, improving fire safety. Like the facility it replaced, the new kitchen is equipped with a large sink, stove, range, microwave, rodent-proof steel storage cabinets, and extensive counter space. The area is now ADA accessible, provides shelter from the weather, and even has electric plugs for campers to charge their gadgets.

“We finished it in the middle of the pandemic, so it hasn’t been used much yet. But we anticipate it being ideal for visiting classes,” Wittmann says.

New life for old garages

The second goal of Phase 2 bond funding was to repurpose two dilapidated garages as work and living space for researchers. Both structures had to be gutted and required overhauls of their foundations, utilities, roofs, and even exterior walls. The freestanding garage was remade into to a two-bedroom bunkhouse. With two bathrooms, a small kitchen and dining area, and a covered porch, the building now provides comfortable living space for up to six people.

The second garage, adjacent to the ranch house, was converted into lab and office space for researchers and the La Kretz Research Center at Sedgwick, which supports research in conservation science. Both of the former garages are now equipped with upgraded electrical and telecommunications connections, enhancing their functionality for visiting scientists.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
Fashioned from a former garage, the bunkhouse now provides charming accommodations for reserve visitors. Image: courtesy UC Santa Barbara

Retaining the ranch atmosphere

Throughout the transformation of Sedgwick’s buildings, UC Santa Barbara paid special attention to maintain the old California atmosphere of the ranch. “A lot of architecture and design work was required to make sure new structures and renovations look and feel like the old ranch, but are fully functional with ADA access and fire safety measures such as sprinkler systems and fire-resistant building materials. Historical architects made sure the paint colors were correct, and the design of the buildings had a ranch flavor, down to the size of the windows and their board and batten siding,” Wittmann says.

Once the bulk of the building work was done, it was time to repair the reserve’s access road. Heavy construction vehicles rumbling along the reserve’s main access drive had cracked the pavement, and rutted the unpaved roads connecting reserve buildings. Prop. 84 funds covered the cost of sealing the asphalt drive and resurfacing many dirt roads to enable access in all weather. From start to finish, the second phase of bond projects took three years to complete, and wrapped up over the summer of 2020.

Sedgwick Prop. 84
Inside the bunkhouse meeting room. Image: Kate McCurdy

A world-class facility

“The improvements have enabled us to elevate our support of University level research, and better meet the needs of all users coming to Sedgwick,” says reserve director Kate McCurdy.

“With the help of our community of donors and Prop. 84, we have accomplished the plan set out in the late 1990s,” Wittmann says. “The facilities at Sedgwick are now among the best in the UC Natural Reserve System.”

Yet despite the top-to-bottom facility renovations at Sedgwick, McCurdy says, “what our users seem to appreciate the most is having high speed internet and watching beautiful sunsets around the campfire. Years of improving our infrastructure hasn’t changed that!”

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