California is a wonderland of natural riches. Its boundaries include wave-tossed shorelines, sere deserts, snowy mountaintops, and timeless oak savannas. California has the world’s most massive trees, its oldest living organisms, the highest and lowest elevations in the lower 48 states, and the largest population in the nation.
The UC Natural Reserve System helps California balance the needs of people and natural places. Founded 50 years ago today, UC’s network of wildlands provides places for researchers to study the environment, serves as a classroom without walls for students of all ages, and protects the flora, fauna, and landscapes unique to this state.
The system was begun by UC faculty who struggled to find natural areas to work in as the pace of urban development quickened. The UC Regents answered their call by establishing what was then called the Natural Land and Water Reserve System. Since then, the NRS has grown from seven reserves to 39, and now encompasses more than 756,000 acres.
Today, the NRS is the largest university-administered reserve system in the world. The system includes examples of nearly every major California habitat. Its reserves—some owned by the University, some managed by the University, and some shared by agreement with land trusts, park systems, landowners, and the federal government—are protected in perpetuity, enabling long-term studies over many decades.
Stretching 600 miles north to south and 300 miles east to west, the reserve system is large enough to register trends in temperature, shifts in rainfall, runoff across watersheds, the migratory paths of birds, and range changes for entire species. Decades of data archives about each reserve allow future researchers to expand on previous work. Convenient accommodations, laboratories, Internet access, and other amenities make field research practical and more productive.
At a time when diminishing natural resources, human population growth, and global climate change threaten our continued survival, the need for the NRS over the next 50 years is more acute than ever.
As Kenneth S. Norris, UC professor of natural history and father of the NRS, said, “We can’t know now what scientific questions might arise, but we can make sure the resources to answer those questions are available. What we’re doing is opening the doors and providing the opportunities for those who follow in our footsteps.”