UC Santa Barbara celebrates 50 years of the UC Natural Reserve System

Celebrating the UCSB Natural Reserves from UC Santa Barbara on Vimeo. Additional footage and aerials by Alexander Mark Romanov and NOAA Fisheries.

by Shelly Leachman, UC Santa Barbara

After touring a storage shed overflowing with boxes of data records, field journals, specimen samples, maps, photographs, and more, Alagona recalled that he “filed that discovery away, thinking I’d come back to it some day.”

Now an associate professor of history and environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara, Alagona is leading a project to document and preserve archival materials across the University of California Natural Reserve System (NRS). What began at Boyd has grown to include all 39 of the 765,000-acre system’s reserves. The ultimate goal of this multi-campus, multidisciplinary, and admittedly massive endeavor, Alagona said, is to enable greater historical study of the NRS and of the California ecosystems it represents and protects.

The pristine tidepools of Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria allow scientists to examine intact intertidal communities. The reserve was named in honor of NRS founder and UC professor Ken Norris. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

Founders foresight

“The founders of the reserve system wanted these places to have historical significance because they knew the state would change rapidly,” said Alagona, who is the faculty advisor for Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino, a coastal reserve near Cambria that is one of seven NRS reserves administered by UCSB. “That’s why a project like this is so significant. Making the past of the reserves available is going to be increasingly valuable and important for the future.”

In a talk titled “There and Back Again: The Past, Present and Future Histories of the UC Natural Reserve System,” Alagona will address the significance of the reserves in preserving the state’s environmental history. The talk is part of a conference being held Friday, Oct. 2, at UCSB, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the NRS.

Our Living Laboratories conference

The conference, “Our Living Laboratories: The UCSB Natural Reserve System Today,” kicks off at 1:30 p.m. with Frank Davis, director of UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, speaking on “Highlights From a Half Century of Oak Research in the UC Natural Reserve System.” A 2:30 p.m. poster session will be followed at 4 p.m. by Alagona’s talk. A public reception begins at 5 p.m. The lectures will be held in Bren Hall, Room 1414; the poster session and reception will take place in the Bren Hall courtyard.

Santa Cruz Island Reserve, located on the largest of California’s Channel Islands, is adjacent to three marine protected areas. Image credit: Robert Schwemmer

“The reserves provide a unique opportunity for long-term experimental work and observational studies—and that’s really important in understanding the ecology of these systems,” Davis said. “If you study oak regeneration over many years, for example, you start to see the importance of El Niño years, the long-term effects of browsing by deer, the importance of climate events that only happen once in awhile and the importance of long-term pressure on the oaks and why it’s so hard to bring new trees into the population.

“Also, I would not underestimate the importance of the reserves as places where scientific research comes together with education, training and public outreach,” Davis added. “So many of the next generation of California ecologists are being trained on these sites and so much public knowledge of and interest in these ecosystems has stemmed from work on the reserves.”

A library of ecosystems

All of the general UC campuses administer NRS reserves. UCSB manages seven, the most of any campus, with habitats ranging from Sierra Nevada forests to coastal shorelines:

Habitat restoration efforts by NRS staff have returned native plants to the dunes at Coal Oil Point Reserve. Image credit: Lobsang Wangdu

Carpinteria Salt Marsh, just south of Santa Barbara, is a unique estuarine ecosystem that supports many sensitive plant and animal species in its wetlands and channel habitats.

• Coal Oil Point, adjacent to the campus, includes coastal dune and wetland ecosystems that provide critical habitat for migratory birds and threatened and endangered species, such as the snowy plover.

Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino, encompassing two miles and 600 acres on the coast near Cambria, is home to one of the state’s few remaining native Monterey pine forests. It supports research on such subjects as sea otters, global warming and grazing.

Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara, is the site of important archaeological resources and many endemic plant and animal species, including Channel Island foxes.

Located near Mammoth Lakes in eastern California, the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory is one of two NRS reserves in the region. It’s renowned for stream research and serves as a home base for researchers conducting studies elsewhere in the region. Image credit: George Foulsham

Sedgwick, the largest of UCSB’s reserves, sprawls across nine square miles at the base of Figueroa Mountain, in the Santa Ynez Valley. The former home of Duke Sedgwick and family, the property boasts a diverse array of geological features, vegetation and wildlife.

• Valentine Eastern Sierra is actually two reserves: Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory and nearby Valentine Camp. These sister sites in Mammoth Lakes support an array of ecological research, as well as teaching and public outreach.

“The Natural Reserve System provides exactly what we want to offer to our students and other researchers, which is opportunities to perform their research at sites that are representative of California’s unique ecosystems,” said Patricia Holden, director of UCSB’s Natural Reserve System and a professor of environmental microbiology at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “There is no substitute for being on site, making visual observations and being able to discuss what you’re learning while you’re there in it. The reserves give us this capacity to provide on-the-ground training to our students to research the unique ecosystems of California.

Mammoth Creek flows through Valentine Camp, one of two UCSB reserves located in the Mammoth Lakes region. This jewel of a reserve features a wet meadow, a waterfall, aspen, a glacial moraine, and Great Basin sagebrush.

“We have a big share and a big responsibility,” Holden continued. “Having these sites tremendously enriches the already great capacities, capabilities and expertise we have at UCSB—and it’s all toward the next generation.

“It is an amazing thing that 50 years ago, there were visionaries in California that thought forward and said, ‘We need to set aside sites for these purposes: for teaching, for research, for outreach to the public,’” she concluded. “The fact that that mission has persisted, that we still have allegiance to that mission and actually have grown the system over 50 years, it’s a testament to what the UC system is all about.


Anniversary events at UCSB

A slate of area events celebrating the anniversary also includes:

• a conversation between UC NRS director Peggy Fiedler and journalist Jeff Greenfield at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, free and open to the public, Oct.1

• a nature photography workshop at Coal Oil Point on Oct. 3

• guided tours and breakfast at Carpinteria Salt Marsh on Oct. 4

• a benefit art show and sale in Montecito Oct. 24

• a farm-to-table harvest dinner fundraiser at Sedgwick Reserve on Nov. 7.

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