More than 6,560 acres of open grassland surrounding UC Merced were dedicated as part of the UC Natural Reserve System this Wednesday. The Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve, approved by the UC Regents in January, is the 39th wildland site to join the system.
The celebrations began with a birding tour that ranged deep into the reserve. Hillsides covered with the undulating humps called mima mounds gave way to views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. The spring landscape should have been emerald green and dotted with wildflowers and ephemeral pools, but drought has left the vegetation brittle and brown. Despite the harsh conditions, the reserve teemed with life. Horned larks, meadowlarks, and ground squirrels fluttered and scampered across grasses cropped short by grazing cattle. A female kestrel incubated her eggs in an artificial nest box. An outcropping near Black Rascal Creek sheltered both a colony of cliff swallows and a nest of three raven chicks with gaping crimson mouths.
The addition of these lands to the UC Natural Reserve System is the culmination of a decade-long effort begun even before the first buildings on campus. "For me personally, this is one of the best days since I've been here," said UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland. "The reserve is an asset we have in our backyard that very few research universities have."
The reserve protects vernal pools that fill during winter and spring rains. Endangered fairy shrimps and many types of wildflowers are only found in this type of habitat. More than 150 years of intensive agricultural has destroyed most of California's vernal pools, making the reserve an important refuge for these species.
Peggy Fiedler, Director of the UC Natural Reserve System, described the reserve as “a rare and vast landscape of pools and ponds, swales, and vernal mosaics that spring to life with California’s winter rains. These ancient soils, endemic plants and animals, and their vernal ecosystems offer an endless treasure of possibilities for the UC community.”
The clays that line the vernal pools constitute some of the most ancient sediments in North America, said reserve faculty director Martha Conklin. “Some soils date back to the uplift of the Sierra. The hardpan took a million years to form.”
More than 1,200 undergraduates have already visited the reserve to learn about its natural history, says Reserve Director Christopher Swarth. Users have included writing classes and those conducting research on the grassland food web, while professors have launched projects on topics ranging from its geological formations to mammal surveys. Several hundred local schoolchildren have also taken field trips to the reserve.
Cammy Vega, a UC Merced student and the reserve’s first intern, summed up the value of the reserve to generations of future students and community members. “There’s so much more to this terrain than just grass,” Vega said. “Every time I go out I learn something new.”