Have you ever tried to complete a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the front of the box? That is how Andy Brooks, Director of the UC Natural Reserve System’s Carpenteria Salt Marsh Reserve, describes being an ecologist. “You don’t know how many pieces there are, but you just start piecing things together and eventually you begin to see what the big picture is.”
Brooks oversees one of the 39 natural reserves operated by the University of California. For 50 years, these protected natural areas have provided undisturbed environments for research, education, and public service to help scientists piece together the ecology puzzle.
The Natural Reserve System (NRS) is a network of protected lands throughout California that serve as living laboratories for students and researchers. The NRS began as a vision of UCLA professor Kenneth S. Norris, who as a graduate student dedicated significant time studying desert iguanas outside of Palm Springs in the 1940s, then returned to his research site to find the earth bulldozed and the iguana habitat he had studied decimated.
This event, an occurrence that has been tragically replicated hundreds of times as California’s population continues to increase, inspired Norris and other visionaries to co-found the NRS in January 1965.
Starting with just seven sites, the system has now expanded to all UC campuses, encompassing 756,000 acres of protected land among its 39 unique sites. Today it is the largest university-administered reserve system in the world. Researchers and students visit these living laboratories from all over the world and benefit from having access to the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the nation.
Outreach and Public Service
The mission of NRS is to support university-level teaching, research, and public service. The reserves provide a variety of services to better connect with the public including opening their sites to visitors, sponsoring lecture series, and hosting hundreds of school children on field trips each year.
“The NRS provides protected lands on which people can learn about and be inspired by the natural world,” explained NRS Publications Coordinator Kathleen Wong. Having access to these habitats and ecosystems is invaluable for education.
Brooks hosts tours at the Carpentaria Salt Marsh and speaks to third and fourth grade classes often. “There are kids who go to school a mile from the beach and have never seen the ocean,” he said. “To get them out into the salt marsh to talk about why it’s important and what types of species live there is incredibly valuable.” He believes there is much more to learn from observing an animal in its natural habitat rather than reading about it in a textbook.
UC’s Institute for the Study of Ecological Effects of Climate Impacts (ISEECI) will begin using the NRS to detect and forecast the ecological impacts of climate change in California. ISEECI’s mission is to enable large-scale and coordinated climate research, utilizing the diverse habitats of the NRS. “The Institute will coordinate UC research and take advantage of decades of environmental and climate records,” described Wong. “Those records will become even more valuable as we focus future climate studies at the same locations.”
For most of the NRS’s 50 years, the Reserves have operated largely as autonomous units, keeping their own data and data formats; there has been little collaboration save for the few times that an individual researcher works on more than one reserve. Brooks hopes ISEECI will be able to collect data at the individual reserve level and start making that data available to databases maintained at the system level.
“If the Reserve System is going to have a meaningful role to play in informing the legislature of California about climate change, we have to begin functioning as a network, and that means sharing data collected across the state at different NRS Reserves using a common framework,” said Brooks.
California is the most biologically diverse state in the nation. The knowledge gained from observing the wide variety of plants and animals in California, many of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world, can be applied to the conservation of that species and its relatives across broad regions no matter where they reside.
Wong compares protecting California’s biodiversity to managing an endowment: “These organisms and their genes are the repository from which future diversity and biological resiliency will evolve.”
The NRS’s many reserves protect habitat that house many threatened and endangered species. Their preservation through these reserve sites has created many success stories from an approach that includes constant monitoring and management. Success stories include the protection of species such as the California Tiger Salamander at the Jepson Prairie Reserve, the Channel Island Fox on Santa Cruz Island Reserve, the Ventura Marsh Milk Vetch at Carpentaria Salt Marsh, and endangered Condors at Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve, to name just a few.
“The NRS is the hidden jewel of the University of California,” Brooks said. Raising the overall awareness of the Natural Reserve System will have educational benefits to all fields of study.
The NRS provides a solution to problems many researchers face. Thanks to the NRS, they can be assured that important habitats won’t be developed into shopping malls, that species will not be hunted, and that plants will not be sprayed with pesticides, among other assurances. The reserves provide the perfect environment for ecological research and teaching. The past 50 years of research provides a foundation for scientists to continue building upon to better understand the ecological impact we’ve had on the environment as well as the many benefits, both ecological and economic, that an intact environment provides.