Based in Oakland at the UC Office of the President, the Harvard- and UC Berkeley–educated conservation biologist Peggy Fiedler was named director of the UC-wide Natural Reserve System in 2010. She’ll be speaking in Santa Barbara on October 1 and gives us this quick primer on the system.
What is the University of California Natural Reserve System? The NRS is a suite of 39 protected areas that include field stations, research centers, gateway reserves, and individual properties across California. The system was established by the Regents of the UC in 1965, and it was really the efforts of three founding faculty with the support of a huge cadre of faculty around the UC system. It started with seven properties, and it’s grown to 39.
Who was cofounder Ken Norris? He was on the faculty at UCLA and ended his career at UC Santa Cruz. Ken did field work in the Coachella Valley, and when he went back to his site, there was a motel there. It occurred to him that if there aren’t areas protected and managed by natural scientists like him, they were in jeopardy of losing their field sites.
Are they open to the public? Only a few reserves are open to the general public, but they are open to anybody who wants to conduct research or bring classes to the properties. We have many UC faculty, many California State University faculty, and then researchers from across the county and across the world.
Do they indeed represent all of California’s unique ecosystems? We have most but not all. Ken Norris originally thought we should have about 44. If you look at our map, we don’t have many up in the northern part of the state. One of our initiatives is expanding our partnership in National Parks. We have two field stations embedded in National Parks now, one in Yosemite and one at the Channel Islands. So we are looking to expand partnerships up in the north and the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Does conservation for conservation’s sake play into the system? There are a few people who feel that the UC should not be in the business of managing protected areas — just full stop. But because we are a university that offers all sorts of educational experiences, we absolutely need to have living laboratories that support and keep natural space. We can’t ever say we are protecting for conservation’s sake, but that’s clearly part of the equation. We don’t sell our reserves. We maintain them in perpetuity. We are a de facto conservation organization.
What are you actively working on right now? Partnerships. We have limited resources. We’re not going to get more staff positions or a whole new chunk of money, so we are launching a capital campaign this year that will run for two to three years. It’s not to buy new properties. It’s to expand our programmatic goals and to address the backlog of infrastructure needs. And we’re serving as the climate observatory network for the state. In order to expand this network, we need partnerships across the state.
For such a great system, it must be frustrating that so many people don’t know it exists. I know! I’ve been the director for almost six years. The first thing I did was get a contract with UC Press to write a book about the reserve system. That was one big effort to get the word out. We’re doing the best we can. There’s only seven of us at the Office of the President, but we’ve gone from nobody knows about us to a few people know about us. So we’re trying. But it’s amazing that more people don’t know.
And though not open to the pubic directly, there are plenty of opportunities for citizens to get involved, right? Absolutely. We have a really burgeoning citizen science program. Susan Mazer at UCSB established what’s called a California Phenology Network, where we have volunteers come out and monitor plants. It’s a huge volunteer network, and that’s just one example. We have some reserves like Sedgwick, which is doing great public outreach to get people on the reserve. We love to have people interested. We’re happy to embrace any group that wants to come out.