UC Merced eyes saving land

New leaders will oversee vernal pool habitat near campus

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 17, 2012 

— The University of California at Merced and the Sierra Nevada Research Institute are developing a conservation and research plan for thousands of acres of grasslands.

The area is home to springtime vernal pools that teem with plant and animal life just north of the campus.

"The notion that we could establish a natural reserve here, and our students and the surrounding community could learn from it, is something that's unusual," said David Hosley, executive director for the research institute. "I think it's a great opportunity to conserve the lands."

Ultimately, about 6,400 acres could be protected into perpetuity as part of the UC Natural Reserve System, a network of 38 protected sites, including more than 750,000 acres.

However, officials must first design and then submit for approval a project proposal to the UC Board of Regents.

Efforts recently moved forward with the appointment of two managers tasked with designing the research, education and conservation program.

Chris Swarth, a 20-year expert in bird and wetland ecology, is expected to arrive in January to co-manage the project.

Former National Parks Service leader Steve Shackelton began work at the university this fall as co-director of the vernal pools natural reserve.

"The thing that's really exciting about this is the combination of the traditional university campus with the protected-land area as a centerpiece of the regional community of Merced," said the former Yosemite ranger.

Shackelton said he's exploring the possibility of establishing a staffed research and education facility adjacent to the grasslands for university students, as well as regional public school students.

"We have hope for an interpretive center," he said. "It would be really great if we could use this opportunity to help students from Modesto to Fresno be able to study water, have an appreciation for agriculture."

At the same time, the project must be sensitive to the local plant and animal species, such as kit foxes, burrowing owls and fairy shrimp, Shackelton said.

"There are a number of threatened and endangered species out there, and you want to be careful and thoughtful about how you approach the permitting of research and other kind of activities that might have an impact," he said.

Getting UC reserve status and having dedicated staff members on sight would be a significant resource for the local community, as well as researchers from around the country and the world, Hosley said.

"It would be somebody who you can interact with, who can support you and coordinate," he said. "There's many opportunities to increase public understanding an appreciation of the environment that we're right in the middle of here in Merced County."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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