UC Merced

UC Merced’s reserve the starting point to celebrate ecosystem protection

UC Merced students and faculty check out a new sign for the UC Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve behind the university Thursday. The University of California Natural Reserve System, which includes 39 sites, is celebrating its 50th anniversary and kicked off the festivities in Merced.
UC Merced students and faculty check out a new sign for the UC Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve behind the university Thursday. The University of California Natural Reserve System, which includes 39 sites, is celebrating its 50th anniversary and kicked off the festivities in Merced. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

The University of California’s network of reserves is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and UC Merced was home to the first such event Thursday.

UC Natural Reserve System Director Peggy Fiedler spoke to students and researchers in Merced to highlight the statewide system, which is made up of 39 reserves around California. The reserves are used for research and often bring together students from multiple campuses.

UC Merced’s Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve, roughly 6,500 acres northeast of the campus, has been in the system for a little more than a year.

The reserve system was started in 1965 – it was just seven sites at the time – by three professors who wanted to protect land they were studying from being developed. In the previous decade, they had seen wild lands bulldozed for buildings, wiping away what they saw as outdoor laboratories.

From the beginning, Fiedler said, the reserves were meant to be as diverse as the ecosystems seen around the state, which lends to collaboration among researchers. “(The reserves) provide access to model ecosystems,” she said.

The model ecosystem provided by UC Merced’s reserve makes it unique in the statewide network. The vernal pools and grasslands near Merced are home to such plants as the succulent owl’s clover and Hoover’s spurge, as well as unusual animals such as the fairy shrimp, tiger salamanders and burrowing owls.

Christopher Swarth, director of the reserve, said six research projects are ongoing there.

That research includes baseline studies on birds of prey such as the American kestrel, mammals in the grassland and hydrology. “The university has some of the densest, most interesting variety of vernal pools of anywhere in California,” Swarth said.

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands, where a layer of dense hardpan soil allows the water to pool without seeping quickly into the ground. More than 90 percent of California’s vernal pools are gone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers said about one-third of the Valley was made up of such land before European settlers came to the area.

Ironically, there was a time when UC Merced’s planners sought to build the university on top of what is now the reserve, but they were not given federal clearance. The protection awarded to Merced’s pools is supposed to spare them from the fate of their counterparts around the state.

“The vast majority goes to agricultural crops,” researcher Bob Holland said.

Holland, who has studied the area for about 35 years, said the story of vernal pools in the state is a “depressing” one. From 2005 to 2012, California lost about 7,000 acres of vernal pools a year, he said.

Though vernal pools exist in every county in the state, he said, Merced’s are the most intact batch left, making their preservation that much more important.

The unique lands have begun to draw researchers from out of the area, such as Niall McCarten, a doctoral student from UC Davis. He is studying how water travels to the vernal pools and seeps into the soil of the grasslands.

He said that kind of research should help the university understand how to maintain the reserve and predict how climate change and drought could affect the land.

Also marking the day of celebration Thursday was a new sign erected in front of the campus’s reserve. It gives the uninitiated some information about the reserve and the wildlife on it.

Sam Traina, the vice chancellor of the Office of Research and Economic Development, was there to take note of its placement. “This sign is the first piece of infrastructure associated with the reserve,” Traina said, “although we hope for many more.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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