Natural Treasure: A look at UCSB’s Natural Reserve System


Kyle Roe
Copy Editor

Since it was founded in 1965, the University of California Natural Reserve System (UC NRS) has dedicated itself to providing pristine protected wildlife areas for native species to thrive, unfettered by human interference.  The NRS consists of 39 separate sites, preserving upwards of 756,000 acres, and divides management responsibilities between the nine UC campuses. The University of California, Santa Barbara currently manages seven of the reserves.

According to Dr. Patricia Holden, Director of the UCSB NRS, “The Reserves are comprised of lands and all of their natural resources that are typical of the special and diverse ecosystems of California.  [The fact] that they represent local ecosystems is why the Reserves are so important: they are model systems.” As such, they provide an excellent setting for scientific research, efforts to garner public interest, and university education, hosting over 150 UC undergraduate courses and accommodating large numbers of undergraduate and graduate researchers each year.

This article focuses on the Reserve areas within a relatively short distance to UCSB: Coal Oil Point, Carpinteria Salt Marsh, Santa Cruz Island, and Sedgwick Natural Reserve.

Coal Oil Point

Located less than a mile north of Isla Vista, Coal Oil Point is the closest of the reserves to UCSB. It is the home of over 1,000 species of plants and animals, and, according to Reserve Director Dr. Cristina Sandoval, is “one of the most diverse and productive beaches in the world in invertebrates, thanks to the abundant kelp wrack that is deposited daily at the beach.” Accordingly, it is a hotspot for undergraduate activity, hosting regular visits from a range of courses, including invertebrate zoology, geomorphology, conservation biology, and landscape painting.

Undergraduates can also get involved at the Reserve as interns for the Snowy Plover Docent Program, where they work to preserve local populations of the threatened snowy plover, a shorebird of the plover family that reproduces and nests in sandy dunes along the California coast.

The snowy plover’s ancient breeding habits do not mix well with the hordes of beachgoers who trample their nesting grounds. “People are destroying these unique environments for their own recreational purposes.  As a result, the endangered snowy plovers usually leave and they are often unsuccessful in reproducing,” said David Brunn, an intern at the Snowy Plover Docent Program. Fortunately, the university has cordoned off 850 meters of beach for snowy plover to reproduce without interference from predators or unwary humans.

Carpinteria Salt Marsh

The Carpinteria Salt Marsh is home to one of the last saltwater marshes on the Southern California coast, an estuary scientists have deemed “critically important”. Estuaries are characterized by influx from saltwater and freshwater sources, acting as a transition zone between the two ecosystems.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, when water passes through a salt marsh, “marsh grasses and peat…filter pollutants such as herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals out of the water.” Due to the accumulated nutrients flowing in from the ocean and freshwater streams, salt marshes are also extremely productive ecosystems that can support slews of different organisms.

The reserve hosts several endangered species, including the Salt Marsh Bird’s-beak and Salt Marsh Goldfields, who would be hard-pressed to find another suitable habitat to call home.

Santa Cruz Island

Nestled between Santa Rosa and Anacapa Islands is one of the most biologically interesting sites in the UCSB NRS: Santa Cruz Island. Separated from the mainland by 25 miles of ocean, the Reserve possesses a unique ecosystem that is home to 60 plants and animals endemic to the island alone, providing key insight for researchers. For example, comparing the isolated Island Scrub Jay to scrub jay species on the other Channel Islands and the mainland can help scientists deduce when the species’ ancestors separated on the evolutionary tree.

Unfortunately, invasion by non-native plants and animals has pushed many of Santa Cruz Island’s native species to the brink of extinction. Some, like the Island Song Sparrow, have not been seen for years, and are feared extinct. According to the National Park Service, the most damaging of these invaders are feral pigs and a strain of non-native fennel (a weed). These species, through chain reactions, have contributed heavily to the “catastrophic decline of island foxes” and other native species on Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa Islands.


Sedgwick Natural Reserve is located 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, in the Santa Ynez Valley. The Reserve conducts its research differently than many other NRS areas by inviting the public to participate in a volunteer “citizen science” program concerning the phenology of native plants. Phenology is the study of how plant and animal life cycle events are influenced by seasonal, habitat, and climate change.

According to Associate Director of the UCSB NRS, Dr. Sue Swarbrick, the time some plants flower, bud, or grow back their leaves after winter often depends on the warmth of their surrounding environment, and could be affected by climate change. The volunteers go back to certain plants every week to monitor changes, and then, “enter all their data into a nationwide online database, and all that data can be used by scientists to look at factors such as climate change.”

The research done at Sedgwick mirrors findings from scientific studies from around the country claiming that climate change is affecting the phenology of plants.