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Inaugural Managers to Lead New Vernal Pool Reserve

November 8, 2012

Chris Swarth

Chris Swarth (pictured here), experienced reserve manager, and Steve Shackelton, former national parks leader, hired to shepherd acreage into a UC reserve, develop educational and research programs

The effort to create a natural reserve out of nearly 6,000 acres adjacent to UC Merced has been jump-started by the hiring of two people to share the management duties. 

Sierra Nevada Research Institute Director Roger Bales, who is making the appointments, said Steve Shackelton, former National Parks Service leader and chief ranger in Yosemite, began work this fall. He will co-manage the planned reserve with Chris Swarth, an ornithologist and wetlands ecologist who spent more than 20 years managing the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Maryland. Swarth begins work in January.

The Sierra Nevada Research Institute oversees the reserve on behalf of the campus, and will take the lead on seeking inclusion in the University of California's Natural Reserve System. Shackelton and Swarth will expand the reserve's business plan and develop detailed outreach programs so students and community members can have supervised access to the grasslands and the pools that form after winter rains and flourish in the spring, only to dry up as the weather warms.

“Their skills complement each other wonderfully, and will provide the stewardship for these precious vernal pools and the grasslands adjacent to the campus,” SNRI Executive Director David Hosley said of the two men.

In 2001, the vernal pool land was set aside as part of the more than $11 million grant that provided land for the UC Merced campus through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The preserved land was part of the 7,030-acre Virginia Smith Trust parcel that also included the campus’s 2,000 acres. The grant arrangement included creation of the 5,030-acre conservation preserve of sensitive vernal pool habitat and facilitated creation of a 750-acre UC natural reserve for scientific study in rolling ranchland northeast of the city.

The agreement also triggered the release of $15 million in state-approved habitat acquisition funds from the Wildlife Conservation Board to ensure the conservation of key wetland and vernal pool resources in the surrounding area. An additional gift of $2 million in 2002, by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has helped maintain the habitat and will now help with the active management of the land.

Becoming part of the UC Natural Reserve System means the land would be part of a system of more than 30 reserves across California used by students, faculty and other researchers to study the natural systems and processes of the diverse environments.

“It is a unique conservancy area for California, and we want this to be a community resource, as well,” Bales said. “We want the community to be able to view these rich and beautiful ecosystems and learn about the birds, plants and vernal pool fauna.”

Shackelton served as Yosemite’s chief ranger for nine years before being named the National Parks Service’s associate director for visitor and resource protection, managing national fire, aviation, law enforcement, resource protection, wilderness, regulation development, public health, emergency medicine, and search-and-rescue programs.

In addition to sharing the vernal-pools-management job, Shackelton will work with management Professor Erik Rolland on a range of projects related to national and international conservation of parks and protected lands, including models of sustainability for California's state parks and conservation of open space in Asia and other parts of the world.

“This is a rare opportunity to conserve an important natural system, provide the opportunity for research and for the young people of the Valley and foothills regions to participate in science and take steps down the path to a university education,” Shackelton said in accepting the position.

Swarth, who has been a research ecologist and biology instructor since 1979, will teach part time, as well, in the School of Natural Sciences. He taught biology at UC Berkeley, and served as a part-time faculty member in the Johns Hopkins University, Kreiger School of Advanced Academic Programs.

“Swarth has extensive experience working with faculty researchers and students from grade school through graduate school, as well with volunteers and local governments. Shackelton has worked at the highest level of our national parks system, and has played a leadership role for a decade in the partnership between the National Parks Service and UC Merced that includes the National Parks Institute, Yosemite Leadership Program and the campus Wilderness Center,” Hosley said.

Between the two of them and the others already steering the land’s conservation, the future reserve’s bases are covered.

UC Merced has a management committee for the grasslands, and campus Facilities Management personnel maintain the fences, cattle grazing and other aspects. There is also an oversight committee, including members of The Nature Conservancy and a vernal-pools expert from UCLA, to make sure the land is conserved properly.

The UC Natural Reserve System is a network of protected natural areas throughout California. Its 38 sites include more than 750,000 acres, making it the largest university-administered reserve system in the world.

Before UC Merced’s reserve can be included, the reserve board must give the OK, and the UC Board of Regents must also approve the plan. It could be a year or more before the plan is approved.

There is already a weather station on the land, and Bales said the reserve will need some research infrastructure so its unique soils and the area’s water cycle can be monitored, and plants and animals can be inventoried.

The plan also calls for a 3,000-to-5,000-square-foot building to be erected on the campus from which researchers can work, and they and guided tour groups, including area school children, can access the reserve.

“We would never build on the reserve,” Bales said, adding that cattle grazing will continue, in part because it plays an important role in maintaining the land. “We’re implementing what’s in the campus management plan for those lands – a vision created by our founding chancellor and the campus’s founders, including the community.”