A Look Through the Lens of Ira Latour

Under the Influence

Slamming the Word

Protecting a Piece of the Planet



Conservation is a team game. Effective action, always against odds, requires the coordinated participation of many kinds of people—farmers, hunters, rangers, bureaucrats, politicians, scholars, voters, citizens. Laws alone will not save life on earth, and even the most thoughtful field program will often not work unless people representing divergent interests come to share a sense of its purpose and importance.
—Russell E. Train, first director of the Environmental Protection Agency

What is remarkable about the Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve is how it came to be and what it represents. It's remarkable because it is the result of a diverse and collaborative effort including California State University, Chico that, from start to finish, came together in just two years' time. It's remarkable because it protects a critically important ecosystem forever. It's remarkable because of its educational and research value—this outdoor classroom will be used for university field-based classes, graduate study and research, and faculty grants and research projects in watershed management, habitat restoration, and applied conservation biology projects. And for those of us lucky enough to live in Chico, it's remarkable because this slice of protected wilderness is right in our own backyard.

"The Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve is critically important because it protects and enhances habitat for at-risk species," notes Ken Derucher, dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology and managing dean of the Ecological Preserves Program. "It preserves a high-quality example of Sierra Nevada riparian ecosystem. The preserve contributes to the restoration of spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout and to the promotion of scientific knowledge and public awareness."

The Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve, dedicated last October, is home to more than 140 identified species, 13 percent of which are threatened, in danger, or "species of special concern." The wide variety of wildlife includes mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, wild turkey, the largest migratory herd of black-tailed deer in California, steelhead trout, spotted owl, golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon, and two "at risk" species—the foothill yellow-legged frog (see photo above) and the western pond turtle. And, if all this wasn't enough, Big Chico Creek is a natural migration and spawning area—one of the few natural spawning grounds left in California—for spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

Ten miles east of CSU, Chico and bordered by Butte Creek to the south and Deer Creek to the north, the 2,724-acre preserve protects two-and-a-half miles of Big Chico Creek between Upper Bidwell Park and Forest Ranch. It spans Big Chico Creek Canyon rim to rim, from Highway 32 on the eastern ridge to Musty Buck Ridge on the west, with elevations from 700 to 2,000 feet. The preserve is a prime Sierra Nevada riparian ecosystem—a foothill and upper canyon habitat of woodlands, open meadows, and conifer forests. The land is essentially untouched—pristine because of limited human access for hundreds of years.

Deer Creek, Mill Creek, and Butte Creek are three of the few creeks in Northern California that support strong spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Due in great part to the damming of waterways, spring-run Chinook salmon were once 98 percent depleted. The population has made a comeback over the past 10 years, thanks to the efforts of conservationists. It is important to keep this recovery momentum going as both populations—spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout—continue to be listed as threatened species by the federal government.

"We have the opportunity to not only save this land from development, but we can also help save several species of plants and animals that are close to extinction," says CSU, Chico geography professor Donald Holtgrieve, who played a key role in creating the preserve and is coordinator of its management plan and endowment efforts. "If we had waited, the opportunity would have been lost. We are making history and, in our own small way, saving a natural piece of the planet."

According to a Nature Conservancy report, 214 salmon and steelhead trout stocks are at risk of extinction in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. Salmon and steelhead trout spawn in specific watersheds to which they return to breed after maturing for a number of years in the ocean. Each one of these populations is called a "stock" or a "run," and each stock is a unique breeding population. Protecting the individual stocks preserves the genetic diversity that is critical to the protection of the species as a whole. Big Chico Creek's high altitude, cool water temperature, and deep pools are perfectly suited to the spawning and rearing of salmon and steelhead trout.

"Restoring and preserving Big Chico Creek fish stocks is important," says Suzanne Gibbs, watershed coordinator of the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance. "Other creeks also support spring-run Chinook salmon but are not as imminently threatened by urban development. Conserving the watershed is an important step toward protecting this unique and valuable Sierra Cascade species."

And what is a watershed? According to the River Network, a national nonprofit organization devoted to protecting and restoring rivers and watersheds and a key player in the acquisition of the Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve, "a watershed is the entire area that water flows across, under, and through on its way to a particular body of water."

Phillip Wallin, director of the River Network's River Conservancy, explains the importance of the "watershed approach" to conservation: "Ridgelines ... divide the landscape into geographic units within which environmental problems can be addressed effectively. The critical factor is water. Watercourses tie together the headwaters and the estuary, the land and the water, the forests and the farmland and the cities. For these reasons, the watershed has become the most practical unit for an ecosystem approach to resource issues." The Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve is a prime example of a watershed approach to conservation.

The Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve is also a grassroots project. It came to fruition thanks to the collaboration of state, federal, university, and private organizations. In 1994, the City of Chico condemned half of the property known as the Simmons Ranch to protect it from development. That half of the Simmons Ranch became part of Bidwell Park. For reasons of environmental value and sentimental concern, co-owners Darwin and Ed Simmons and Chico builder Dan Drake preferred to sell their remaining half of the Simmons Ranch property to a conservation organization. They approached Gibbs. She, in turn, introduced them to Wallin of the River Conservancy. The two parties—private landowners and conservationists—worked together to fashion an agreement to purchase and conserve the 2,724 remaining acres of the Simmons Ranch. The River Conservancy then turned to the CSU, Chico Research Foundation to help find funding to make the purchase.

The purpose of a preserve is to protect and enhance natural environments and to provide controlled access to these environments for education and research activities. The CSU, Chico Research Foundation manages two other properties: the 93-acre Butte Creek Ecological Preserve, acquired two years ago, and the 62-acre Eagle Lake Biological Field Station, owned for the past 40 years.

Within the CSU, Chico Research Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that exists to manage externally funded projects supporting the university's mission, another group of diverse, key players banded together to create a fundraising strategy. They are Derucher, Holtgrieve, and Scott McNall, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs and president of the Research Foundation.

With the help of Wallin and Gibbs, the Research Foundation team created a grant proposal for submission to the public and private sector. A testimony to the importance and value of the project, their efforts were rewarded with $3.677 million to buy the land. Contributions came from three major sources: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ($500,000, the original seed money); the California Wildlife Conservation Board, a division of the California Department of Fish and Game ($1.677 million—the first grant ever under the Proposition 12 Parks and Recreation Bond issue); and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation ($1.5 million toward the purchase of the land, plus $64,000 to develop a management plan and an endowment plan).

"Acquisition of this property demonstrates the power of partnerships," says Mike Spear of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Together we were able to accomplish so much more than we could have individually, and the end result is the protection of this unique parcel."

The foundation is now developing a management plan to be in place by the summer of 2001. Yet another partnership, representatives from the community and from the university, will make up the management team. Management of the preserve will include the following objectives:

Permanently protect and preserve the property's various ecosystems, with emphasis on both land and water "at-risk" species.

Provide research and training (such as the graduate class in the photo above being taught by biology professor Wes Dempsey).

Promote public awareness and education about the Big Chico Creek watershed, fisheries, river ecosystems, and "at-risk" species.

Control access by limiting hunting, fishing, and grazing in accordance with agreements with the California Wildlife Conservation Board and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so that none of these activities negatively impacts habitat or species.

Watershed conservation and management are key components of the preserve. A watershed management plan includes components such as monitoring water quality, restoring habitat, preventing erosion and pollution, creating screening diversions for fish protection, and educating the public.

As part of its management plan, the foundation would like to accumulate an endowment to provide for the care, maintenance, and protection of the preserve. The funding goal is $5 million, which should be sufficient to be self-perpetuating and to meet the preserve's continuing needs.

"The recent acquisition is the centerpiece of an extensive preserve planned along Big Chico Creek," says McNall. "While an enormous fund was raised to purchase the land, no funding exists for the property's care and preservation. In order to provide active management and protection for this valuable ecosystem, we must raise a substantial endowment."

Another goal of the foundation is to expand the preserve. Already, there is an option to purchase another two-and-a-half miles along the creek. Community response to the concept of a preserve has been positive and supportive. There is some opposition, however—not to the preserve per se—but because the public does not have unlimited access to the preserve. It is important to remember that a preserve is not a park for public use and recreation, but rather a place to protect habitats and the species they support.

"I think the impact of the preserve will be positive," says Holtgrieve. "We are collecting data now so that comparisons with data collected in the future can be made. Faculty and grad students will have the opportunity to measure the effects of our efforts through the next century and beyond."

The story of the Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve is a story about a university's successful partnerships with the community, private organizations, and state and federal government to acquire, manage, and protect a critically important ecosystem forever. It provides faculty and students alike the rare opportunity to teach, conduct research, and learn in an outdoor classroom. The Big Chico Creek Ecological Preserve allows today's students, faculty, and members of the Chico community to witness and play a part in conservation research, planning, and management—to protect a piece of wilderness for the generations to come.


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