Peeking through a grove of svelte, white aspens, dusty hills ascend from sagebrush, giving way to jagged, rocky peaks piercing an impossibly blue sky that extends as far as the eye can see.
“The drama of the landscape here — the wide-open spaces, the mountains larger than life, the natural beauty — you feel yourself in the environment in a different way. You feel yourself as this smaller thing … and that’s what I really love about the Eastern Sierra. All this rugged beauty.”
That’s Carol Blanchette talking about her backyard. Her actual backyard.
As the director of UC Santa Barbara’s Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve (VESR), a two-site research outpost in Mammoth Lakes, she lives and works in that exact dramatic landscape she loves. Both her house and her office at Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) — the second field station, Valentine Camp, is just 15 miles up the road — look out on those very hills and aspens and peaks.
“Every day I walk out here and I’m blown away that I have a place like this that is protected, where I see people doing research, and see kids out exploring,” said Blanchette, who assumed the role just this summer upon the retirement of longtime director Dan Dawson, who ran the reserve for 37 years. “This is the dream job.”
Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve (VESR) is among UCSB’s — and the University of California’s — most prolific sources of ecological research. It is part of the 39-site UC Natural Reserve System (NRS), which boasts more than 750,000 acres of protected natural land and is the largest of its kind in the world.
UCSB administers seven reserves — the most of any UC campus — including Coal Oil Point on the coast just off campus and Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Barbara County’s wine country. Valentine Camp and SNARL are the farthest-flung.
“These reserves are important because they provide venues for researching Eastern Sierra ecology and hydrology, including snowpack and snow melt, which serve the entire Southern California region,” said UCSB’s NRS director Patricia Holden. “And with drought and climate changes in California, the UCSB NRS in the Eastern Sierra importantly serves the state.
“Field stations in general are playing an increasingly important role in understanding how all lands can be managed into the future,” added Holden, a professor at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “In many ways, we have a similar objective as the National Park Service (NPS): To steward natural resources. But the Natural Reserve System emphasizes research, and thus wherever we can partner with the National Park Service — for example, by managing reserves on National Park Service lands, as we do at Santa Cruz Island Reserve — the reserve system can enhance the research portfolio of the park service.”
Founded by the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife in 1935, SNARL has been a research outpost for more than three-quarters of a century. Originally known as Convict Creek Experiment Station, it was established to study the success of hatchery trout in a native stream. Over time the name changed and the research focus broadened.
UCSB acquired the 55-acre SNARL in 1973, not long after receiving the 156-acre Valentine Camp as a gift from the Valentine family in 1972. Both properties joined the still-nascent portfolio of the NRS, which launched just a few years prior, in 1965.
“SNARL was unheard of nationally when I first got here, and so was the NRS — it wasn’t on the research radar,” said Dawson, who was hired as reserve director in 1979. “I’m proud to say after 35-plus years of quality work and research, we are held in high regard by the scientific community at large and by the people who come here.
“Because we’re nested in an area that’s almost entirely public land we have access to millions of acres of forest service, national park and wilderness areas,” Dawson added. “I view SNARL as a portal reserve, a stepping off point into all that area of public land, making it a much more important and significant site than its 56 acres belies. It is now one of the most heavily used and active and productive sites in the NRS.”
UCSB research biologist Roland Knapp uses SNARL, and its new molecular biology lab, as just such a portal. Most of his work is in the high alpine lakes of Yosemite National Park, where he is helping to recover and rebuild populations of the native California mountain yellow-legged tree frog that have been extirpated from more than 92 percent of their geographic ranges.
It’s name aside, SNARL is, in Dawson’s words, “so much more than aquatic biology.” As is Valentine Camp and all NRS sites, it is open to professional researchers across the spectrum of field sciences, “from geology and geophysics, to animal behavior and physiology, to plant response to climate change.”
Not surprisingly, climate change has emerged as the overarching and prevailing line of research on the Mammoth reserve, as ecologists and other scientists examine the ecosystem’s response and resilience and the implications of related shifts, such as animals moving to higher elevations. The recent addition of a molecular biology lab at SNARL has also helped to propel that work in major ways, according to Dawson.
“Being equipped to do molecular biology, which effectively didn’t exist 30 years ago, opens up new opportunities for research,” he said. “We are seeing a shift to higher tech, to newer techniques that allow new kinds of research and to all the broad things that relate to climate change.”
And it’s not just UC scientists and academics in that mix. One prime and prominent example: NASA. The agency’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which measures snow through the air via LIDAR imagery, regularly operates out of SNARL.
“This is something that will transform the way we understand water and regulate water in the future,” said Blanchette, a biologist and longtime marine research scientist at UCSB. “I think there will be more opportunities like this in the future, to use the reserves as base stations for a lot of work around climate change.”
The UC-wide Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts aims to do exactly that by leveraging the entire NRS as a collection of living, breathing labs.
“Having these places set aside to really understand the natural function of the ecosystem is so important,” Blanchette said. “If you look at where the reserves are, a lot of thought went into what ecosystems exist in California and how we can make sure that each type is represented. They’re not all on the coast or all in the mountains — they’re distributed broadly. It’s an important legacy going forward that we’ll have this representative picture of the state within the reserve system.”
Under Dawson’s tenure — he spent his entire career working for UCSB, where he also earned his undergraduate degree — the two-parcel VESR has been in a decades-long upswing. He pushed to arrest and reverse decades of environmental decay at both sites and grow the reserve’s research program, plus increase its use by visiting college classes. He fought to implement forest management at Valentine Camp; his wife, Leslie Dawson, created and for years led its public outreach and formal development programs.
Known first and foremost for ecological fieldwork and investigation, the Mammoth sites today host several resident researchers and some 30 visiting university classes annually. They also welcome locals and other visitors by way of public lectures and a growing citizen science initiative. Thanks to its seasonal and popular Outdoor Education Program courses for the K-12 set, VESR also sees thousands of kids each year.
The innovations spurred by the Dawsons aren’t just still in place — they’re going strong and, Blanchette assures, will keep growing. Her deep and abiding belief in the NRS’s mission of research, stewardship of the land, teaching and public service will see to that, she said. And if she needs extra encouragement, she won’t have far to look.
Maybe it’s the heart-stopping vistas visible in every direction from SNARL, or an afternoon wind rustling the aspens. Maybe it’s a red-breasted sapsucker working a tree, or ground squirrels frolicking in the sagebrush. Could be the sight of bear tracks in the dense woods at Valentine Camp, or the wondrous, expansive meadow just beyond.
Or perhaps it’s a glimpse into the future, by way of her past.
“Seeing the faces of the kids when they see the hole that a sapsucker made in a tree and realize there’s a bird in there, or see an egg and connect with the fact that this will be a baby bird — their faces light up,” Blanchette said. “That sort of moment is a moment I had when I was a kid, and it’s why I’m a biologist.
“I strongly believe people are only going to protect what they love, and we want to instill that love and excitement and passion for the natural world in every kid that comes through our door,” she added. “The beauty that I see here and the feelings I have about this place … the responsibility is now in my hands to manage the land properly, to be a steward, and I’m proud to have the opportunity to do that.”