Hidden Reserves of California

Helen Wagenvoord

The University of California's Boyd Deep Canyon Reserve sets aside 17,000 acres of desert landscape for researchers and students.


Allan Muth knows the desert well. “Desert landscapes are shaped by water,” he explains as he walks through the parched landscape of Deep Canyon in the Coachella Valley. He points out the terraces and dry washes that mark the work of years of landscaping by chocolate malt-colored flash floods. He marvels at the striated, buckled rock that’s been muscled by heat and pressure and is all that remains of a mountain range from 150 million years ago.

If you look hard enough, he says, you can see that the canyon’s slopes teem with spindly fans of ocotillo and stockier barrel cacti. He wonders how these thumb-shaped barrel cacti, anchored by a taproot as thick as a healthy carrot, can hitchhike up the steep canyon walls and withstand the stiff winds that gust down the canyon at more than 60 mph. He doesn’t know the answer yet, but thinks it’s worth looking into for what it might teach us about nature’s engineering savvy.

Muth is walking through his office, the 17,000-acre Philip L. Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. It is one of 34 such study sites throughout the state that belong to the University of California Natural Reserve System (NRS), the largest network of field stations in the world. In 1870, Joseph LeConte, the university’s first professor of geology and botany, pointed out the importance of protecting California’s “magnificent field” of natural resources. But it wasn’t until nearly a century later that faculty, who watched as their study sites disappeared under urban sprawl, cattle hooves, and industrial development, championed LeConte’s idea and brought about the reserve system in 1965. The NRS now encompasses twelve ecological regions of California’s wilderness and includes more than 130,000 protected acres dedicated to research, education, and public service.

Deep Canyon, one of the seven sites that formed the foundation of the fledgling system, provides one of the best illustrations of the importance of this initiative. In 1965, it was a remote desert outpost near Palm Springs, about twelve miles from the closest development. Today, to reach the research center, you have to drive through the big box development of Palm Desert and “The Reserve,” the ironically-named, residential country club where the cheapest lot recently sold for a million dollars. Blue lakes, soft green golf fairways, and yellow-flowering palo verde trees cool the eye alongside tasteful, low-lying, sand-colored buildings. Then, with the golf course on one side of the road, you watch Deep Canyon’s gravelly landscape scattered with black-stumped golden cholla unfold on the other. The Reserve is colorized with irrigation; Deep Canyon is an unblooming desert in its third year of drought.

"The Reserve" residential country club and golf course stands in stark contrast to the University of California's protected desert lands in the distance.


The Deep Canyon transect stretches from the Coachella Valley floor to over 8,700 feet high in the Santa Rosa Mountains. Decades ago, this same site was used by Patton’s armored forces to conduct water stress experiments on soldiers. Today, the research focus at Deep Canyon is much the same: what can be learned about resilience and efficiency by studying survival under such ascetic circumstances. But instead of thirsty soldiers, the test subjects are a slew of plants and animals challenged by the rigors of desert living.

In the 30-odd years since Deep Canyon was protected for research, one thing has become crystal clear: in the desert, organisms must be tuned for maximum efficiency. For instance, in the late 1980s, UCLA scientist P.S. Nobel and colleagues measured the energy involved in the growth and final flowering of the desert agave (Agave deserti). They discovered that the death of the rosette was critical to balance the plant’s energy budget for photosynthesis, water loss, and flower production.

Likewise, UC San Diego graduate student Allison Alberts found, quite by chance, that desert iguana scat fluoresced under ultraviolet light. She later determined that desert iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) can see in the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum, and that they mark their territories with fluorescent scat as a billboard for other lizards. This is clearly another desert-driven design. A more typical territory marking such as urine would dry up quickly and cost the animal precious moisture, while a visual marking remains effective in the desert heat.

Muth’s been plying the desert for knowledge since he started managing Deep Canyon nearly two decades ago. “A desert plant has to be responsive to the fact that, while its root hairs suck up water, water goes both ways,” he says. “So how do these plants strike the critical balance between water absorption and energy conservation?

Similarly, if you are a desert iguana, desert tortoise, or chuckwalla, do you have another offspring, or do you save precious energy that may help you just eke through hibernation? The fringe-toed lizard has small clutches of eggs. Why? Probably because times are rough out here, and it wants to live long and get a couple chances to reproduce successfully.”

Muth is an authority on Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards (Uma inornata), which were important catalysts for the establishment of the NRS. In the 1950s, local scientists who wanted to settle a disagreement about fringe-toed lizard speciation in the Colorado and Mojave deserts placed populations on four different dunes in the nearby town of Mira Loma. Within a year, all four dunes had been razed by bulldozers to pave the way for developments. One of the scientists, UCLA zoologist Ken Norris, proposed a solution to Clark Kerr, then-president of the University of California. The NRS was established during Kerr’s presidency to, in Kerr’s words, “preserve one example of every kind of California terrain, from desert to high Sierra to redwoods to marshlands...something that in the long run will loom as having been of increasing importance over the years.”

In the 18 years Muth has spent studying fringe-toed lizards, he and his colleagues have created one of the most detailed, long-term demographic data sets for any lizard in the world. Muth uses this information to influence major regional planning. In the past few years, the population of the Coachella Valley has nearly doubled, and feeds off the more than 100 golf courses that now drive the economy.

He uses what he calls “biopolitics” to convince local decision makers that protecting the dynamic dunes required by the Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizards also preserves the open space and scenic vistas, that are key to the desert’s commercial attraction. “I’ve been up to my ears in biopolitics and endangered lizards since the day I arrived,” he says.

Muth was even able to influence the blueprints of The Reserve country club, a neighbor that he realized was inevitable. Its blooms are at least those of native desert plants that were taken out and replanted in the well-manicured grounds. And the developer, with Muth’s guidance, included wildlife corridors and maintained open vistas. Nonetheless, this doorstep development highlights the lucky prescience of Deep Canyon’s founders. The site where Muth studied desert iguanas as a graduate student is now under The Reserve.

About 100 miles as-the-raven-flies northeast of Deep Canyon, the Granite Mountains rise from the Mojave Desert. This place of towering rock piles looks like Yosemite Valley might after going through a blender. The rocks glow warmly at sunset and turn into ghostly edifices in the balm of moonlight. They are not just beautiful: the nooks and crannies in this stone arena provide cooler microclimates that permit high-altitude plants, such as pinyon pine and an unexpected bunchgrass (Bothriochloa barbinodis), to relocate down a thousand feet or more.

This pinyon-studded, rocky landscape is a magnet for research. Approximately 30 percent of its 9,000 acres is owned by the NRS; the rest is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of the Mojave National Preserve. Jim Andre manages the NRS’s Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center here, which has also experienced a drought over the past year. “The drought presents a tremendous opportunity to study the long-term dynamics and forces that shape a desert,” he says. “It is a particularly good time to study impacts such as commercial livestock grazing, and witness the limits of the desert’s ability to withstand such damage. This is when a species’s chance of long-term success truly gets tested.”

His site is an amphitheater of exposed sky and rock. Today, the purple globes of chia flowers are absent; only the wheat-colored sockets of last year’s bloom remain. Barrel cacti slump with last year’s dried flowers, while beavertail cacti buckle into cerebral folds. Although it is the most remote field station in the NRS, Sweeney is quickly becoming one of the most used. The number of research projects has tripled in the past four years and now totals a hundred.

Research at the Sweeney reserve spans from the use of computer chip implants to track the reproductive behavior and population dynamics of sidewinder snakes, to studying the caching and dispersal of seeds by kangaroo rats, to identifying the influence of water availability on clutch size and nesting density of black-throated sparrows.

There are also efforts to discover ways to assess and repair damage to the desert. Desert visitors are destroying the living cryptobiotic crusts of microorganisms that stabilize their soils. Andre is inoculating damaged soils with bacteria, fungi, and algae to see if it’s possible to restore these fragile crusts in a place where one footfall can undo a century of hard-won integrity. Other researchers are examining areas where Native Americans once grew and processed plant seeds, and investigating how those activities influenced seed distribution. Their findings will help other researchers recognize the presence and land use of Native Americans elsewhere.

Jet-black phainopepla birds dart from bush to bush, eyes the color of the mistletoe berry that is their sole foodstuff in the desert. Their specialized taste seems misplaced here, for this site has the highest shrub diversity in the state. The Sweeney reserve sits at the confluence of the Colorado, Mojave, and Great Basin deserts, a blending that’s resulted in more than 400 plant species and over 200 animal species and counting. Surveys of this landscape have uncovered new species of lichen, manzanita, ant, wasp, spider, bee, and nematode.

But even after this kind of scrutiny, the site still abounds with unanswered questions. It’s clear that the pace of information gathering requires an exceptionally long perspective. “I came here to get to know a place well,” explains Andre, a former organic farmer and now a botanist well versed in the Mojave’s flora. “I’ve been here eight years; now I realize I need at least 400.” Certain desert shrubs, for example, rarely die of old age. “To understand the reproduction of that kind of plant, you need research that spans generations of both shrubs and researchers,” he says.

One of the challenges faced by this university of biodiversity is how to prevent trespassers from crushing years of onsite research. These reservoirs of natural history and future knowledge require public support, but Andre asserts that access needs to be restricted. “A well-intended climber can destroy a study plot on desert soils,” he says. But it’s not just public access that concerns Andre. “Even researchers can trample other scientists’ terrestrial subjects.”

Another NRS site is currently developing technology to help merge access and resource protection. The relatively small 29-acre James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve, surrounded by National Forest lands, provides habitat for 1,500 species of plant, bird, mammal, reptile, and invertebrate. Research here ranges from critical studies of the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog to climate change reconstructions from tree rings.

James Reserve was the first new site acquired by the NRS after its initial establishment. It was donated by Grace and Harry James, who had championed outdoor education for decades through their private boys’ school. Today, director Michael Hamilton honors the James’s spirit by throwing the gate open to a broad range of educational programs for universities, elementary and secondary schools, and even artists and musicians.

Hamilton is tinkering with technology that will not only increase public access to the reserve, but will also widen the scope of research being done and help protect it at the same time. Hamilton’s fascination with the natural world has always been intertwined with a passion for technology. As a graduate student, he designed electronic monitors to track penstemon-pollinating hummingbirds, making him a frontrunner in technology development for research and management purposes. Three years ago, the first webcam was installed at the James Reserve to allow elementary school students to study field biology from their classroom computers.

Today, James Reserve is wired with cameras trained on resident birds and bats and weather monitors that follow the clouds and wind. Webcam images and weather updates have gone public on the reserve’s web site, providing twenty-first century public access to real-time weather and wildlife at the site. After just three years of providing this armchair access, the annual number of cyber visitors (about a million) has far exceeded the number of physical visitors (about 1,500).

Hamilton’s also using technology to educate the community of nearby Idyllwild about the importance of fire. Using GIS mapping, he’s showing homeowners the specific fire threat they face. And he uses computer simulations to project fire spread, tailored by season, to help local firefighters refine their fire-containment strategies. (see

However, Hamilton and his colleagues are increasingly focused on developing new gadgets to take ecological research into a new era. Hamilton is currently installing a MossCam, a camera that will capture both physical and infrared light to monitor a granite-based patch of Tortula ruralis, a moss that has the capacity to dry out completely and then spring back to life upon contact with water. Images in intervals of 1/30th of a second will be sent electronically to UC Berkeley botanist Brent Mishler and his students, who will observe the moss’s response to temperature and precipitation changes. Aided by the camera, Mishler will be the first to document the annual water needs of T. ruralis at a level of detail that would otherwise not be possible, unless a patient scientist was willing to spend a year or more with the moss in the wild. The setup has already revealed unexpected results. Camera footage recently captured the furry head of a ground squirrel munching on a Tortula patch—possibly the first evidence of a mammal eating this moss. The study will ultimately be extended to Deep Canyon and other potential areas where related species of Tortula have been found.

James Reserve is poised to spread its technological wings even wider. Supported by a multimillion-dollar grant, it is about to become a Center for Embedded Sensor Networks (CENS), one of six in Southern California. One hundred miniature microprocessors will collect the sights, sounds, and environmental conditions of forest, chaparral, and riparian communities throughout the reserve. The sensors will record birdsong to track birdlife, monitor endangered species such as the California spotted owl, and observe plants’ responses to climate trends.

There are already plans to make the sensors “smarter,” so that, ultimately, they may be able to tailor data collection to a researcher’s interest. Hamilton hopes to also make them mobile, giving them the ability to travel up trees, drop temporarily underground, and swim in and out of water to track study subjects. Beetle-sized sensors will help scrutinize fine habitat details, such as shrub canopies in chaparral communities, with unprecedented precision. The vast majority of biodiversity is found in such microecosystems, at a scale which today’s airborne and satellite-based technologies have trouble reaching.

Far from the San Jacinto Mountains, in the concrete jungle of downtown Oakland, Alexander Glazer sits at the helm of NRS headquarters. While he is excited by the new advances underfoot at James Reserve, he extols the practical experience the NRS provides for education and research. “At a field station, you are confronted with operating in the real world—bringing you face to face with hands-on science as well as sociology, economics, and politics,” he says.

Glazer, a molecular biologist and fellow at the California Academy of Sciences, has done formative research on how photosynthesizing bacteria respond to environmental influences. This nurtured his fascination with what he calls “the complete interdependence of organisms and the environment.”

He translated the idea into a desire to create better symbiotic relationships between molecular and field biologists. In the field, Glazer says, scientists don’t have test-tube control over their subjects but instead have to contend with an enormous set of shifting environmental challenges, and “confront aspects of society that the university scientist never even recognizes.”

It is just this natural complexity that makes the NRS shine so brightly. While the field stations cover only a small fraction of California, the system’s research and educational opportunities will only increase in significance and value as more acres are lost to development.

The late Ken Norris, former lizard chaser and cofounder of the NRS, sum-med up the need for a reserve system: “The most basic rules of the world—the ones we all live by—are ecological rules. You can’t study them or even perceive them very well in a classroom or laboratory. It is imperative to go out on the mountainside, watch the rain fall over a valley, dig into the earth beneath a fallen tree, or wade a creek for cobbles with sources upstream. We need those wild places where we can study nature firsthand, places where all the intricacy and marvel of the natural world is intact.”

Helen Wagenvoord is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.