UC Santa Cruz biodiversity workshop focuses on Santa Lucia Mountains

The Santa Lucia Range, rising steeply from California's Big Sur coast, is one of the most environmentally complex and biologically rich areas of the state. An all-day workshop held last week at the University of California, Santa Cruz, brought together representatives of the many governmental and nongovernmental agencies, private groups, and university researchers studying this remarkable landscape.

The ecological significance of the Santa Lucia Mountains was recognized most recently with the passage of the Big Sur Wilderness and Conservation Act of 2002, sponsored by Congressman Sam Farr and Senator Barbara Boxer. The act added 37,000 acres to the Ventana Wilderness in the heart of the range and nearly 20,000 acres to other nearby wilderness areas.

The goal of last week's workshop (held on January 31 at the Center for Ocean Health) was to develop a coordinated network among groups working in the Santa Lucia Mountains and encourage interdisciplinary biodiversity research and conservation. The participants worked to develop a set of research questions for a project, the Santa Lucia Gradient Study, that would meet the diverse needs of the network.

The workshop was organized by UCSC's STEPS Institute for Innovation in Environmental Research.

"The Santa Lucia Gradient Study is the kind of interdisciplinary effort in environmental research that STEPS was designed to help facilitate," said STEPS director John Thompson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"We are developing a network that includes faculty throughout UCSC, colleagues at UC Berkeley and two UC Natural Reserves, and a wide range of others in public and private agencies and organizations who have been working hard for years on the complex issues of environmental research and policy in coastal California," Thompson said.

The focus of the Santa Lucia Gradient Study is rapidly changing biodiversity along steep coastal gradients. The Santa Lucia Range is just 12 miles wide and 55 miles long, yet nearly half of California's native plants can be found within it. The floras of northern and southern California mix in the Santa Lucia Range, making it the only place where, for example, redwoods and yuccas grow together. There are also at least 57 "endemic" plants that occur only in the Santa Lucia Mountains, including the rare Santa Lucia fir.

Accompanying this remarkable botanical diversity is a similarly rich assemblage of animal life. Threatened steelhead trout spawn in the streams and the reintroduced California condor soars overhead.

The workshop included 36 participants with a broad range of affiliations. Among them were Craig Moritz, director of UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology; Jeff Kwasny, ecosystem manager for the Los Padres National Forest; Mary Dellavalle-Sanvictores, plant ecologist at Point Lobos State Park; Jeff Froke, president of the Santa Lucia Conservancy; Susanna Danner, conservation land manager for the Big Sur Land Trust; and the resident directors of the two UC Natural Reserves in the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Hastings Natural History Reservation (Mark Stromberg) and the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve (John Smiley). Alex Glazer, director of the UC Natural Reserve System, also attended the workshop.

UC manages a system of 34 reserves throughout California for teaching and research. The Hastings reserve is located in the foothills on the inland side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, in the upper Carmel Valley. Its long history includes more than 50 years of research on vertebrate ecology and oak woodland biology. The Big Creek Reserve is located on the Big Sur coast and encompasses several miles of rugged ridges descending to a rocky shoreline. The reserve also extends offshore for about a mile as the Big Creek Marine Ecological Reserve.

In an effort to create links between terrestrial and marine research efforts, the STEPS workshop included researchers studying marine ecosystems along the central California coast.

"One of the most exciting aspects of this developing collaboration is the opportunity to establish better research and policy links across these neighboring terrestrial and marine environments," Thompson said.

The STEPS Institute was established in 2002 with a $500,000 gift from UCSC alumnus Gordon Ringold and his wife, Tanya Zarucki. The institute is working to link environmental research efforts campuswide, bringing together expertise from a wide range of departments in the physical and biological sciences, social sciences, and engineering. The institute seeks practical solutions to critical environmental problems and fosters communication and partnerships among researchers, policy makers, and resource managers.


Note to reporters: You may contact Thompson at (831) 459-4741 or thompson@biology.ucsc.edu.