Wilderness on the edge of town: Younger Lagoon a 'living lab' for students

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Corinne Pope (Stevenson '14, ecology and evolutionary biology) pauses as she plants rush and lizard’s tail seedlings in the reserve’s dark soil. She and other UCSC interns are restoring native grasses and shrubs in what was once a Brussels sprouts field — work that may someday change restoration efforts at other California sites. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

The walls of this classroom are lined with feathery California coastal sage and noxious poison oak. Bobcat, coyote, and skunk wander its floors while raptors soar overhead and waves can nearly drown out conversation.

But none of the UC Santa Cruz students at Younger Lagoon Reserve minds. In fact, it’s the plants and animals that bring them to this postage-stamp-sized parcel of wilderness. Here, they sharpen their minds while they get their hands dirty: learning, researching, and making a difference too. 

“This is such a beautiful place,” says Corinne Pope (Stevenson '14, ecology and evolutionary biology) pausing as she plants rush and lizard’s tail seedlings in the reserve’s dark soil. She and other UCSC interns are restoring native grasses and shrubs in what was once a Brussels sprouts field — work that may someday change restoration efforts at other California sites. “I feel like I’m really contributing something,” Pope says.

The Younger Lagoon Reserve came to UCSC in 1972, and became a classroom and research site in 1981. Its 72 acres consist of a brackish Y-shaped lagoon dotted with birds, driftwood-scattered sand dunes, and a coastal terrace, which was purchased by UCSC in 1999 and lies adjacent to a mobile home park. More than 100 migratory and resident bird species have been counted here, along with deer, bobcat, mice and brush rabbits — and even a few snakes. 

“A wild place right on the edge of town,” is how Younger Lagoon Reserve Manager Beth Howard (Kresge, 2001, environmental studies and biology) describes it. It’s that proximity, she says, that allows UCSC students from a variety of disciplines to do fieldwork and be back in the classroom the same day.

Tim Brown (Porter, 2010, environmental studies), restoration steward for Younger Lagoon Reserve, sits at a weathered picnic table ticking off the learning activities hundreds of undergraduates pursue here every year. Students take water samples, write field notes, dip-net the lagoon for invertebrates, and use scientific equipment. Sometimes, he’ll lead tracking expeditions where he’ll let students follow the wandering paw prints of domestic dogs and then compare those to the purposeful trail of a coyote. It’s a transformative lesson in nature for many. Meanwhile, graduate students pursue research on subjects like monomethylmercury formation, groundwater movement, and coyote diet too. 

“We’re all about teaching and research,” Howard says.

“We call it our living laboratory,” Brown adds.

One of the largest projects at the reserve involves up to 50 students each year in the work of restoring the former sprouts field to a rich and diverse coastal prairie. Brown and Howard direct these interns as they gather seeds like California oat grass and meadow barley from seven local coastal-prairie sites each year. Then, students clean the seeds, propagate them in a greenhouse on campus, and finally plant them in the soil.  “It’s messy and it’s creative. A lot of ingenuity comes into play,” says Brown of students adapting things like pasta strainers and sieves into seed cleaners. Brown gives a quick grin. “You get in touch with your ancestors. You get your hunter-gatherer on.”

Students also are participating in a large research project to discover more effective restoration methods — including strategies for getting rid of non-native weeds. 

“Our applied research experiments on restoring coastal habitats give students an opportunity to gain research experience and, at the same time, inform local management practices,” said Karen Holl, chair of the Environmental Studies Department. Earlier this year, she gave talks to land managers across the state on those techniques used at the reserve.

For Mickie Tang (Oakes, 2013, ecology and evolutionary biology) the restoration and research work at the reserve has changed her life’s direction. Standing amid flats of seedlings and buffeted by an ocean breeze, Tang says she discovered she likes asking questions and then finding the answer herself.

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a researcher until I came here,” she says.