- Author: Hannah Bird
Reposted from the UCANR News
California's most destructive wildfire year on record was 2018, with devastating fires occurring in Northern California oak woodlands. From 2015 to 2017, six of California's 20 most deadly and destructive fires in history occurred in these areas. The communities living in oak woodlands, which had been mostly spared from previous wildfires, were largely unprepared.
To prepare Californians to live with wildfire, Kate Wilkin, former UC Cooperative Extension forestry/fire science and natural resources advisor, and UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center and Hopland Research and Extension Center community educators Alexandra Stefancich and Hannah Bird received a $100,000 Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Education grant.
In addition to delivering community workshops, the educators will offer online training for teachers this summer. The curriculum will be introduced by webinar on Tuesday, July 14, from 11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (PDT). Register online for this free webinar at https://bit.ly/firecurriculum.
“The goal of this project is to educate youth and adults about their natural ecosystems and how to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” Stefancich said.
Even before the current COVID-19 pandemic constrained activities, challenges arose: the federal government shutdown delayed the grant; a wildfire burned approximately two-thirds of the Hopland REC; Wilkin moved on from UCCE and Rebecca Ozeran, UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor, took over leading the wildfire education project.
Training kids, adults and communities
The team is educating children, adults and communities. Their three-pronged approach includes youth education for 500 middle school students and training for teachers; adult education through advanced training for California Naturalists; and community education by partnering with Fire Safe Councils in Butte, Mendocino and Yuba counties.
“One of the most exciting aspects of this grant has been the youth fire education component,” Bird said. “The grant has funded an adaptation of the US Forest Service's FireWorks Curriculum – first modeled for Rocky Mountains forests – to the California oak woodland ecosystem. This hands-on, place-based science curriculum aims to provide students an in-depth understanding of fire science. In working on this curriculum, the team wants to highlight the importance of not only oak woodland fire science, but the cultural history associated with fire on these landscapes.”
The grant allowed the team to work with local representatives from the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, United Auburn Indian Community and the Nevada City Rancheria to develop lessons shaped by the cultural value of fire as a tool and the long relationship between people and fire in California.
While developing the lessons, the team realized the importance of trauma-informed educational practices.
“Just five years ago, we often talked about wildfire theoretically, but now every student I speak with has their own experience to share,” Bird said. “It is important to give time in the lessons for the trauma experienced by our youth, and to educate them and encourage a sense of agency. These lessons focus on the positive! We don't spend time on things that we cannot change. We learn crucial concepts of fire science and build on them to make our schools, families and communities more fire prepared.”
Feelings about fire
The team piloted the new curriculum with more than 150 middle school students in Redwood Valley and Ukiah, just before schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trialing the curriculum with students was really valuable,” Bird said. “These students have seen their communities affected by wildfire and it brings up many emotions for them.”
Students were asked to share their thoughts around fire at the beginning of the lessons and again at the end of the lesson series. Feelings of fear were replaced with feeling prepared and confident.
Before the lessons, students' comments about fire included, “Scary because I live in the mountains and my house is there, it could burn down.”
After the lessons, their comments included, “I felt positive about this, I feel that I know what to do, I think everyone should know how to prepare for fire.”
Pomolita Middle School students made an action plan for their school to help improve school fire preparedness. Students had hoped to present their plans to school administrators, but school closures due to the coronavirus crisis have delayed the presentation.
“Most of what we found at Pomolita school was really positive – the students do have a few suggestions that they hoped to share with the school administration,” Bird said. “Students also made an emergency contact plan and planned what they would like to have in a go bag for themselves and for their pets.”
Community educator Stefancich added, “This curriculum, aimed at middle school students, is ideal for any educator hoping to provide their students with more insight about the role fire plays in the ecosystem and how they can prepare for its eventuality. Each lesson is set up for the lay educator to be able to teach, so even without advanced fire knowledge it will be easy to use.”
The team continues to adapt the FireWorks curriculum for oak woodlands and expects it to be available at the FireWorks site https://www.frames.gov/fireworks/curriculum/overview by the fall.
- Author: Jim Downing
Reposted from California Agriculture
When UC ANR conservation biologist Adina Merenlender launched the California Naturalist program in 2012, she was looking to do more than just educate people. She wanted to build a community — inspired to be stewards of the natural world and to push for the resources and policies needed to defend the state's threatened biodiversity.
“Success to me,” Merenlender said on an afternoon walk through the oak woodlands of the Hopland Research and Extension Center (REC), “is when the public connects directly with what UC has to offer and will go to bat for UC gardens, reserves and presses, and call for more faculty to study and teach natural history.”
Adina Merenlender, founder and director of the UC ANR California Naturalist program, is a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist in conservation biology based at the Hopland Research and Extension Center and an adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.
Today, the program is blossoming. More than 1,500 participants have completed a California Naturalist course. The program now has a full-time academic coordinator, Greg Ira, and has received grant funding from the National Science Foundation and the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and in 2015 was honored as the program of the year by the national Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs. The second statewide California Naturalist conference is scheduled for September 9–11 at the Pali Mountain Center in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Through partnerships with more than 30 science and environmental education organizations around the state, the California Naturalist program provides 40-hour certification courses focused on natural history as well as stewardship and communication. The training encourages California Naturalists to volunteer around the state with natural resource agencies and nonprofit organizations, and participants are encouraged to engage in research, environmental monitoring, restoration work and education and outreach.
The California Naturalist program encourages participants to engage in research, environmental monitoring and restoration work. Here, California Naturalists explore trace fossils with geologist Ed Clifton at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Monterey County.
“The desire to learn about natural history is insatiable,” Merenlender said. “We're giving motivated people a way to help out.”
The mix of science and action that characterizes the California Naturalist program mirrors the 20-year UC ANR career of Merenlender, a Cooperative Extension (UCCE) specialist based at Hopland REC and an adjunct professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley.
The threat that development poses to intact natural landscapes has driven Merenlender's work since her early years with UC ANR. In the late 1990s, Merenlender and her collaborators used satellite land-cover data to track and project the rapid expansion of vineyards in Sonoma County (Merenlender 2000). In calling out this agricultural growth as a threat to habitat and biodiversity, the work put Merenlender at odds with the powerful wine industry.
Merenlender stood by the work and her role as conservation biologist trying to change the world — and still does.
“I try to make my work constructive and to offer solutions,” she said. “But you do have to daylight the issues.”
Mediterranean stream restoration
Merenlender then led us down to a seasonal creek at Hopland REC that illustrates a related strand of her research — the restoration of streams in Mediterranean climate systems.
As part of a long-term study, one section of a creek degraded by early clearing and dredging was fenced in the 1980s to exclude deer and other large herbivores, while an adjacent section was left open.
Standing on the sun-bleached cobbles of the unfenced reach, Merenlender points out the dense vegetation that now covers the fenced area — much as it likely did before the area was settled.
Research by Merenlender and her collaborators has helped to transform the practice of stream restoration in Mediterranean climates.
In studying streams like this one, Merenlender and graduate student Jeff Opperman made two findings that have shaped the way stream restoration is conducted in much of California.
First, they determined that woody debris — the key to the pools and varied stream channels that characterize good habitat for native salmonids — is of a different nature in Mediterranean-climate oak woodland systems than in wetter coastal forests. In oak woodland areas like Hopland REC, the woody debris in creeks is generally alive — low branches of oaks, bays, and thickets of willows — while in coastal conifer forests, it is primarily dead wood — fallen trunks and branches.
Their second finding, illustrated by the fence enclosure, was that deer can inhibit the recovery of such ecosystems by eating woody plants before they have a chance to mature to the point where they can provide shade and the important woody debris.
Together, these results shifted the approach to stream restoration in Mediterranean ecosystems: Instead of introducing large woody debris, as is done in coastal evergreen forests, the focus is on creating conditions that allow stream vegetation to regenerate, providing important shade, and helping to restore stream morphology for improved salmon habitat.
Long-term study sites on Parson's Creek at Hopland REC show the effect of deer herbivory on the recovery of natural cover in a degraded riparian zone. A site not protected from deer, left, has virtually no woody vegetation. By contrast, a site fenced in the 1980s, right, is now densely vegetated, providing shade and helping to form pools, both of which benefit fish.
Rethinking agricultural ponds
Merenlender's work on vineyard expansion and stream restoration then came together in a body of research, conducted with several graduate students and other collaborators, that shifted the politics of grapes, fish and water in wine country.
It began with several studies of the role of water quantity in salmonid recovery in Mediterranean-climate watersheds (Christian-Smith and Merenlender 2010) and the impacts of upstream water use — from vineyards as well as rural residential pumping — on summer stream flows and juvenile salmon survivorship (Grantham et al 2012).
At the same time that her lab reported the collective impact on salmon survivorship of diverting water from streams to irrigate vineyards during the dry season, Merenlender's team provided models that demonstrated agricultural ponds placed correctly don't necessarily impact winter salmon runs as previously thought and should be used where possible to offset summer pumping and thus — in many, though not all, cases — provide a benefit to fish (Deitch et al 2013).
This finding helped to shift the thinking about farm ponds in the environmental community and among state water regulators, with the practical result that the review process, which was essentially stopped around 1993 due to concern for salmon and litigation by environmental groups, was resumed, allowing farmers to move forward with the permitting process for a new pond.
That work also changed Merenlender's reputation in the wine grape industry. Once seen as an antagonist for trying to stave off habitat conversion, she was invited to speak at grower meetings on water management solutions.
“You have to stick with it long enough that your enemies become your friends,” she said.
Half for us, half for them
But Merenlender still has concerns about the wine grape industry — and about the state of biodiversity conservation more broadly. While wine industry players large and small have embraced the idea of sustainability in their operations, many don't consider the conversion of natural landscapes into vineyards to be a problem, she said. Likewise, for all of California's environmental leadership in areas like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and managing air pollution, the state hasn't made a serious effort to stop the chief cause of biodiversity loss: the development of natural lands for residential and agricultural use.
“When we're talking about habitat, in a state with the most endangered species, we need to be thinking about what E.O. Wilson said: ‘Half for us, half for them,'” she said, quoting the renowned Harvard biologist considered the father of the academic study of biodiversity. “If we're serious about biodiversity, we're going to have to set meaningful targets for conserving California's native ecosystems and manage these ecosystems.”
Building support and enthusiasm for that type of conservation is one of Merenlender's hopes for the California Naturalist program. In the coming years, she foresees a day when the California Naturalists will play a role, perhaps through “day-at-the-Capitol” visits to Sacramento. She's also hoping that UC natural resource academics will connect directly with the California Naturalists about their research and information to help stave off a sixth mass extinction — capitalizing on the power of this new community.
“Working with our partnering organizations around the state, we are creating a whole new mode of natural resource extension,” she said.
With leadership from Associate Director Sabrina Drill, California Naturalist is dedicated to broadening the California Naturalist community to include more diversity in age, race and income.
One difficulty in raising money for the California Naturalist program is that institutional donors who fund environmental education tend to support only primary and secondary school programs; there's very little support for adult programs. Merenlender thinks that programs targeting young adults is essential.
“That's when you set your compass,” she said.
Above, California Naturalists learn about the plants and animals of the American River Parkway at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center near Sacramento.
Merenlender grew up in Los Angeles, and didn't have much interaction with the natural world in childhood beyond watching Wild Kingdom on Sunday evenings. She was more than halfway through her undergraduate years at UC San Diego when she got involved in her first conservation biology project, a study of African rhinoceroses.
Today, her research is focused on how conservation efforts can best support biodiversity, for instance by planning for habitat connectivity and the effects of the changing climate. She advises a number of land trusts and public land agencies on systematic conservation planning, and co-authored the first comprehensive book on wildlife corridor planning (Hilty et al 2012).
The threat of extinction is on Merenlender's mind even here in the 5,300 acres of quiet, protected hills and valleys that make up Hopland REC.
Tracyina rostrata, a small flowering annual, is now found only at Hopland REC. The center's staff monitor the known populations of the plant regularly, and its numbers appear to be shrinking.
“We used to have four sites,” Merenlender said. “Now it seems to be down to one site. Gulp.”