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Stanford Report, December 5, 2001

Restoring the foothills, an experimental plot at a time

BY BARBARA PALMER

Standing within earshot of the traffic along Junipero Serra Boulevard and wearing an oversized vest the color of a traffic control cone, biologist Sean Anderson is finishing up a day of fieldwork in what may be the biggest lab on campus -- the hundreds of acres within a special conservation and academic use area in the foothills better known as the Dish area.

Six months ago, Anderson joined the research staff at the Center for Conservation Biology. Working part time at first, since he still was finishing a doctoral dissertation on marine population ecology at UCLA, he leaped at what he considers an extraordinary opportunity: the chance to create a long-range plan to conserve and restore the Stanford foothills.

Biologist Sean Anderson secures a tarp on an experimental plot at the Dish. This experiment is intended to show whether covering the ground with a tarp can reduce the number of non-native species that could take root. Photo: L.A. Cicero

The position is "super, super unique," said Anderson, with a burst of enthusiasm that proves to be characteristic. (Later, when asked if it really is necessary to restrict recreational access to the foothills, he responded, "Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.")

Few universities are conducting environmental restoration projects on their own land and none approach the scale of the foothills, Anderson said. Moreover, at a time when the amount of funding for basic research is declining in favor of applied research, a significant portion of his research is purely biologically and ecologically motivated, he said. "All of my friends who work in this discipline were just amazed that Stanford would spend money to do this kind of conservation research," said Anderson. "It's OK for me to experiment."

In fact, in Anderson's view, experimentation in restoration biology is crucial, since much of the environmental restoration work being done today is by consulting firms, which contract for periods of six months to a year and work primarily on projects where methods are dictated by the legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act. There's rarely any monitoring of long-term results, Anderson said. It's possible to "jump through insane hoops and spend incredible amounts of money" and not know for sure if anything is really working, he said.

The market system rewards those consultants who claim their methods work well, not the guy who says, "Well, we're not sure this will work, but let's try this," Anderson said. "I think a much better approach -- since I'm a nerdy scientist -- is to conduct restoration as an experiment."

Along with pure science, the research will yield results useful for real-world applications, adds Carol Boggs, director of the Center for Conservation Biology. "We have the luxury of being able to do things that fit the categories of basic biology and provide information for practitioners."

Anderson is so high-energy it seems as if sparks might shoot out from the ends of his cropped hair -- at one point in his undergraduate career he was a triple history, philosophy and environmental sciences major. But he counsels care and patience when it comes to environmental restoration.

"We have to get out of this psychology that we can just go in and snap our fingers. Restoration doesn't mean 20,000 oak trees next week. It means recovering the system -- and that may take a while," he said.

Approximately 93 percent of the state's original grasslands have disappeared in the last two centuries, Anderson estimated. Much of the remaining grassland is, like the Stanford foothills, cut off from other grassland by highways and commercial and residential development. In a fragmented landscape, the exchange of energy, nutrients and organisms between different habitat types is greatly restricted from what it once was, he said. Across the country, one of the biggest problems in the grasslands is invasion by non-native or "exotic" plants -- species like the locally invasive yellow star thistle -- that overwhelm native plants.

Anderson's initial focus for native plant restoration is the swath of land next to Junipero Serra Boulevard where a 1,800-foot-long drainpipe was buried to carry runoff from the foothills into Lake Lagunita and prevent the kind of disastrous flooding that occurred on campus and the surrounding community in 1998.

The conventional approach to restoring the land would be to revegetate it, study the soil and slope and reseed the entire area with a mix of native grass seeds, Anderson said. The approach he's taking is a series of small, phased experiments -- 183 plots in all -- replicating a few basic experiments. Some ground has been left untilled and unseeded and other plots have been lightly tilled. Plots have been hand-seeded with purple needlegrass seeds alone and with a mix of purple needlegrass and seven other native grass varieties.

One experiment, in which the bare ground was covered with a tarp until right before the seasonal rains and then seeded, was conducted to gather information for use in construction projects. At most construction sites, disturbed ground is left open until right before the winter rains so that birds and animals don't carry the seeds away. The experiment is intended to show whether covering the ground with a tarp can reduce the number of non-native species that could take root in the interim, Anderson said. He will take the results of those experiments, refine them and try them again -- along with new variations. As he does, the size and scope of the project will grow.

"One of the great advantages of doing applied research and basic science together is that if you structure the experiments right, they're not just useful to one community," he said. "We'll learn how to better manage our lands and freely give this stuff away" to the academic community, local county commissioners and anyone who could benefit, he said.

"Plants are one part of the story in the foothills, but they're far from the whole thing," Anderson said. He and field technicians Jeff Schinske and Jennie Kluse are gathering a range of data in the foothills: They're setting insect traps and counting and weighing insects to see how much biomass is produced. They're taking the temperature of the soil and air, and measuring the microbial biomass in soil samples taken throughout the Dish area. (For the most part, scientists "have totally ignored the ground we walk on," Anderson said. "Soil holds a wealth of potential.")

Schinske is at work comparing a 1928 aerial map of the foothills with a 1999 map with Geographic Information Systems software, with the intention of analyzing change over time down to the level of the size of individual oak trees. The current research budget allows for only one motion camera, so the camera, placed at varying spots around the area, is yielding qualitative rather than quantitative information. So far, daylight images of bobcats, deer, coyotes and "many, many squirrels" have been captured on film, Anderson said.

Once a baseline is established, reference points in the nearby Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve and other more pristine areas will provide a way to measure results, Anderson said. "As we go, we want to see the level of ecological functioning in the Dish come up closer to the reference points," he said.

Part of Anderson's job is to educate the public about the restoration efforts; education is one reason Anderson and Schinske don bright orange vests to do fieldwork -- they don't want to look like rogue hikers who have wandered off the paved path. Anderson already has helped put together one public planting day and plans more educational forums.

"The key to restoration is getting people interested," he said. "To the general public, doing restoration as an experiment looks much slower than grading and planting a whole hillside at a time. But hopefully this approach will in the long run be much more effective."

People often ask him what it is, exactly, that he's trying to restore the landscape back to, he said. "I don't want to recreate what used to be here. For one thing, there's no way anyone will ever let me take out Junipero Serra Boulevard.

"We have a shifting baseline as to what is natural. I think of this as natural," said Anderson, indicating the sweep of hills punctuated by oaks. "This could well be very different than what it used to be. It was probably more densely oak forested.

"What I use as my goal, as opposed to saying that I want it to be like it was 200 years ago, is ecological function. What I want in the site is high biodiversity and a low ratio of exotics. I want it to be able to resist disturbance, so that if a bunch of exotic plant seeds got in here, they wouldn't take over the system."