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10 years after new plan, Dish now attracts 500,000 visitors annually

Ten years ago, Stanford instituted a new conservation and recreation plan in the foothills surrounding the Dish. The changes created by that plan have increased visits to the area to 500,000 annually and have enhanced safety and ecological stability.

Ten years of enforced land-management policies have increased visits to the Dish area to about 500,000 annually, according to Charles Carter, director of Stanford's Land Use and Environmental Planning (LUEP).

"Before the plan we had maybe 300,000 or 400,000 visitors a year," Carter said.

That’s more visitors than nearly any equivalent public open space in the area, said Carter – more than the nearby Arastradero Open Space Preserve, which is operated by Palo Alto. While some visitors to the area around the huge radio telescope are undoubtedly students, faculty and staff, one need look no farther than the cars parked along Stanford Avenue to see that many who come to the Dish are visitors from outside the university.

Those visitors say they appreciate the opportunity to exercise with friends, the convenient location, the safety of the area and the ease of walking on the paved paths that replaced unmaintained dirt trails.

Among the regular visitors is Janet Johnson, who has been coming to the Dish three days a week for the last year and a half. The paved roads make it convenient for her to push her baby’s stroller.

"I feel safe. It’s exposed, it’s sunny," she said. "I meet other moms, and it’s centrally located."

But some visitors remember the Dish before the conservation plan went into effect and before community service officers patrolled the area, including Freda Walstra, who often walks the area with her friend Ricky Gumbrecht.

"I loved going off path," she said. "It was great. I loved the dirt. Now we’re a bunch of ants."

A safer place

The conservation and land use plan for the Dish area was implemented in May 2000 and has been updated periodically since. The Dish area was first opened to the public in the 1980s, and during that era of virtual benign neglect it could be "a spooky place at night," Carter said.

"There were 13 miles of unauthorized trails built between the mid-'80s and about 1999," he added.  "It was scary up there."

People were there at all hours of the night. Structures were built in the woods – forts, labyrinths, whole strings of tree houses. Even small marijuana farms were uncovered. An ugly, rutted dirt road led up into the foothills from Stanford Avenue, scraped clean by pedestrians and scarred by rain runoff. Unplanned paths crisscrossed the area. Visitors and their pets roamed the area freely, leaving trash and disrupting animal and plant life with little regard to the environmental damage they caused.

The conservation and recreation plan closed renegade trails and improved four miles of service road for walking and jogging known as the Dish loop. This created a clearer definition of recreational use for the public and allowed better control of the area. Picnics and social events were prohibited, as well as dogs. Operation times are prominently posted to limit access to daylight hours.

Keeping humans and their pets away from wildlife has become crucial to habitat conservation in the area. More animals are seen at the Dish than ever before. The occasional mountain lion or coyote sighting is among the evidence of success.

Preservation, conservation, revegetation 

With the human impact on the Dish better controlled, Stanford has been able to implement and expand programs designed to restore the area and protect indigenous endangered species. Today, Stanford has a number of rehabilitation projects active in the Dish area. The oak reforestation project, for instance, has been in progress since the early 1980s.

"Around the '70s, people noticed that all the oak trees were old," said Alan Launer, campus biologist and conservation program manager.

The decline of oak trees in California can be attributed to the arrival of humans. Land development drove off predators, which led to growth in the population of seed eaters like squirrels and rabbits, who ate the acorns. To counteract this, groups such as Magic Inc., a Palo-Alto-based non-profit organization, plant young oak trees and water them weekly.

Courtesy Alan Launer Tiger salamander

Among the species of most concern to Stanford is the California tiger salamander.

Additionally, Stanford has created vernal pools in the foothills near the Dish. Vernal pools are flat, low-lying areas that fill with water during the wet season and are crucial to the reproduction of the endangered tiger salamander. Currently, most salamanders live in the foothills and travel to Lagunita to breed, which means crossing Junipero Serra Boulevard. In some years, hundreds of salamanders die in this migration.

"They’re slow, the cars are fast, and the salamanders just get squished," said Launer.

Vernal pools allow salamanders a wet place to breed without crossing the road. Newborn salamanders' prospects are also improved since they are safely away from student dormitories and the golf driving range.

Migration and mitigation

Vernal pools were common until ranchers moved to the area and began raising livestock. They modified creeks and springs to provide water for cattle and settlements.

"The first thing [people] hit are water supplies," said Carter.

But the challenge of wildlife restoration stretches back much further than agricultural development. The majority of grasses that can be seen all over California are not native at all. They’re weeds from Eurasia, brought by either the Spaniards or early Asian explorers, depending on whose theory you believe.

Generally, conservation and restoration programs like Stanford’s aspire to return land to its state before the arrival of the Spanish, about 250 years ago. But even that benchmark is somewhat artificial. Shortly before the arrival of humans, geologically speaking, the entire Bay Area was a river valley, and huge megafauna roamed the area. Mastodons, mammoths, saber-toothed tigers – all were part of an entire Pleistocene ecosystem that no longer exists.

"These [native] plants really evolved with mammoths running around," said Launer. "That’s different than the odd tule elk or the odd grizzly bear, which is gone."

With the planet constantly changing, true ecological stability may be impossible.

"Inevitably, what you’ve got is a small subset of what was originally here," said Launer. "So the question becomes 'Can you make it stable,' and 'Is there anything you can bring back?' "

While it is unlikely that grizzly bears could ever be brought back into the area, there are, according to the California State Parks, about 3,700 tule elk now roaming in roughly 20 herds in California.

"We asked about reintroducing tule elk, but they just go through fences like they’re nothing, which would cause major problems," said Carter wistfully.

Habitat conservation at Stanford

Stanford land management extends far beyond the foothills. About two thirds of Stanford’s 8,100 acres of land is open and undeveloped; the Dish conservation and use plan is merely a smaller aspect of the overall proposed Habitat Conservation Plan and the Sustainable Development Study, reports prepared by the LUEP.

Through these documents, Stanford works to prevent the type of habitat fragmentation and disturbance that happened over decades of misuse in the Dish area. Careless or haphazard development can break open space into units that can’t support a diverse community of life.

"They try to identify the lands and the habitats that have the greatest value to the biological communities present today and how we can protect them and still allow the university to use the land to advance its academic mission," Carter said.

Trial and error

Even though the Dish area specifically shows obvious signs of improvement, conservation management in general is a process that always has a measure of risk. One Dish-area revegetation plan, for instance, involved covering large swaths of grass with tarps for an extended period of time, the theory being that native plants are somewhat more resistant and will sprout out of the dead weeds.

After three years, that project was deemed too unreliable. In some cases the technique worked perfectly, but in others the plants returned in much worse condition.

Conservation biologists try to use "adaptive management" and switch regimes every few decades, so that if any conservation technique has become defunct or harmful to the area it can be adjusted.

"There’s a big component of experiment and adjustment all the time," said Carter.

The results of this constant adjustment might not be realized for years to come. Habitat reconstruction is a sobering reminder of the significance of humankind’s influence on the world despite our relatively short life spans, Carter acknowledged.

"It’s a long process," he said. "It took a couple hundred years to get into this condition, so don’t think you’re going to fix it in 10."