Jasper Ridge demystified: The new head of Stanford’s private biopreserve opens up

Executive Director Anthony Barnosky explains the preserve’s history and mission ahead of their upcoming open house event.

Stanford student David Tattoni inspects a coleoptera during Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve class on May 11, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Le)

For a region that is so often known for computer chips, superconductors, NASA and all manner of technology, Silicon Valley is remarkably abundant in natural diversity, as well. This can easily get lost in the shuffle—even by locals—only to be majestically brought back into sharp focus by the sweeping views of the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve or the teeming sealife within the tide pools of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve Executive Director Anthony D. Barnosky. (Photo by Michelle Le)

Even with these places in mind, Exhibit A of the Peninsula’s inherent natural beauty might very well be Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve: one thousand-plus protected acres that showcases the native splendor of our corner of California, from mountain lion cubs to Redwood groves.

For more than four decades now, access to Jasper Ridge has been restricted from the public in order to prioritize the biological research opportunities in the area (a designation that was initially unpopular with the local community who once cherished their summer days swimming in Searsville Lake).

This weekend, the folks at Jasper Ridge will hold a very rare open house event — the first in more than a decade — to give the public a day to familiarize itself with both the land and the scientific research that occurs on it. Ahead of this unique local event, we caught up with Jasper Ridge Executive Director Anthony Barnosky to walk us through the history of the preserve, its many plants and animals and what his team has planned for the open house.

One of the many Valley oak trees at Jasper Ridge. (Photo by Michelle Le)

So for people who may not really know, can you explain the location of the preserve and the scope of the land itself?

So we are about five miles from the center of Stanford’s campus. It’s just off of Sand Hill Road near the horse park, a little further on down from Portola Valley. So basically we’re in Woodside, west of 280 by about 2 miles.

We’ve got about 1193 acres, and it’s a very special 1193 acres because the geology and topography is just so diverse. It turns out that we have lots and lots of different habitats for plants and animals. We have basically every major vegetational assemblage found in West Central California. It’s quite a remarkable place.

The skull of a black-tailed deer amid the undergrowth at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. (Photo by Michelle Le)

What is the land’s relation to Stanford University and when was it actually designated as a nature preserve?

It was made a preserve in 1973, but has been in the Stanford lands since much, much earlier than that. As a matter of fact, Stanford had some holdings that are now Jasper Ridge back in the 1880s and ’90s. And the earliest Stanford thesis to come out of here is from the early 1890s. So it has been used for teaching and research by Stanford since that time.

And in 1973 it was designated a biological preserve and then set aside from public use. And that’s allowed a lot of really exciting things to happen here as far as long term research projects that could go for years and years. It’s a very unique facility in that respect.

Jasper Ridge docent, Jack Owicki (far right), explains to a rapt audience in nitty-gritty detail just how spiders reproduce. He summarized: “Spider sex is pretty weird.” (Photo by Michelle Le)

And looking further back, there is also a history of the Ohlone natives on the land?

Yes, that’s right. Historically if we go back … this was the stomping grounds of Muwekma Ohlone Native Americans. And we do have lots of evidence of how they used the landscape, through archeological sites. And then of course came the Spanish—agriculture, ranching, timbering—which then puts us into the late 1700s, early 1800s. And then this ended up being a very productive timber area as well, especially along San Francisquito Creek. All of the hills in the preserve were once covered with Redwoods and those were obviously very valuable resources back in the day, so we saw a lot of logging in here and a couple of lumber mills.

A view of Searsville Lake. Prior to Jasper Ridge being designated a biological preserve, the lake was a popular swimming hole location for Peninsula residents.(Photo by Michelle Le)

And then following that, more recreational uses as a kind of community playground. So lots going on here. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to who say, “Oh, I met my husband swimming there in Searsville Lake.” So clearly it was once a very popular recreational venue. And then in the late 60s/early 70s, the sorts of research going on out here wasn’t compatible with all those other kinds of uses, so it was transformed into the preserve as we know it today. And since that time it has just been an amazing resource today for Stanford and the conservation community.

And what is the balance between the preserve’s research work versus its public access?

We have about 5000 people coming through here per year (one way or another) for education. About 2500 of those are Stanford students that are using the place for classes, field trips and research. And then 2500 are non-Stanford. We have programs where we serve local high schools in the broader area — cooperative educational programs where classes will come and be exposed to various things we do out here.

And then we have a community outreach program where people can use our website to request a tour, and then we match them up with one of our docents who will take them on a tour of the preserve. Again, all geared around imparting knowledge of the local area. So we regard this very much as an educational facility both for Stanford and for the broader community.

Clockwise from top left: A local mountain lion photographed via trail cam; wild turkeys have grown in population in recent years at Jasper Ridge; a Western Pond turtle; Red-tailed hawk; and a black-tailed deer captured at night via infrared trail cam. (Images via the Jasper Ridge website and Michelle Le)

Looking through the Preserve’s trail cam imagery, I’m amazed by the abundance of wildlife that is found here, in what is known as Silicon Valley. Can you tell me more about the many critters you have there on the preserve?

There is an incredible diversity of wildlife out here. We have the vast majority of the species you would expect to find in an undisturbed landscape in this part of California. In terms of mammals, we have about 37 species ranging from everything from the tiny, tiny shrews at one end of the scale to mountains lions on the other end of the scale.

So we have a very fully functioning ecosystem here, everything from the top predators to the tiniest little microorganisms that keep the soil healthy. And it’s really a fantastic opportunity to understand how wildlife uses not only the preserve, but how we are part of the green space of the entire Santa Cruz Mountains area. So it gives a nice snapshot of how vibrant the wildlife really is in this part of California.

Clockwise from top left: Searville Lake at Jasper Ridge; Stanford biology professor Rodolfo Dirzo examines an insect during Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve class; a view looking down Searsville Dam; light illuminates the needles of a Redwood tree branch at Jasper Ridge. (Photos by Michelle Le)

Is there an aspect of the wildlife there that has surprised you and your staff over the years?

We’re constantly being surprised. [laughs] So, in recent years, we’ve seen a big uptick in wild turkeys, for example. We do see — fairly frequently — bobcats, mountain lions and so forth on our trail camera system, and likewise we hear reports of those kind of things outside the preserve as well. I guess what has surprised me the most about this place is that we’re just this little enclave in the middle of Silicon Valley that is just this gem of nature, and an incredibly important part of the whole nature conservation network that runs through this part of California.

And then what is the range of the plant life found on the preserve?

We have basically every plant community found in West Central California— over 800 species of plants. We’ve got some very special areas that have uniquely Californian habitats, such as the serpentine grassland areas, and some very nice redwood groves along San Francisquito Creek. So yes, the number of plants and animal species here are both incredibly high.

Stanford students look for specimens for their Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve class on May 11, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Le)

The upcoming open house seems like a unique opportunity in terms of visiting Jasper Ridge, can you tell me a bit about the event?

The open house is actually very rare here. The last time that it happened was actually 2007. We figured it was about time to do it again because we want to demystify the place for people who drive by and see our chain-link fence and wonder, “What’s going on inside that compound?” There’s a lot of cool stuff going on and we just thought that since we haven’t done it in over ten years, it’s just a great opportunity to let the broader community see what we’re all about.

Do you have any recommendations in terms of the list of activities that are planned?

I think the thing that really pops out at me are the self-guided hikes, which will have signage along the route where visitors can learn a lot of different things about the preserve. And there will also be researchers stationed at exhibit tables, so visitors should take the chance to talk to the people doing work here at the preserve, and see what it’s all about.

We will have two trails available for people to hike on. One takes you on a loop around Searsville Reservoir, and that is about a 1.7 mile loop. And then there’s another shorter one, about .8 miles, that goes down to a brand new bridge that was just installed on San Francisquito Creek.

A ground-level view of Searsville Dam at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. (Photo by Michelle Le)

We also have some special things going on. There will be a poetry reading outside of our field station featuring some really well-known poets, including the poet laureate of San Francisco, Kim Schuck.

We are beginning to connect with the international field station research community in a stronger way, and as a part of that whole effort we have an authentic Mongolian ger [pronounced—gare], which is kind of like a yurt, where we’ll be explaining how we are connecting to field stations around the world.

Also, there will be a couple of displays about citizen science and how people can actually get involved in gathering really important data, just with their cell phones or various other means.

Executive Director Anthony D. Barnosky gives a tour at Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve on May 24, 2017. (Photo by Michelle Le)

As the Executive Director of Jasper Ridge, what is your favorite part of the preserve?

My favorite aspect of the preserve is being out here in the middle of this natural area that is just kind of hidden away, and day to day there are just always surprises: a bald eagle flying over the lake or ground squirrels outside my office looking in to see what I’m doing.

The open house for Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve is May 12, from 10 am to 3 pm. Directions and other information can be found here.

For the full program of open house exhibitions and activities, click here.

More local wildlife and outdoors content from the Six Fifty:

Feral Photography: amazing animal imagery from Silicon Valley trail cams

My own private Peninsula: permit-only hikes in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Trail run the Peninsula like a pro

Fungus Photography: Mushroom hunting in Northern California (through a macro lens)

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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