Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve offers 4,000 acres of diverse habitat to explore
Jeff Mott is soft-spoken with an easy smile and an easy-going demeanor as he talks and walks across a field to a rustic barn that serves as the headquarters for the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, approximately 10 miles east of Chico off of Highway 32.
“When I retire, I plan to be here every day working as a volunteer,” Mott offered, stopping to gaze across the field and out to the oak woodland that embraces it. The woodland continues on, down a slope to Big Chico Creek as it runs its course through Big Chico Creek Canyon, a deep and extravagant crease in the lay of the land between Chico and Forest Ranch.
Cut into the land by the creek over time, Big Chico Creek Canyon’s topography rises to above 2,000 feet and descends to 700 feet. Gentle grass and wildflower-filled meadows look across iconic, California-oak woodland and lush riparian corridors of the canyon floor at sheer rock walls of the mural-like striated colors of lava, rock and sediment layers laid down over millions of years.
This land is nothing less than epic in its beauty and in the diversity of plants and trees, wildlife and scenery.
The Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve is a parcel of 4,000 acres, obtained 10 years ago by the University Research Foundation of Chico State, and managed by the university’s Institute for Sustainable Development—of which Mott is director of ecological reserves.
According to the BCCER website, the diverse habitats support more than 600 plant and 140 wildlife species. It is just this range of habitats and organisms that makes the reserve a unique and valuable resource.
“Education and research lie at the heart of the land’s purpose and the university’s purpose in stewarding it carefully and thoughtfully,” Mott said as he sat in the sunshine beside the old barn, a vestige of the ranches that once occupied the land.
This dedication to environmental education is embodied in a range of ways. Regional elementary-school students come on intense field trips each spring and fall with local outdoor-science-education group Kids and Creeks; close to 20 graduate and undergraduate students this year are doing advanced research projects on such topics as forensics and bone dispersal of carnivores; guided hikes are offered to the general public throughout the year; and the Altacal Audubon Society is banding and monitoring birds year-round on the property.
Some days, these all come together and you have elementary students watching and even assisting Audubon volunteers in their work, or being guided through an academic research project. In this way, BCCER serves as a bridge between the land and the organizations that are out there helping us to learn about it.
The BCCER lies within the boundaries of the Big Chico Creek Watershed, which starts at the source of Big Chico Creek, 45 miles northeast of the Sacramento River at Colby Mountain not far from Lake Almanor. Thus, water, the watershed, the water table and our region’s precious aquifers are among the more complex issues on the minds of the BCCER staff as they consider management and stewardship.
“The grasslands and meadows of this land once served as important sponges for winter rains, allowing water to percolate slowly into the watershed, filtering the soils, building up reserves for the vegetation, and providing wetland habitat,” explained Mott. “Over the course of time, with fire grazing and other human disturbance, many of these meadows have been broken down and ‘channelized,’ impeding seasonal water from being absorbed and held here. As a result the water runs off to the creek, eroding more of the land, and diminishing the aquifer and water table’s seasonal recharging. The position of the BCCER land is critical to this natural recharging cycle.”
Much of what the BCCER’s team of year-round dedicated volunteers works on, said Mott, is restoring the land to as close to a naturally functioning ecosystem as possible. Paul Maslin, a retired Chico State biology, leads this group of volunteers and is at the reserve almost every day. Bruce Gallaway, a local orthopedic surgeon, and realtor Scott Huber also volunteer their hard work on the land. Other volunteers, such as Susan Welker, assist with community outreach; Robert Fischer maintains the buildings and regularly discovers new plants on the reserve.
Mott is in his eighth season as BCCER director, a majority of the entity’s 10-year lifespan. “It is a constant balance, trying to improve access to the land but not overdo the pressure on the land from public use and educational programs,” he said. “The public is always welcome to hike the miles of dirt roads and trails, and we host many scheduled activities for the general public throughout the year—including wonderful guided hikes.”
After a short, thoughtful pause, Mott added: “I want the reserve to continue to be a facilitator—a bridge between the land’s past, present and future, between the community and the land, between the land and all that we can learn about our world and ourselves from it.”