Leaving the station

Chico State’s research facility at Eagle Lake has closed after 70-year history with the university

Over the years, countless Chico State students immersed themselves in studying nature during field courses at the Eagle Lake Field Station, which closed on Oct. 1.

Over the years, countless Chico State students immersed themselves in studying nature during field courses at the Eagle Lake Field Station, which closed on Oct. 1.

photo courtesy of the bureau of land managment

“I had heard tales of Eagle Lake for years. ‘It seems to be reliving the first chapters of Genesis,’ old-timers had said, ‘when God brought forth the first living things.’ Then I saw it, brooding flat and sullen blue in its lava basin. I felt its antiquity. Eagle Lake—the lake that time forgot.”

That’s how John Wesley Noble described Eagle Lake back in 1954 in Collier’s Magazine. He wrote about the curious, nearly microscopic pink hydra—relatives of jellyfish colored so by eating even smaller pink creatures—floating in the bays of Eagle Lake, and how the harsh, mineralized water killed any nonnative fish species—there are only five native to the lake—almost immediately upon introduction.

That’s just a glimpse of what makes Eagle Lake an ecological wonder. In the remote reaches of northeastern California, near Susanville, it lies at the junction of four major geographic areas: the Great Basin Desert, the Modoc Plateau, the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Mountains.

“Because of its setting, it’s one of the most unique of California’s special ecosystems,” said Raymond Bogiatto, a part-time professor of biology and zoology at Chico State. “Name the group of organisms or the ecological questions, and very few of them would be out of the realm of possibility at Eagle Lake.”

Over the past 21 years, Bogiatto has tutored hundreds of budding biologists at the Eagle Lake Field Station (ELFS), made up of 13 buildings on the lake’s eastern shore, long owned by the Chico State’s Research Foundation. But for the entirety of his stint there, Bogiatto said, university administration has viewed the station as an underutilized financial burden.

Citing those very reasons, the university closed the station on Oct. 1, despite outcry from alumni who claimed their experiences at the station shaped their scientific careers and helped develop deep connections to nature.

Katy Thoma, executive director of the Research Foundation, said the station has never paid for itself, while use from Chico State students and faculty had steadily dwindled in recent years.

“It was just a lack of use,” she said. “People aren’t using it, and, financially, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Bogiatto called the divorce a tragedy.

“I’m sad, but I’m not sad for me—I’ve been there, I’ve done it,” he said. “I’m sad for the students who won’t know it.”

Chico State’s presence at Eagle Lake dates back more than 70 years, when the university was known as Chico State College. Dr. Vesta Holt and Dr. Tom Rodgers began conducting research and field courses in the early 1940s. Rodgers struck a deal to purchase the property from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1960, and the station opened in 1964.

During an interview on campus in the building that bears Holt’s name, Bogiatto said he taught his first field class at Eagle Lake in 1987 and served as the station manager until 2009. Prior to the economic recession, the station was being used more by students than ever before, Bogiatto said, but enrollment numbers took a nosedive alongside the national economy.

From the university’s perspective, the field station was an obvious area to cut, especially given that the facility rarely recovered costs. In most years, Bogiatto said, the station would run a deficit of $5,000 to $7,000.

But supporters persuaded the Research Foundation not to cut ties with the station entirely. Instead, two former staffers, John and Tracey Crowe, leased the station from the foundation for the next four years, operating a fishing guide service and catering to academic groups as before.

But last spring, it became clear that the Research Foundation would permanently close the station. The new dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Fraka Harmsen, made a push to develop a funding strategy for the station and dozens of former students and faculty wrote administrators urging them to reconsider.

“Without the experiences that places like [Eagle Lake] provide, what will serve as the draw into being a field biologist, or develop the appreciation that leads people to be good stewards of the environment?” wrote Brian A. Sardella, assistant professor of biology at CSU Stanislaus.

“I know maintaining a science program is expensive,” wrote Rod Loggins, a professor of biology at Wayne State College in Nebraska. “On paper, it may appear that there is low use of the station so the dollar-to-student ratio is low. Please don’t let this numerical argument be the only evidence you weigh in supporting this vital field station.”

Thoma said she appreciates the significance of Eagle Lake for those alumni, but their support wasn’t monetary. “None of those letters came with a check,” she said. “None of those alumni wanted to contribute and keep it going; they were just letters.”

What will become of the station is uncertain. One possibility the Research Foundation has explored is handing the property back to the Bureau of Land Management.

“We’re in the process of looking at what it would take,” said Ken Collum, manager of the BLM’s field office at Eagle Lake. Before any property is relinquished, he said, it must be returned to its original state. “We can’t assume any liability from buildings, lead-based paint, asbestos in the buildings, septic tanks, wells, any other kind of hazardous materials.”

In other words, the station would have to be demolished for that arrangement to move forward, which may prove prohibitively expensive, Thoma said.

However, Lassen Community College in Susanville has expressed interest in assuming responsibility for the property, Collum said. For Bogiatto, that would be the best-case scenario, as he hopes to continue leading his field course next summer and beyond, though it would no longer be associated with Chico State.

“The best thing that could happen for the [Eagle Lake Field Station] is for it to be away from this place once and for all and into the hands of an organization that really wants it.”