Nature’s classroom

Chico State reserves combine restoration, learning opportunities

A group of young nature lovers takes a hike focused on bugs during the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve open house on April 21.

A group of young nature lovers takes a hike focused on bugs during the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve open house on April 21.

Photo by Jon Aull

Visit the reserve:
Call 898-5010 or visit the BCCER website at for more information. The BCCER’s physical address is 3521 14 Mile House Road. Open for visitors on foot only; call the reservation line at 342-1371 for group trips or special requests.

In some Northern California valley communities in the latter half of the 20th century, sixth grade had one major allure: heading for a week to a camp in the Sierra Nevada foothills to study science under the pines through the Woodleaf program. Escaping the four walls of the classroom, students learned hands-on about flora and fauna, identifying trees and plants and examining bear and deer tracks and scat along hiking trails.

In this century, you don’t have to be in sixth grade—just head east on Highway 32 to discover the largest outdoor science classroom in the Sierra Nevada. And it’s just 17 miles from Chico.

Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve and Butte Creek Ecological Preserve combine as the CSU, Chico Ecological Reserves to offer 4,053 acres to the public and students of all ages. The BCCER starts where Upper Bidwell Park leaves off, and it alone is larger than its neighbor, continuing along a 4.5-mile stretch of Big Chico Creek. The 93-acre preserve along the middle section of Butte Creek contains a vital spawning habitat for the threatened Central Valley spring-run chinook salmon. With an elevation ranging from 700 to 2,044 feet, the reserves offer oak woods, pine forest and rock cliffs, with riparian areas and springs to support hundreds of wildlife species and help reveal the local watershed connection.

“Our mission is to be where education meets the land and to support natural ecosystems,” noted Eli Goodsell, who holds the title of reserves manager after a multiyear internship. “The restoration and ongoing maintenance of these lands plays a critical role connecting current and future generations to the natural environment.”

It was a beautiful afternoon on April 21, when the BCCER held its first open house celebrating its natural habitat. About 240 visitors braved the narrow dirt road to take advantage of the short strolls, talks and displays focused on indigenous fire-making materials, saw whet owl banding, bat research tools and bug identification.

There’s no signage welcoming visitors to the reserves, just a green paddle marker 3521 along Highway 32 that leads down a rough dirt road to a clearing where a huge barn, a few other buildings and a weather station poke out of the wild landscape. Most intriguing is a hubo, a cedar bark dwelling typical of the Mechoopda Maidu, the indigenous tribe of the area. Behind the barn, looking like an oversized birdhouse on stilts, is a slick, tile-roof condo that can house up to 2,500 bats.

Under the ownership and direction of the CSUC Research Foundation, the reserves have merged land and habitat management with research, education and conservation, utilizing student and citizen science, while returning the land to its original habitat. Chico State recreation and biology classes come to this outdoor laboratory to conduct bug surveys; map trails; and study fox, owl, skunk, deer and mountain lion populations.

Programs correlate with California elementary science curriculum standards, a win-win for teachers and students alike.

“Last year we had 1,300 K-12 students for this outdoor education. It’s free to schools. We teach them about the Mechoopda who lived here and how this once was beach-front property,” said Goodsell, pointing to a fossilized shell.

The only established hiking path, the 0.7-mile Loop Meadow trail, begins near a field of native grass. “This used to be all star thistle,” Goodsell said with a sweep of his hand. “The land was grazed for 100 years by the Lucas family. Star thistle is not native—we eradicated the thistle and Scotch broom,” he said.

BCCER grew from the 1999 purchase of the Simmons Ranch to the 2001 acquisition of the Henning Ranch. (Jack Henning was president and CEO of Sunset magazine in the 1980s.) Now the only nonnative plants on the reserve are fig and olive trees planted by previous owners. And something’s enjoying those olives.

“Bear scat turns black from eating olives,” said Jon Aull, education and research coordinator for the reserves. Pointing at a tall pole on a fence, he continued: “The bears have fun here. We have 10-15 cameras on the property with night vision. That’s how we know the bears come and use the water trough as a swimming pool.”

There is a synergy at the reserves with other agencies like the California Indian Water Commission, California Deer Association, Bureau of Land Management and Cal Fire. Don Hankins, BCCER field director, oversees project planning and has run the prescribed burning program since 2007.

“Fire is a good tool to enhance the environment with oak and grassland management,” he said. “Here, students see how fire is needed to maintain the native species.”

The reserves are dependent on interns, students and volunteers, some of them regular visitors who participate through citizen science. “We have anglers who do podcasts,” Goodsell explained. “It’s citizen science to have hunters help collect data. Their help is important to land management decisions.” Other citizen scientists do butterfly counts, monitor bird songs, identify mushrooms and conduct oak tree studies.

Kohner Vugrenes, a Chico State environmental studies graduate, wears the hat of the steward field coordinator at the reserves and considers his work to be like that of a restoration farmer of native species.

“There are lots of projects and challenges. But it’s like farming,” said Vugrenes, who hails from an almond- and walnut-farming family. “I love this community involvement that brings positive changes for the environment. It’s rewarding working with student interns to show them how natural landscape should look using natural ways to cultivate.”