SCICON, UC Merced create field station for researchers at outdoor education camp


TULARE COUNTY – Years before UC Merced welcomed students to its campus in 2005, Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Jim Vidak was envisioning a partnership with the university. Vidak saw the potential in connecting the university’s School of Natural Sciences and its Sierra Nevada Research Institute (SNRI) with the Tulare County Office of Education’s internationally-known SCICON outdoor education program.

“Fifteen years ago, I hoped that the university would see the benefits of partnering with a well-established outdoor education program attended by thousands of students every year,” he said. “Through SCICON, we offer a broad range of research opportunities, housing, conference facilities, and classrooms on two distinct sites – SCICON’s mountainous 1,100-acre campus and the lower elevation Circle J-Norris Ranch with 630 acres of range land. I also thought that if UC Merced would consider building a field station at SCICON, thousands of Tulare County students could be exposed to undergraduate opportunities at the university and some may even have the chance to work alongside UC researchers.”

Jim Vidak welcomed UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland to SCICON in May. The visit from the Chancellor cemented the partnership to create the field station, a future source of Central Valley environmental research. Photo courtesy of Tulare County Office of Education.

Jim Vidak welcomed UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland to SCICON in May. The visit from the Chancellor cemented the partnership to create the field station, a future source of Central Valley environmental research. Photo courtesy of Tulare County Office of Education.

This month, Vidak’s long-held dream is becoming a reality. Construction is beginning on the new UC Merced/SCICON Field Station located on a recently acquired eight-acre property contiguous to SCICON’s Circle J-Norris Ranch field study site. Next year, the Field Station will be home to UC Merced researchers who are members of the university’s SNRI. For over 10 years, UC Merced has had partnerships with Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks.Today, the SNRI has field stations in both national parks.

The Tulare County Board of Education approved the purchase of the eight-acre site for the UC Merced/SCICON Field Station last month. The site was owned by Dr. Donna FitzRoy Hardy, a zoologist and emeritus professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge, who generously donated the equity she had in the property to the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE). The property, which will be known as Condor’s Hope, will also be a site for condor habitat research conducted by The Peregrine Fund.

On the property sits a modern two-story house and a separate four-car garage with an apartment above it. Seeing the garage and apartment building for the first time last fall, Mr. Vidak realized that it could easily be converted into a field station with ample laboratory space and housing for visiting researchers. This month, contractors will begin converting the garage into a preparation laboratory for UC researchers. The 1,000 square-foot lab will allow researchers to dry or freeze samples collected in the field for transportation and analysis in laboratories at any of the UC campuses.

For over 20 years, students from elementary grades to the community college level have come to the Circle J-Norris Ranch to participate in hands-on lessons, or have returned numerous times during the year for ongoing research projects. Each year, Circle J invites high school students and their teachers to work alongside naturalists and scientists during the Field Science Weekend and BioBlitz events.

Over the years, Jim Vidak discussed the idea of creating a field station at SCICON with founding Chancellor Carol Tomlinson Keasey and her successor, Chancellor Steve Kang. The most recent conversation about the partnership began in February 2017 with representatives from the university and the UC Merced Foundation. In January of this year, a delegation of administrators from TCOE visited the Merced campus to meet with Chancellor Dorothy Leland and faculty members of the School of Natural Sciences and the SNRI. In March, a contingent of UC Merced faculty and educators from the National Park Service visited SCICON and the Circle J-Norris Ranch. Chancellor Leland visited in May.

The process of forming the partnership between TCOE and UC Merced has been greatly aided by Dr. Ross Gentry, former TCOE deputy superintendent of Business Services, and Tulare County businessman Fred Ruiz, a former member of the UC Board of Regents – a position he held for 12 years. Both men are now members of the UC Merced Foundation. “We are so grateful to Fred and Ross for their advocacy of this partnership,” said Jim Vidak. “Their appreciation for both organizations and the possibilities the field station represents in terms of significant new research and the impact on our students has been invaluable!”

During their tour of the SCICON and Circle J sites in March, SNRI Executive Director Armando Quintero and director Anne Kelly spoke of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System (NRS). Founded in 1965 as a network of wildland sites available for scientific study, the NRS has grown to include 39 locations encompassing more than 756,000 acres across the state – the largest program of its kind in the world. The Yosemite Field Station and UC Merced’s Vernal Pool Grassland Reserve are two of the 39 reserves in the UCNRS.

Drs. Quintero and Kelly explained that the NRS currently has no reserves in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The development of the field station at the Circle J-Norris Ranch could provide UC researchers opportunities to study the Sierra Nevada foothills’ environmental systems, gaining insights into issues that affect the quality of life for Central Valley residents. Once the field station is complete and UC Merced researchers are in place, the partnership can apply to be accepted into the NRS, a process that requires a year-long review.

In addition to the partnership with UC Merced’s SNRI, the university will encourage the participation of other research initiatives conducting pertinent natural science, engineering, social science, management, policy, and humanities research. Institutes including UC Water, Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Public Health may lead research initiatives with a focus on the environment, people, and future of the Sierra Nevada and San Joaquin Valley.

Following their meeting in March, Dr. Ross Gentry, Dr. Anne Kelly and Dianne Shew, SCICON’s administrator, were invited to make a presentation on the partnership to members of the NRS in Oakland. Since that time, UC Merced and TCOE administrators created a Memo of Understanding (MOU), outlining the aspirations of the partnership. Out of the MOU, a steering committee will be created to guide the research and student engagement at the field station.

“The steering committee will have the exciting job of further developing the partnership and how students connect to the research that will be done at the field station,” said Mr. Vidak. “We look forward to reaching out to educators in Tulare County and beyond to help connect future generations of young scientists to this research and eventually to careers involving the care of our world.”

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