Explore Pepperwood Preserve, SRJC’s secret wilderness

Michael Shufro, Staff Writer

Large, white vans full of SRJC students pass Michael Gillogly on the private drive leading to Three Tree Hill, one of Pepperwood Preserve’s mountain peaks. Up ahead beef cows from a local rancher feed on the grasslands and help remove invasive grass species. When the cattle clear, Gillogly parks at the McCann Homestead, an abandoned property from the 1870s where fruit trees and freshwater springs survive today as living remnants of the past. A white-tailed kite coasts high above, soaring towards Mt. Saint Helena, swamped in a mass of cloud and fog.

Home to more than a thousand species, the preserve covers 3,100 acres of sprawling wilderness and ranks as one of California’s foremost biodiversity hubs. This, the preserve’s deep-rooted elements of community, education and human connection with the natural world, makes Pepperwood a unique destination in Sonoma County.

“I saw a golden eagle just last week,” said Gillogly, the preserve manager. “I’ve seen bobcats, coyotes… not far at all into the woods. We’ve actually had bears on the property, too. We haven’t seen any yet, but we can tell by scat and tracks that they’re here.”

Co-operated by SRJC and the Pepperwood Foundation and located in the Mayacamas Mountains, Pepperwood first became a preserve in 1979 when Kenneth K. and Nancy Bechtel donated the land to the California Academy of Sciences. Decades later in 2005, the Pepperwood Foundation formed and assumed stewardship from the Academy. SRJC President Robert Agrella joined the foundation’s board of directors, and immediately a strong bond aligned between Pepperwood and SRJC.

Gillogly, who’s worked at Pepperwood longer than any other employee and lives with his family on the premises, enters his 17th year as a staff member this April. Since the foundation formed, Gillogly watched as the program at Pepperwood went through dramatic change. “People really started to get involved and visit,” he said.

The preserve boasts an expansive education program of courses, workshops and fieldtrips. With retired SRJC Botany Professor Stephen Barnhart as Pepperwood’s education director since 2005, the program is a natural choice for SRJC students.

Classes range from anthropology to zoology, with opportunities to study native marine creatures and visit the swamp life at Turtle Pond. Students can become skilled at observing animals in the wild through Pepperwood’s camera-trapping program or enjoy a quiet evening of stargazing at Pepperwood’s Hume Observatory.

SRJC Anthropology Professor Ben Benson leads digs under the oaks for Native American artifacts. Benson, who sits on the Native American Advisory Council, teaches several classes with coursework including basket weaving, native uses of local plants and an in-depth look at the Wappo Tribe, which once inhabited this region.

Educational opportunities

The program also provides educational opportunities for every age ranging from simple science classes for kindergartners to hands-on research for undergraduate and graduate students from a wide range of colleges and universities.

In Pepperwood’s K-8 science program, children learn about forest ecology and nature’s life cycles. “We’re seeing over a thousand kids in that program,” Gillogly said. “We’re about educating people. Pepperwood is an opportunity for people to learn about the natural history of plants and animals in Sonoma County. Someone is studying lupines; someone else is studying a malformation in frogs.”

Students seeking a more involved level of commitment can sign up for Pepperwood’s master naturalist program through SRJC. The program consists of two 10-week semester courses, Bio 85.1 and 85.2 (each two units), and includes a comprehensive natural history of Pepperwood plus several fieldtrips to the preserve. The program takes one year to complete, and upon finishing students are certified to become stewards for Pepperwood. Currently, 19 stewards work on the property and range from young aspiring naturalists to nature-loving retirees.

The program also reaches out to public educators. Morgan Kennedy, a G.I.S. research specialist at Pepperwood, instructed a classroom of elementary school teachers from San Francisco on March 6 about iNaturalist, a new app for the iPhone. The free app works as a social networking forum for detecting species, and makes for a great tool on nature fieldtrips.

Users can take snapshots of local flora and fauna with the app, and have other users help identify what species they encountered. “You can have a profile on your account just like Facebook or Twitter, but your profile is all about species,” Kennedy said. “The main purpose of iNaturalist is to use for climate change research as well cataloguing species. [It’s] designed to get a citizen’s view of ‘wow, look at all this I saw here.'”

Volunteers keep it native

While the public can’t venture alone onto the property, the preserve offers a wide range of free and moderately priced hikes, lectures, activities and events for students and visitors.

The first Saturday of every month is Pepperwood’s volunteer workday. Staff members and voluntary stewards lead newcomers on free public hikes the second Saturday of each month. Look for wild animals on the trail, and learn about Pepperwood’s natural history and land management.

“If you’re interested in volunteering for your local nature community, come up here and explore,” Kennedy said. “It’s a magical place with magical experiences.”

Since European settlers brought much of the grass here, many of Pepperwood’s volunteers assist in ongoing restoration projects, Gillogly said. By switching out these annual grasses for perennial bunch grass, Gillogly said the preserve is moving back toward what is natural. Volunteers help by removing invasive plant species, building trails and collecting native grass and plant seeds, which they replant.

“Some volunteers have a particular skill. They’ll help set up a weather system or conduct bird surveys,” Gillogly said. “We really encourage students who are interested in this field of work to get involved here. From physical work to academic work, volunteers are a vital part of what we do, and we couldn’t do it without them.”

April 17, Pepperwood will host its annual Spring Wildflower Festival. Something for all ages, festival-goers can join local naturalists for a group hike among the wildflowers or enjoy spectacular mountain vistas on a driving tour of the grounds. Art and science projects for children, lectures on wildflowers and insect pollinators and a flower show will all be part of the celebration.

“I really hope people can utilize Pepperwood more. We pretty much have every plant community here,” said Amber Huntington, a curator at Pepperwood’s herbarium and a steward since 2009.

“Climate change is probably going to be our biggest concern here,” Gillogly said in reference to the future. “It’s something we’re working on right now with North Bay Climate Initiative and other organizations. We’re setting up monitoring systems, and seeing how our management works for grassland systems. Now that we have the social media, we’re able to incorporate citizen scientists.”

As dusk approaches, a spectacular silence fills the rain soaked grasslands of the preserve. The air smells clean, wet and earthy. Every shade of green clings on rocks and mossy fence posts. Wind rattles a nearby oak tree; a flock of birds scatters from its branches and disappeared. On a nearby hillside a coyote stalks, then scuttles off into the woods. The brilliant, sensuous experience of the wilderness is awake and alive.