There couldn’t be a more perfect new name for College Eight than Rachel Carson College. To understand why, take a look back at the Predatory Bird Research Group, started on campus in 1975 by the late natural history professor Ken Norris.
There wasn’t much the research group did that was by the book.
That’s because there was no book when the group set out to save a dwindling peregrine falcon population.
Working out of a tiny office in the then-headquarters of College Eight, this ingenious group of scientists, workers, and volunteers did the unimaginable to get falcon eggs, made fragile by the shell-thinning effects of the pesticide DDT, to hatch—they stretched budgets, MacGyvered equipment, and scavenged food for hungry chicks.
Volunteer climbers were sent scrambling up cliffs to switch falcon eggs with fake eggs that had been crafted by the UC Santa Cruz Art Department. Later, the climbers would return hatched chicks to the nest, often to the surprise of their winged parents.
One of those climbers was Yvon Chouinard, who scaled the North America Wall of El Capitan to collect eggs and insert chicks into a falcon nest in 1984. He would later go on to found Patagonia, a multimillion-dollar clothing and gear company with environmental underpinnings.
By 1999, the peregrine falcon, which had stood at less than a dozen birds in 1970, had been removed from the federal endangered species list. Today there are an estimated 300 breeding pairs in California.
“People woke up to environmental issues because of the peregrine falcon,” said retired Predatory Bird Research Group director Glenn Stewart, who was part of the original effort to save the birds. Watching the DDT-linked decline of these superhero-like predators—birds that can dive at speeds of 200 mph and have eyesight eight times better than a human—”made people realize something was really wrong out there,” he said.
But if it was the peregrine falcon that was a symbol of the effects of DDT, it was scientist/author Rachel Carson who first gave lyric voice to the problem in her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring.
Which makes it fitting that College Eight, where the effort to save the peregrine was born, has been named after the woman who sounded the dangers of the pesticide and launched an era of environmental awareness.
It also seems fitting that Rachel Carson College will be part of a campus whose long history of environmentalism ranges from figuring out how to commercially farm organic strawberries, to unearthing the cause of condor deaths, to finding ways to replenish groundwater supplies, to saving hundreds of island species from extinction. Santa Cruz was also the first in the UC system to offer a Ph.D. in environmental studies.
Marine institute emerges
Probably the first hint UC Santa Cruz would set its roots deep in the natural world came when Harvard-trained landscape architect Thomas Church placed his sturdy, lace-up boots on the Cowell Ranch property in 1962 and declared the beauty of the campus was so great, its buildings should be set among the redwoods where the towering trees would serve as an inspiration.
It wasn’t long before the stunning campus was attracting professors like Norris who, fresh from helping author the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, came to Santa Cruz to help biologist Bill Doyle and others establish what is now the Institute of Marine Sciences.
The institute, with world-class facilities serving faculty and researchers in six different departments, was “a big achievement and an important part of our environmental success,” according to Paul Koch, dean of physical and biological sciences at UC Santa Cruz.
It was at Long Marine Lab, part of the Institute of Marine Sciences, that a couple of UC Santa Cruz research biologists and confessed seabird freaks named Don Croll and Bernie Tershy set out in the 1980s to rid a pair of tiny Mexican islands from feral cats that were obliterating Cassin’s auklets, Scripps’s murrelets, and black storm petrels.
With the success of that first effort, the two men started a nonprofit called Island Conservation out of a rented office space on the coastal campus. Their goal was to continue their work on islands worldwide. Today, Island Conservation is an independent nonprofit that has saved 389 species from possible extinction on more than four dozen islands around the globe.
Faculty affiliated with the Institute of Marine Sciences also include Mark Carr and Pete Raimondi, both professors of ecology and evolutionary biology, who helped in the creation of 29 marine protected areas along the California coast as part of the state’s Marine Life Protection Act of 1999. The reserves, which cover 204 square miles, are designed to protect sea life and foster biodiversity.
About the same time Croll and Tershy were doing their conservation work in the waters off Mexico, an enthusiastic plant ecologist and farmer arrived at UC Santa Cruz from south of the border with a revolutionary idea in mind.
Hired to revive UC Santa Cruz’s struggling 33-acre farm, Steve Gliessman decided its success rested on linking the plot to academics in a science he called agroecology. UC Santa Cruz not only became home to the first formal agroecology program in the world but also, working with a local strawberry grower, developed ways to make raising organic berries economically viable.
The success of that undertaking is visible in the shelves of organic fruits and vegetables in supermarkets across the country today.
Meanwhile, 20 miles south of the campus in the agriculture-rich Pajaro Valley, UC Santa Cruz Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Andrew Fisher could be found up to his ankles in mud.
The hydrologist came to the valley to study how runoff from even a single strong storm might be caught in infiltration ponds and then be allowed to percolate back into the ground instead of rushing out to sea.
His work on recharging a groundwater system depleted by over-pumping and starved by drought was so promising, a pilot program Fisher devised with the aid of local water agencies will begin in October, giving landowners rebates for collecting storm runoff in these types of ponds. It’s a test case for how the state may deal with water conservation as snowmelt becomes more unreliable.
But if Fisher’s work included dealing with some of the effects of a changing climate, a number of researchers at UC Santa Cruz were striving to understand the phenomenon more deeply.
“UC Santa Cruz is really one of the leading institutions in the world in studying ancient greenhouse climates,” said Physical and Biological Sciences Dean Koch.
It was Koch and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences James Zachos who discovered early on that a global warming episode almost 56 million years ago called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM, had caused a host of environmental changes not just in the sea but also on the land.
During the PETM, a massive amount of carbon was released into the atmosphere. This release was caused, at least in part, by a sudden thaw of methane ice on the ocean floor. Global temperatures rose, and the ocean became more acidic. It took more than 50,000 years for the excess carbon to be reabsorbed but, by then, there had been droughts, floods, and extinctions.
By examining the PETM, UC Santa Cruz’s scientists hope to better understand the implications of the huge amounts of carbon humans are pumping into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Zachos’s latest research showed the current rate of carbon release is unprecedented in the last 66 million years. His work with Koch and emerita Professor of
Earth and Planetary Sciences Lisa Sloan and Professor of Ocean Sciences Peggy Delaney has been groundbreaking.
Meanwhile, the California condor, a prehistoric-looking bird with a 10-foot wingspan, owes its survival in part to UC Santa Cruz environmental toxicologists Myra Finkelstein and Donald Smith.
Over a long decade of work, the two researchers showed that condors—which numbered only 22 in the wild by 1982—were dying because they were ingesting lead bullet fragments when they feasted on carcasses such as felled game or gut piles.
The UC Santa Cruz team’s work, including publication of a scientific consensus statement instituted by the two researchers, led Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill that will make it illegal to use lead ammunition for hunting. California is the first state in the nation to do so.
“I feel like it is a huge step forward for the conservation of condors and other species,” said Finkelstein of the bill, who noted golden eagles, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and other scavenging animals also are affected by lead poisoning. “It’s also important for the health of humans who eat game shot with lead-based ammunition.”
Loving nature, shaping policy
It’s that kind of applied science that UC Santa Cruz is known for, and that will be supplemented by a new master’s program in coastal science and policy that will train students to go out and have an impact on the world almost immediately, according to Koch.
“I think it’s part of the culture of the campus to be concerned about environmental issues, not only because we want to understand how the world works but also to make sure the world continues to work,” he said.
It’s the same drive that led Carson to write so powerfully about the natural world and also the reason Santa Cruz’s eighth college has been named after her.