waves crashing at coil oil point

‘A Place for Discovery’

Two hours ought to do it. And it’s a modest amount of time to give for the payoff: a riveting, blockbuster performance where the stars — every one of them — are natural wonders. Quite literally. 

A single 120-minute walkabout across this 170-acre “stage” features cameos aplenty, by mesmerizing landscapes and fascinating species alike. From vernal pools to wildflower fields to cypress groves, from lizards to lichens to bobcats to a certain barrel-chested shorebird that has made quite a name for itself, there is no shortage of entertainment here. 

But in this symphony of nature that is Coal Oil Point Reserve, the undeniable showstopper is the beach. A gleaming, pristine expanse of sand and the glittering Pacific Ocean beckon surfers, runners and photographers, while the infinite ecological details therein attract scientists, scholars and students of every age and interest.

sunset at coal oil point

cris sandoval sitting on sand

Cris Sandoval, director of Coal Oil Point Reserve.

Photo Credit: MATT PERKO

"This breathtaking view harbors so much to be discovered,” said Cristina Sandoval, director of Coal Oil Point Reserve, one of seven protected sites administered by the UC Santa Barbara Natural Reserve System (UCSB NRS). “Even though we know a lot, there is even more that we don’t. This is a place for discovery, and there is so much to be understood.


“Research of a place like this, with over 1,000 species and so many habitats, will be going on forever,” she added. “Learning about nature is never-ending; the more you learn, the more questions come to you. That’s what makes this job incredibly fun.” 

Sandoval started at Coal Oil Point in 1997, co-managing the reserve alongside her husband and fellow scientist Kevin Lafferty, now an accomplished parasitologist and researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey. Both were postdoctoral researchers at UCSB then, and the reserve job was a volunteer gig, coming with a modest stipend. 

Still, Sandoval dug in full bore to improve what was then a degraded property, due mostly to human impacts — “trespassing, cars, fires, dogs off leash,” she recalled. She pursued and got “a bunch of grants” for restoration projects, and was named full-time reserve director in 2001.

Sandoval over the years has shepherded the successful restoration of more than 20 acres of wetland margins, vernal pools, coastal sage scrub, dunes and beach habitats. Once in real ecological trouble, these areas all are now self-sustaining and rich in native wildlife.

The ‘wild-urban interface’

Sitting four miles west of UCSB proper, Coal Oil Point is in many ways an extension of the campus. Few reserves are so accessible to so many as this one — a quick bike ride away from major lecture halls and busy labs. And with Sands Beach and several open trails within its boundaries, few are as public.

That’s part of what makes COPR unique — and especially valuable for research, teaching and stewardship — according to Sandoval.

“Coal Oil Point is particularly important because it is a wild-urban interface,” she said. “Here we can study the wild and how humans may alter it. For example, our studies on the impact of human disturbance on nesting snowy plovers showed that the plovers would not nest in areas where people would walk.”

plover territory at the reserve

Oh, that plover. In terms of ecological starpower, this bird is a celebrity of the highest magnitude. Sandoval calls it COPR’s de facto “mascot.” Certainly it’s perfectly emblematic of successful conservation.

In 1993, with its Pacific Coast population declining, mainly due to loss of habitat, the plover was listed as a threatened species. By 1999, when the beach at COPR was designated “critical habitat” for plovers, that population was estimated at less than 1,500 birds.

Today the story is much different. Coal Oil Point, which for decades saw no breeding plovers, now hosts up to 400 of them each winter — the birds’ largest such seasonal aggregation in the U.S. — and averages 30 fledged chicks per year. The reserve in fact made history, becoming the first site to lose its breeding population entirely — for decades, Sandoval said — then recover it through conservation efforts.

From the bluffs above the beach, and extending several yards along the base of the dunes, fencing, posts and rope serve as a barrier between the upper beach, where the plovers are nesting, and the shoreline down below. An array of signage steers beachgoers: “Nests in Sand, Keep Out” and “Sensitive Wildlife Area, Do Not Enter.”

These relatively simple implements have been key to the plovers’ restoration. So has COPR’s robust docent program. Volunteers, carefully trained by reserve staff member Jessica Nielsen, are posted on the beach every day of the year.

Fifteen years in, Steve Ferry is COPR’s longest-serving docent. A weekly fixture and on the beach since 2002, he was a regular visitor long before volunteering. He often hiked and rode his bike at the reserve and would see signs recruiting for docents.

“I finally stopped one day and volunteered on the spot — and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Ferry said. “I feel like I’m doing some good here for the environment. We’ve managed to keep the snowy plovers at roughly the same level, on average, and keep them reproducing over the years. They are a threatened species so I feel like we’re really accomplishing something here.”

That accomplishment — like the way it was achieved — has implications far beyond Coal Oil Point and even the NRS, according to Sandoval.

“We were able to strike a balance between recreation and protection — an important solution that we can use as a model throughout California,” she said. “This kind of research that finds solutions that preserve biodiversity but also let us continue to use habitats like the beach is critical. We found a solution here that was a win-win situation for the plovers and for people. That’s the model — to combine research and education to find solutions.”

steve ferry standing on the beach at coal oil point

‘An invaluable resource’

There is no shortage of either happening here all the time.    

Climate change research, studies of beach erosion, examinations of the influence of fog on plant growth to the ecology of the raccoon roundworm, to Lyme disease. That’s a small sampling. A birder’s paradise, where thousands of migratory birds visit throughout the year, the reserve has an ongoing program to measure bird abundance and diversity, providing valuable data to researchers and offering insight into how birds use its habitats.

Given its proximity to campus, COPR is used frequently for an array of university courses in disciplines from geography to environmental studies to biology and beyond. Humanities scholars are regulars here, too, as are artists; the place offers inspiration to all.

“The NRS is an invaluable resource for students and researchers,” said COPR land and resource manager Kipp Callahan, a recent addition to the reserve’s staff — and to California. He relocated from North Carolina, where he earned a master’s degree in plant biology. “As someone who is deeply interested in natural history, I think that research stations are absolutely critical both as places where unique kinds of research can be done and also as vehicles for exposing students to natural resource research in a form that is more involved, and more in-depth, than most laboratory work would normally allow.”  

‘To the benefit of all’

The UCSB NRS is part of the larger, 1965-founded UC Natural Reserve System, which boasts 750,000 acres of protected natural land over 39 sites, representing most of the state’s major ecosystems. It is the largest network of its kind in the world.

Among the seven properties in UCSB’s care are the two-site Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve in Mammoth Lakes; Kenneth S. Norris Rancho Marino Reserve in Cambria; Sedgwick Reserve in Santa Barbara’s wine country; Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve just south of Santa Barbara; and Santa Cruz Island Reserve 25 miles off the coast.

Coal Oil Point Reserve was established in 1970. A former ranch, the property was used during World War II as a radar station for the U.S. Coast Guard. Further back, in the late 1920s, it was the site of experimental research by noted botanist Frederic Clements. UCSB acquired the now-preserved acreage in 1967.

“The NRS is so fortunate to have a reserve that is adjacent to the UCSB campus, while nestled in the broader community,” said Patricia Holden, director of the UCSB NRS and a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “Because of this opportunity, the Coal Oil Point Reserve balances the UC NRS’ full mission: stewarding unique natural and historical resources, educating all age groups — from regional secondary schoolers to undergraduates — about the delicacy and richness of coastal strand habitats, and conducting and supporting university-level research. Directed so capably for nearly 20 years by Cris Sandoval, and served by such knowledgeable staff and docents, the COPR shows how — by working together — the university and surrounding community, with the UC NRS, can achieve so much to the benefit of all. With the upcoming nature center as a gateway, the reserve brings even more to the community and campus.”

Coal Oil Point director Kris Sandoval

‘Caring for nature’

Culminating a long-held goal, Sandoval and the UCSB NRS in late 2017 expect to open the Coal Oil Point Nature Center. With meeting space, a laboratory and a media room, the facility will target college students and the general public with exhibits interpreting the habitats and species at COPR, and spotlighting the research conducted here.

“The Natural Reserve System probably has the most well-understood collection of habitats in the world,” Sandoval said. “I feel lucky and privileged to know the COPR in such intimate detail. With tours, lectures and soon the nature center, our goal is to make this information accessible to anyone interested. I believe that knowledge is the most powerful tool to conservation, for informing management decisions and to warm the hearts of people into caring for nature.

“I’m a scientist myself, I love the reserve and I have a passion for conservation,” she added. “I’m so darn lucky to have this opportunity. No matter what is going on in the world, this place is going to continue day after day to be here because it’s been protected. It’s a very special feeling.”