Thursday, May 12, 2005
“Can you imagine sitting here grinding corn?” Merg asks.
In more developed areas, it would take a leap of the imagination to visualize such a scene. But here at Big Creek, where the impact of humanity is minimal, it is not a formidable task.
Merg, who is the resident director of the UC Santa Cruz-run reserve, says his primary goal is to keep the 4,200 acres of land and the 1,200 acres of the adjacent Big Creek State Marine Reserve in a relatively pristine state. Though there has been some human development—including the construction of some structures and some logging that occurred years ago—Merg says that Big Creek is maintained as a scientific “control” that can be compared to developed areas along the coast.
The difficulty of preserving the area became evident a few minutes earlier when Merg and I were walking under the redwoods by Devil’s Creek. Merg had suddenly stopped and pointed to a white flower that stood out dramatically in the dark green colors of the redwood forest.
“That’s sticky eupatorium,” he said, pointing out that it’s an invasive nonnative species. “That one really gets me.”
The reserve is locked in an ongoing fight to keep nonnative plants like sticky eupatorium, pampas grass and Scotch broom at bay.
“We are under siege like every other region on this coast,” he says. “If I were to sit here and do nothing, the reserve would be totally changed.”
If nonnatives were to replace native plant populations, there also would be corresponding changes in the number of animals that feed on native vegetation.
Merg says one of the main recent studies at the reserve has been by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is documenting the local mountain lion population. Because Big Creek’s oak trees have not been killed by the devastating sudden oak death syndrome, scientists are hoping to determine whether the epidemic can affect larger animals like the mountain lion. Big Creek Reserve is able to continue serving as a control because it has not been hit with sudden oak death while neighboring canyons have.
Another reason that Big Creek is such an important area for scientific research is that the reserve stretches from 300 feet below the sea to an elevation on land of 3,000 feet above sea level. Merg hopes that scientists on the reserve will one day start connecting the information gleaned from terrestrial and ocean research.
“I’m hoping that Big Creek can foster a dialogue that crosses the boundary of land and sea,” he says.
Since becoming a UCSC research reserve in 1978 after five families donated the land to the university, Big Creek has had its fair share of scientific discoveries. One recent finding occurred when UC Berkeley professor Jerry Powell and researcher Dan Rubinoff found hundreds of an extremely rare diurnal moth called Syndemis sequoiae. Earlier, Powell and another researcher discovered four new moth species on the reserve. In addition, UC Santa Barbara researcher Cristina Sandoval found a new species of the insect known as the walking stick, which she named Timema landelsensis, after Landels-Hill.
Merg, who has a doctorate in evolutionary ecology, says that not allof the research happening on the reserve is scientific. The archaeologist Terry Jones has done digs on the grounds that uncovered a 6,500-year-old Native American village. Meanwhile, there is a historical project that Merg hopes will document the history of life in the Big Creek.
Merg, who grew up on a farm in a rural part of Wisconsin, says his position as resident director allows him to draw on both academic knowledge and practical skills learned from living in rural places like Costa Rica’s La Selva Biological Station. In addition to acting as a liaison to the university and orienting visiting professors and students, Merg cuts trails with Big Creek’s only other permanent resident, reserve steward Feynner Arias.
Merg is also charged with making sure that scientific projects in Big Creek are not detrimental to the area, and have scientific merit.
“I’m the intellectual gatekeeper as well as the physical one,” he says.
LANDELS-HILL BIG CREEK RESERVE, LOCATED 48 MILES SOUTH OF CARMEL ON HIGHWAY 1 IN BIG SUR, WILL BE OPEN FOR ITS ANNUAL OPEN HOUSE THIS SATURDAY FROM 10AM TO 4PM. FREE. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CALL KURT MERG AT 667-2543.