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Report on a visit to the Stanford Hills with Resource Management Specialists

(courtesy of PATHS)

September 2000

When Stanford's President Casper formally accused hikers and runners of "despoiling the environment" in the Stanford Hills, and levied some restrictive new rules severely limiting access, our first reaction was one of defensiveness, disclaiming that human impact was responsible for devegetation and erosion on Cardiac Hill or anywhere else in the hills area. Slowly, reluctantly, our denial lifted and was replaced by curiosity: What is the real ecological situation up there? What is its history? Who is responsible for what? What could and should be done?

We found two experts, Craig Breon, a local attorney for the Audubon Society, and David Smernoff, a biologist and resource manager for Palo Alto's Arastradero Preserve, who graciously agreed to meet us for an early morning hike to observe the area and answer our questions, on July 21, 2000. First we wanted to know: What's up here? What's the situation? We learned that this is no pristine wilderness area, having been highly disturbed by grazing since the Spanish occupied the land, grazing which has continued for years by Piers Dairy through its lease with Stanford. David and Craig said that nearly the entire grassland area has been converted to non-native annual grasses, which die off by winter. There are pockets of the original native bunch grasses that could be protected and expanded by appropriate resource management procedures. This area has been impacted for centuries by human interaction, and therefore does not need to be closed off to humans now to preserve its original state. David said that there are some pockets of relatively intact oak woodland. The oaks are under stress and sparse in some groves. He explained that in California it is common to find the densest oak groves in riparian areas and shaded canyons, with other groves scattered amidst rolling grassland. He said that Magic, Inc., hired by the University to plant oak trees, is helping replenish what unmanaged grazing depletes, as cattle eat oak seedlings. Some riparian (creekside) areas have fairly good diversity, although there has been a lot of erosion. The native biodiversity could be expanded by proper management.

What animals and birds should be here, we asked? Bobcats and coyotes, even mountain lions are natural predators which still probably pass through here, but are shy of humans and have been scared away by encroaching urbanization. Birds are not nearly as diverse as they could be. Amphibians are declining world wide. What happened? We asked. Specifically, what's been the impact of runners and hikers? We passed Cardiac Hill and couldn't miss this time the eroded and widening trail. It was obvious that widening occurs in seasonal wetlands when people try to avoid mud. Also, we could see how old cow paths, deer paths and even vehicle tracks made in wet ground become adopted as trails, and depending on the situation, in rainy weather were often widened or gouged by water.

What has been Stanford's impact, we asked? David responded with another question. "Is Stanford managing for stewardship or for development?" When they manage for development, as they did with Ohlone Field, there is what he charitably called "benign neglect." This is what we see here in the hills. Then, of course, when people widen trails to avoid mud, an area is devegetated and water runs down into puddles, which happens when there is no trail management. As he pointed out again and again, there is no evidence of trail management here. No trail design. No master plan. No adequate mapping of existing trails. The only resource management being done is by Magic, Inc., which plants oaks and controls nonnative invasive plants. The University, by contrast, plays no role in trying to protect, restore or enhance the ecological resources in the foothills. What has been the impact of grazing, we asked? We were told that grazing didn't start with Stanford, that it was begun up here by the Spanish over a hundred and fifty years ago, and was continued on both sides of the hill by Stanford, until recently. Now grazing takes place mostly west of the ridge. Grazing weakened and all but eliminated the native perennial bunch grass that kept the hills green. During the summer, these were replaced by annual European grasses such as oats. We passed riparian areas, seeing huge stretches of eroded banks, a result of grazing. Cattle have denuded the creek beds of the native cottonwoods and willows that keep the banks intact. Thirsty cattle have trampled the banks. How reasonable are the new rules restricting public access? David felt it was disingenuous to blame the public for despoiling the hills. The problem, he said, is lack of stewardship. He found the rules restricting hikers and runners to a four mile asphalt loop during the day "draconian and punitive."

What needs to be done up here, we asked? We received some specific, practical suggestions. The trail up Cardiac Hill: Although many value the trail as a cardiac workout resource, standard resource management would counsel switchbacks or other more gradual ascents. If such a trail were deemed appropriate for runners (e.g. track teams etc.) there are ways to maintain such steep trails with appropriate drainage features and routine maintenance. In either case, proper planning and routine maintenance are necessary for all trail systems in order to protect natural resources when providing public access.

Grazing: Craig told us about "holistic range management" ideas that could be used here, where grazing is seasonally timed to spare native plants and grasses but consume the nonnative annuals. Riparian areas could be protected from destruction by giving cattle alternative water sources, salt licks and other strategies to protect willows and cottonwoods. Such grazing could be managed to control fire danger. Riparian areas: Riparian areas could be restored by plantings of natives such as willows and perhaps even cottonwoods in some areas. Chutes (previously installed in the creeks in a misguided attempt at erosion control) should be removed. Cattle grazing would be prevented here.

Trail density: David pointed out that the 20 miles of trails identified by Stanford's Conservation Biology Dept. do not constitute excessive trail density in an urban interface open space such as the Stanford Hills. Arastradero Preserve, a comparable urban interface open space area, has 16 miles of trails on its 600 acres, and Rancho San Antonio also has high trail density.

What steps should be taken first?

Trail mapping: Trail mapping: GPS (geographical positioning system)and GIS (geographic information systems) technology should be used to make a fair and honest assessment of the trail system and natural resources, in conjunction with the aerial mapping which has been used to date.

Master trail plan: Stanford could host a master trail planning process allowing the public and resource experts together to create a Master Trail Plan, giving strong consideration to establishing regional trail connections through the Dish area to Arastradero Preserve. For instance, if a trail straight up Cardiac Hill is an important public resource, that could be incorporated into the master plan with expert land management advise on how that might be accomplished; or if certain meadows of wildflowers were considered a precious public resource, a trail might be included nearby.

Vision for a preeminent Department of Resource Management at Stanford University: The university could develop a preeminent multidisciplinary land management program centered around the restoration of Stanford land for the benefit of the both the public and wildlife. Stanford could conduct research on this land in the emerging field of ecological restoration, leading the world in understanding the enormous complexity of restoring degraded ecosystems. Research projects could address issues such as: a) the impact of dogs, on and off leash; b) restoration of natural predators as a way to keep ground squirrels in check; c) compatibility of cattle grazing in an open space area; d) optimal trail density; e) resource managing to attract or deter various species of plants and animals; f) fire ecology; g) techniques of managing for wildlife diversity. This land could be a vehicle for Stanford to showcase expertise in resource management, for outreach to the community surrounding it, for team-building for its own employees (offering time off from regular work in exchange for time spent helping with restoration projects).

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Last update November 16, 2001.