University of California Natural Reserve System

history & archive project



The University of California’s Natural Reserve System (NRS) is the largest and most diverse network of university-run field stations in the world. The first reserve was founded in 1937, the reserves were brought together as a single administrative unit in 1965, and today the system includes 39 sites covering 750,00 acres, an area about five times the size of San Francisco. UC reserves exist in every major California bioregion--from the Channel Islands to the High Sierra, and from the Northwest Forest to the Mojave Desert.

The mission of the UC Natural Reserve System History and Archive Project is to inventory, preserve, and promote the use of the System’s diverse historical resources, and to use these materials to support innovative research, teaching, and outreach.


Building an Archive

UC reserves, and their associated faculty and staff, hold thousands of documents, maps, photographs, and other primary source materials related to the cultural, administrative, scientific, and environmental histories of the NRS and the sites it encompasses. These materials tell many stories about California and its flagship public university system. They also provide unique insights into crucial questions involving land use, natural resource management, and environmental change.

When we began this project in 2011, most of these irreplaceable materials had not been inventoried or described, and there were no system-wide plans for permanent preservation and access. Some materials already had disappeared, and others were in danger of loss. Individuals and institutions around the state held materials related to the NRS that had not been inventoried or or assessed for their value, and dozens of faculty and staff who were in or approaching retirement had unrecorded perspectives and experiences that could contribute greatly to our understanding of the NRS's history. Our team thus set out to catalog these materials, describe them, and work with faculty, staff, and others to ensure their preservation for future generations. 



It is impossible to know which primary source materials will be of value in the future. Our archival work to-date has thus focused on unpublished materials held at the UC reserves that we believe have “potential historical value.” These include materials that pertain to the administrative, scientific, cultural, and environmental histories of the UC Natural Reserve System and its sites. In the future, we plan to expand this work to materials of potential historical value that are related to the reserves but held in other locations, including at off-site archives and by private individuals.



An important aspect of our work is partnering with other groups that have common interests or are pursuing related projects. This includes NRS affiliated faculty and staff, as well as museums, libraries, centers, and institutes throughout the UC system and beyond. Of particular importance is the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration at UC Santa Barbara, which provided an institutional home for our project early in its development, and is serving as a model for historical resource development related to the environment in Southern California.



This project has received generous support from the University of California and the National Science Foundation.



In 2011, our team developed an archival survey protocol that can be used for any size or kind of reserve collection. In the years since, we have conducted more than three dozen historical resource inventories at UC reserves and campus administrative offices. Through this work, we have identified and described around 80 unique historical collections not previous cataloged. We also have facilitated the transfer of several important collections from their temporary locations at reserves and campus offices to permanent archives. These materials are now available for searching on our website and use by students, scholars, and the public.


Next Steps

This website came on-line in 2016, but the version you see here is only the beginning. We are now moving forward in the following areas:

-  We are building the NRS archive by incorporating additional collections, including materials held at “off-site” locations outside the UC reserves and campus offices.

-  We are working with NRS faculty and staff to preserve the collections we have inventoried and plan for the strategic acquisition and management of materials collected in the future.

-  We are using the collections on this site to support research, teaching, and outreach activities related to the UC reserves and the sites they encompass.

-  We are working with partners to make these materials more accessible for students and scholars.