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Where the Wild Things Are...For Now

March 5, 2010

Erica Bellman
Where the Wild Things Are...For Now

Smog. Traffic. Shopping plazas. Sometimes Southern California seems less like the Golden State and more like a Gridlock State. Sure, Claremont's shaded streets and the greenery of the 5C campuses make the vicinity seem like paradise, but a 5-minute drive reveals the concrete jungle that is the Inland Empire. The San Gabriel mountains, the Mojave desert, and the Pacific Coast offer some of the nation's most breathtaking wonders, but the infamous urban sprawl of Los Angeles seems to overwhelm the area's natural beauty. Whether you're a true tree-hugger, an eco-warrior, or the polar bears on Planet Earth convinced you that our world was worth saving, you know how important conservation efforts are.  A tiny slice of precious wild land lies in our own backyard: the Bernard Field Station.

This 86-acre field station, an expanse of rare coastal sage scrub used primarily for research at the 5Cs, lies just off of Foothill Boulevard. The BFS boasts multiple distinct habitats within its borders: a riparian live oak forest, vernal pools, and "pHake lake," a man-made lake constructed for the study of aquatic biology, are among the various environmental features. This unique environment allows many endangered or threatened species to thrive. The diversity and abundance of wildlife residing at the BFS is incredible. From a Painted Lady butterfly, to a Great Horned owl, to a wandering bobcat, the bounty of animals induces awe. Check out the field station's website for a complete list of the mammals, invertebrates, fish, birds, and reptiles at the BFS.

A visitor to the BFS will feel transported in time, for this is how Southern California must have been at one time. Sightings of coyotes playing about the grounds of the BFS at night makes the visitor feel a bit melancholy: if not for the BFS, these creatures would have only concrete to prowl. The baked earth crunches beneath your feet as you enter the locked gates of the BFS.  As you continue to trod the path leading into the heart of the field station, you lose sight of the busy road and become immersed in your new surroundings.  Without a dormitory (or a red cup) to be found, this environment is a bit unsettling for the Claremont student.  Soon, however, you begin to realize the great importance of this unique natural resource as a research base for science students, a habitat for native animals and plants, and a tiny check to keep the Inland Empire's commercial development in balance.

The BFS, a vital resource to the 5C community for academic purposes, hosts an average of just over 200 people each week-- a number that is likely a gross underestimation of the actual influx of visitors to the field station. Dr. Marion Preest, a Joint Science Department Biology professor, stressed the importance of this resource to the Claremont Colleges. "Our students can go [to the BFS] throughout the week to carry out senior thesis research, complete experiments for classes, or just enjoy birdwatching," Dr. Preest explained. This wild place is sure to make even non-science majors look forward to (or at least not dread) taking that nagging Biological Science GE. Astronomy classes have even spent time at the BFS for nighttime stargazing.

The BFS has not always been a happily shared resource of the Claremont Colleges.  In 2001, the rugged tract of land was under siege when the Keck Graduate Institute attempted to build its campus on a plot directly adjacent to the BFS, a development that could endanger the wildlife. Intense student protests (think riot-style, with high-profile students chaining themselves to cement-filled trash cans) succeeded in halting the plan, but not without a hitch.  Keck, the owner of the adjacent 11.46 acres since 2004, sought a buyer of the now unused land.

Harvey Mudd College emerged as the newest developer of the plot, with plans to build an eco-conscious, "green" parking lot next to the BFS. Again, students and faculty have risen up in opposition.  Students for the Bernard Field Station is a group dedicated to preserving the BFS land.  "We believe that the BFS struggle is a micro-level analogy for extensive degradation of the environment throughout the world," the group's mission statement reads. "We are determined to stop the destruction of a natural habitat by what we deem to be extraneous development."  Many question whether a truly "green" parking lot is even a possibility. With increased concrete, toxic run-off and pollution from cars are nearly impossible to prevent.

This proposed development could directly impact individual students' research projects. Dr. Preest is working with a duo of Scripps students conducting senior thesis research on the Western toad, a species that breeds on BFS land, may soon face a difficult challenge. The Western toad toads breed only in a pond located on the property included in the HMC land purchase.  The students have begun to construct a new breeding pond and hope to relocate tadpoles to this second habitat in order to avoid extreme disruption of their project.

As the Claremont Colleges strive toward a more sustainable future with trayless dining halls and the construction of LEED-certified buildings like Claremont Hall, development on an ecologically important land tract seems counterintuitive. The Bernard Field Station is a resource for students, researchers, faculty members, wildlife, and the greater Southern California area. A unanimous vote by Pomona College's faculty members to work with the consortium to preserve the BFS demonstrates the unified effort at the 5Cs to save the land. The environmental significance of this issue is not lost on the Claremont Colleges.

A committed alliance in opposition to the development of the BFS land has the power to overcome plans for development. Although cement-filled trash cans may be unnecessary, we can still join groups like Students for the BFS in their fight to preserve this precious resource. "When I have visitors and I mention that we have this accessible resource-- they're envious," Dr. Preest added.   This is clearly a unique, attention-grabbing facet of the 5C community worth protecting.

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