Research Overview

for sustaining forested watersheds & salmon-bearing rivers through
climate change

Freshwaters of the American West, and the fish and wildlife they sustain, are threatened by climate change, increasing human pressure, and atmospheric pollutants from sources as far as China. We need to learn from nature how to manage watersheds to sustain them, particularly through periods of drought. The Angelo Coast Range Reserve provides a unique setting for studies of rivers, forests, fish, and wildlife along California’s North Coast. Within this protected large watershed, researchers can learn how natural processes recharge, store, and purify water to support native plant and animal populations, and maintain the natural landscapes that renew the human spirit.

The Angelo Coast Range Reserve was the first gift to The Nature Conservancy west of the Mississippi, and for many years, the largest. Today, it is the largest tract of undeveloped coastal conifer forest remaining along the California Coast. Angelo is also the only natural research reserve not downwind from a local pollution source that receives direct atmospheric input from the Pacific. Since Heath and Margorie Angelo protected their land in the 1930s, the population of California has tripled. The 8000 acre Angelo Coast Range Reserve now provides a crucial window into the workings of relatively pristine river, riparian, wetland, forest, meadow, and chaparral ecosystems of the California North Coast. In long term experimental studies that couldn’t be done outside a protected research reserve, we have learned that bed scouring floods are necessary to rejuvenate the food web that supports the growth of juvenile salmonids. We learned that because of ecological interactions, meadows will respond to climate changes in the seasonality of rainfall in ways that would not be predicted grass physiology alone. These results potentially shed light on the extensive areas of the state that have been impacted by humans, because fundamental natural processes are clearer in places that have not been destabilized by multiple disturbances. Scientists at Angelo have discovered that storage of water in deep fractured bedrock, and the retrieval and redistribution of this water to shallow soils and the local atmosphere by deeply rooted, large trees, may be the key to sustaining river runoff through more prolonged drought. Several decades of ecological research at this site has begun to elucidate how the health of river food webs that support native salmonids depends on critical thresholds in both winter pulse flows and sustained summer base flows. California salmonids, though less intensively studied than populations in northern states, harbor adaptations that will be crucial genetic resources (“seeds for recovery”) in a warming world. Securing the future of the Angelo Reserve by providing salaries for stewards and students could foster the new generation of field scientists (EcoGeeks) needed for watershed science and management of the future.