Professor Doug Smith uses a natural laboratory to educate the next generation of environmental scientists.
Take Highway One south and turn onto Carmel Valley Road. You’ll notice the hills to your right are higher and steeper. They look like an ideal landscape for a watercolor painting.
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Professor Smith has participated in art classes where he describes the science of Central Coast landscapes.
Beyond those hills are 20,000 acres of the Santa Lucia Preserve, which since 2007 has included a unique laboratory for 26 students studying under Smith. Many have gone on to distinguished positions because of their experience on the Preserve.
The area includes more than 100 luxury homes and lies in the mountains between Carmel Valley and Big Sur; it borders Garland Regional Park to the north, a popular hiking spot.
It was where Smith found a niche. “What drew me to work on the Preserve is the need for environmental science data.”
We are developing this new generation of scientists, conservation practitioners, advocates and people who just have a high level of eco-literacy.— Christy Fischer, Executive Director Santa Lucia Conservancy
Unique to the Preserve is the mission to conserve the ecological integrity of 18,000 of those acres, which are permanently protected. That responsibility falls on Executive Director Christy Fischer of the non-profit Santa Lucia Conservancy.
She is ebullient about the conservancy’s relationship with CSUMB.
“It brings students right into the heart of the Preserve to help us understand and steward the land,” describes Fischer. “It gets them engaged in its care and hopefully inspires them and others beyond our boundaries.”
Smith is more practical. “The students do everything here that a professional environmental scientist would do.”
Professor Smith was quoted prior to the removal of the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in 2016.
The School of Natural Sciences prides itself on offering a wide range of real-world, hands-on research experiences for motivated students looking for a direct career connection.
To that end, Smith refers to himself less as a traditional professor of geological sciences than a working scientist. “I work at the intersection of water, dirt, people and fish. I’m more of an environmental scientist that brings geology and hydrology to the table,” explains Smith.
His CSUMB students have been monitoring the stream gauges on the Preserve in an effort to understand the environmental science of the region.
One such student was Chelsea Neill (2015, M.S. in Applied Marine and Watershed Science), who now works at Balance Hydrologics in Berkeley, Calif. “The opportunities I was provided by working in Doug’s lab, specifically at the Santa Lucia Conservancy, were instrumental in my learning,” said Neill.
“There are stream gauges on all the major tributaries going through the Preserve,” notes Smith, “and our students are really charged with doing everything from soup to nuts. The Preserve has environmental science needs, and we have the need to do environmental science.”
The initial work began prior to 2007 with Balance Hydrologics. The Preserve extracts groundwater to use on the property, but the concern was that removal of water would ultimately affect the Carmel River.
“The fear was that would drain trout-bearing streams that feed the Carmel or that the resource would be used there instead of in the Carmel,” explains Smith.
Monterey County Weekly
Professor Smith's drone work helped document the changes to the Carmel River after the winter storms of 2017.
Then, in 2007, the opportunity opened for CSUMB to collaborate with the Santa Lucia Conservancy as a way to bring an academic perspective to the problem.
“Learning how to monitor and maintain stream gauges in the Santa Lucia Mountains was one of the most amazing work opportunities for me,” says Sheldon Leiker (2014, M.S. in Coastal and Watershed Science and Policy). “Measuring stream flow under the redwoods is always a great way to spend your time.
“The project allowed me to apply the skills Doug taught in a real-world environment, which is a priceless experience for any young hydrologist.”
Leiker is now a wetlands biologist for the State of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources - Coastal Resources Division.
A Dynamic Community
The students quickly realize they are working in a dynamic community and not a static state. “What we have here is a blend,” Fischer reminds you. She considers the land a combination of its natural state and the impacts of human habitation, which date back to when the Rumsen Indians called it home thousands of years ago.
Measuring stream flow under the redwoods is always a great way to spend your time— Sheldon Leiker
“The Santa Lucia Preserve is a permanently protected landscape into which a human community is interwoven,” says Fischer. “What Doug is helping us understand is to what extent have we effectively settled this land in a manner that maintains its ecological integrity.”
Students like Nick Sadrpour (2014, M.S. in Coastal and Watershed Science and Policy) realized their proximity to this natural laboratory was special.
“The fundamentals of rivers, sediment transport, and understanding of watersheds that I learned from working under Dr. Smith are still quite relevant in my work today.”
Sadrpour is a science, research & policy specialist at the University of Southern California’s Sea Grant Program.
Smith treats his students as professionals and challenges them scientifically in the lab and field as they go from student researchers to lab managers.
The students do everything here that a professional environmental scientist would do.— Doug Smith
In 2013, Kaitlyn Chow began working for Smith through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center. This led to her B.S. in Environmental Science, Technology & Policy in 2015 and M.S. in Applied Marine and Watershed Sciences in 2017.
“He would trust and respect that I was competent enough to gather defensible data, and train incoming researchers with minimal supervision. I was expected to be his right hand researcher for the project.”
Chow is now a hydrographer for the Yuba County Water Agency.
“During my graduate work, I took over the responsibility of maintaining the project, and I mentored younger students and trained them on the skills required to do the job.”
Stoner is now an environmental scientist in the North Central Region of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Rancho Cordova.
This level of involvement between professor and students leads to a unique appreciation, according to Fischer. “The students get to see that we’re interested in changes that may or may not be happening as a result of our human activities.”
So far Smith’s students have found that the Santa Lucia Preserve is using water wisely, leaving no impact on the local watershed resources.
That’s no rush to judgement. Smith thinks this opportunity is unique in terms of size and unsurpassed in terms of the longevity, which Fischer says totals about 20 years.
But the partnership with CSUMB also has an added benefit, Fischer says.
“We are developing this new generation of scientists, conservation practitioners, advocates and people who just have a high level of eco-literacy. They care and can understand, perceive and hopefully influence change over time.”