For more than 30 years, science students and researchers in Northern California have been utilizing an ecological field station with overnight accommodations and spectacular views of the rugged southern Mendocino Coast. Now, in a disputed move, the land owner, Mendocino College, wants to sell the site to a federal agency, which would forever preserve the land and open it up to the public but likely end its days as an educational tool.
The proposed sale $1.5 million sale has divided officials at Mendocino College, which is trying to offset shrinking revenue driven by declining student enrollment. School administrators are backing the sale while instructors and scientists who use the facilities for research and teaching are opposed to the deal.
Land preservationists at the Trust for Public Land and the proposed buyer, the Bureau of Land Management favor the sale.
BLM ownership could trigger removal of facilities on the former military navigational station, which includes a half dozen structures, including houses and barracks-style buildings that provide laboratory space, classrooms and dormitories.
The BLM plans to add the 15-acre property to the 1,100-mile-long California Coastal National Monument. The field station takes in about 300 meters of coastal bluffs and is adjacent to the 1,665-acre Stornetta Public Lands, recently added by the Obama administration to the National Monument.
But Mendocino College educators and other college science instructors say the property is an invaluable research and teaching tool and should be kept as such.
"I think it's essential for our field classes and our science classes," said Mendocino College marine biology instructor Alan West.
Educators across Northern California have been lobbying the college to either drop the proposed sale or sell the site to another college that would maintain it for research.
"Excellent field stations in pristine habitat, such as Mendocino College's facility, which provide a unique opportunity to stay close to study areas, are few and far between. It would be a great loss to current and future generations of students of all ages if the field station were to close," Jeanne Marie Acceturo, program coordinator for the UC Berkeley Jepson Herbaria, wrote in a June 27 email to Mendocino College officials.
But inaction on the purchase could leave it on the open market, raising the possiblity of private ownership and development, said Rich Burns, field manager of the Bureau of Land Management's Ukiah field office. The BLM's purpose for buying the land is to forever protect it for the public, he said.
The purchase won't keep scientists from accessing and studying the tide pools and other ecological resources, Burns said.
But it wouldn't be the same, critics of the deal claim. Science teachers note that it's likely the buildings would be removed and there no longer would be on-site laboratories or classrooms for their students.
The BLM is not in the business of managing buildings, they note.
That's true, Burns said. But the buildings could be allowed to remain if the college pays the costs of their upgrades and maintenance.
College President Arturo Reyes said the college might consider that, depending on the costs. Field station advocates say the college once planned to spend $1 million in bond measure funds on improvements. It has only spent a fraction of that on improving the facility.