Get to know Copeland Creek at SSU

Wendy St. John is endlessly surprised when she encounters students who don't know that there is a creek at Sonoma State University.

Even the biology and environmental studies majors who show up for her Restoration Ecology class, are surprised to learn that the campus features a fairly pristine little seasonal stream. When it is wet, it has excellent water quality, and a riparian ecosystem that is teeming with wildlife, including salmon (in the winter), birds galore, coyotes, bobcats and even river otters. The experience of wild nature in the middle of suburban Rohnert Park, tends to blow their minds a little, says St. John, an SSU professor.

“It may sound kind of crazy, but there are a lot of people who come to this university, even science majors, who have literally never before in their lives ventured out to some kind of open space and interacted in a direct way with nature. Like - never,” she says. “There's a sense for me that getting people out on the land is hugely important.”

St. John says she entered her profession in part because she wanted to turn young people on to the natural world.

“When I was a kid I had a lot of outdoor experiences, growing up in California when we actually had money for field trips. When I look back, I don't remember things that I learned in the classroom. I remember things that we did on the field trips.”

She is thrilled to be able to offer this experience to students, and sometimes witness a transformation, “especially because we have this fabulous resource on campus - a pretty healthy wild environment.” The restoration ecology class, run out of Sonoma State's Center for Environmental Inquiry, uses a half-mile-plus stretch of Copeland Creek that runs through campus “as a living laboratory,” St. John says. As it happens, Copeland Creek provides a perfect study of the impacts of invasive species on an ecosystem, and offers an ideal opportunity to cultivate a healthier plant community by introducing species native to this part of California.

“We have a couple of really pervasive invasives that we're dealing with,” she says. “There are tons of Himalayan blackberries choking out the other vegetation. We also have poison hemlock; there's a wild radish and invasive grasses. Our goal is to reduce them as much as we can - trying to maximize biodiversity.”

Nonnative species are the enemy of biodiversity, St. John explains. “When things coevolve together, they tend to establish a balance. For example, the native California blackberry evolved in competition with other local riparian plants. It grows low to the ground, whereas the Himalayan blackberry gets huge, and monopolizes the sunlight wherever it grows. We're just helping things work in a more healthy way.”

Restoration ecology

Founded 10 years ago by professor Caroline Christian, the restoration ecology class is embedded with a bigger project that was mandated by a plan written in 2001. The Copeland Creek Master Plan process drew from a broad spectrum of the campus community, including faculty, administration and land managers, and worked in conjunction with the California Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife). The advisory committee laid out an ambitious plan based on five guiding principles.

“Copeland Creek presents an important opportunity for the University to demonstrate to the community at large a model of development that protects biodiversity and ecological integrity,” the founding document says, “while furthering human values and human interaction with the natural environment.”

The Restoration Ecology class is at the center of the action.

“Most of what we're doing is in the context of courses,” St John says, “and we also have volunteer workdays that sometimes get a lot of community members. We've also had a lot of partnerships with various local conservation organizations. So there's a lot of collaboration.”

The logistics of the restoration effort, which include rallying community involvement, are a crucial part of the curriculum. The students write grants to pay for the work, help author long-term plans, put together monitoring protocols for evaluating their work's progress and perform site assessments.

Hard at work

On several occasions during the semester, the students participate in a workday, which mainly involves ripping out Himalayan blackberries and poison hemlock.

“Again, for a lot of these students, this is the first time they've had an experience like this,” Saint John says.

They do some of this work alongside professional restoration experts from Point Blue, a Petaluma-based conservation organization that does restoration work around the globe. (SSU students can go on to work with Point Blue on projects from Alaska to Chile.)

While much remains to be done, and there is still a lot of blackberry vine to hack, St. John, who has been in her position for three years, says the restoration work seems to be having an impact, although, speaking with the precision and reticence of a scientist, she is reluctant to make any claim without proof.

“We can't demonstrate measurable increases, just because this iteration of restoration is very young,” she says. “There's been a lot of planning, and we're taking it piece by piece down the creek.”

Some progress

What she can say is that good things appear to be happening. St. John recently organized students to perform bird surveys on campus, and compared their data to a bird diversity study conducted in 1999 and 2000. The surveys show a definite increase over the past 20 years.

“I think it is a good indication that at least we're not moving in the wrong direction,” she says.

Even more promising is something that is directly in St. John's area of study: a plethora of Benthic macroinvertebrates - small animals living among stones, logs, sediments and aquatic plants on the stream bottom.

“To me that's a big indication that the health of the creek is good,” she says. “I think it's too early right now for us to claim any sort of conclusive ecological benefits. But this looks good.”

The heart of education

In addition to helping the Copeland Creek ecosystem and practicing the nuts-and-bolts work of restoration, students are developing the “soft skills” sometimes overlooked in classrooms.

“It makes them feel like they have more of a connection to the campus, more of a connection to the environment,” St. John says, “and working with other students and volunteers helps them develop more of a connection to the community.”

In “reflections” written at semesters' end, Restoration Ecology students document personal triumphs and a deepened connection with their campus.

Makayla Freed, who took the class in 2017, describes making a discovery that some California blackberries had been mis-tagged as Himalayan. “Our small crew proved to be more than enough to make a difference,” she said. “I also had the chance to brush up on my string-trimming skills. An anonymous student writes that “the experience with my discussion group was one of the most memorable hands-on experiences I've had as a bio major at SSU.”

And Cassidy Fredlund concludes her piece with: “I am glad that I will forever be a part of Copeland Creek.”

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