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Virginia Smith Trust

Virginia Smith (1903-1971) was the founder of the Virginia Smith Trust. The funds that constructed the base of the trust originated from sheep and wool farming from Cyrill C. Smith, the first Smith to move to Merced during the gold rush. Virginia Smith moved away from Merced when she was a teenager. When she passed away, she provided the trust with the intent to give college scholarships to students who attended Merced High School, which benefitted her childhood hometown. Virginia Smith donated her 7,000-acre estate to the Merced County Board of Education and established a trust to give college scholarships to youth who would have to attend college or university in California. The Board of Educations leased the estate for 27 years and used the accumulated rent to award scholarships. In 1995 the Merced Hills Golf Club was operated by the trust on 197 acres for a total of 7 years. The Virginia Trust initially offered the University of California 2,000 acres for development of the campus, where the University of California (UC) system originally planned to locate the campus to the North where the Old Barn used to stand. However, the UC ultimately moved the 2,000-acre campus location to the former golf course area due to environmental regulatory requirements and growing concerns surrounding the protection of vernal pool wetland ecosystems and the endangered species therein. Hence, in 2002, the entire 7,000 acre Virginia Smith Trust ranch (that also included the 2,000 acres the campus was constructed upon), along with a portion of the neighboring Flying M Ranch (formerly owned by John Meyers and known as the Myers land) was also acquired through a large grant generously provided by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, along with funds to manage and operate the lands to ensure the conservation of the vernal pool and wetland resources in the area.

Today, the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve (MVPGR) is comprised of approximately 6,500 acres, including the 5,030acre Virginia Smith Trust (VST) Preserve, the 1,339-acre Campus Natural Reserve (CNR), and the 91-acre Myers Easterly property, all of which serve as environmental mitigation lands associated with the development of the campus under conservation easements that are to be protected from damage and development in perpetuity. The MVPGR contains one of the highest concentrations of vernal pools in the Central Valley, protects hundreds of ephemeral pool and swale wetlands spread across a remarkably intact alluvial terrace, and as a threatened California ecosystem, the vernal pools therein provide wetland habitat for many rare, endemic, and endangered species.

Natural Reserve System

The MVPGR was added to the world-class UC Natural Reserve System (NRS), in 2015, with the goal of facilitating research, education, and public service on the conservation lands located in such conveniently close proximity to campus. The NRS was founded in 1965 to create undisturbed environments for education, public service, and research, and contains 41 sites, that comprise more than 756, 000 acres of land in the state of California (which comprises one of the most physiographically diverse regions in the United States), making it the largest university-administered reserve system in the world. Within the NRS most state ecosystems are represented, making it a “library of ecosystems”. The NRS sites span from Coastal tide pools to the Sierra Nevada ranges.

UC Merced manages four Reserves as part of the NRS—the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve, the Yosemite Field Station, the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Field Station, and SCICON Field Station. UC Merced’s four Reserves are living laboratories for scientific research, for undergraduate and graduate education, and for public outreach, including K-12 classes, that provides opportunities for visitors to learn more about the ecosystems. The four UC Merced managed Reserves, like all NRS Reserves, contribute to the understanding and wise stewardship of the Earth and its natural systems.

Grazing Management

Cattle are released onto the reserve during different seasons for vegetation management. This is for multiple goals; one is to prevent the spread of invasive European grasses which encroach on the native and rare plant species that are native to the protected vernal pools. Grazing helps to reduce the grass growing load, which can damage the fragile ecosystem that exists within the vernal pool environment. The invasive species outcompete the native plant species and reduce hydroperiods. The growth of foreign plants in these ecosystems can lead to heightened rates of evapotranspiration which dries the soil faster and reduces the period where the pools are filled with water. Grazing also reduces the living and dead plant matter that accumulates in pools. Climate and weather conditions are useful for determining optimal grazing periods. When grazing is optimal, the resultant low vegetation is beneficial to faunal species like raptors, lark, and some small mammal species. Low vegetation can also provide habitat for amphibian and reptile species.

Grazing also helps to reduce the fuel load that would be present in the absence of cattle. The trampling from cattle also helps species habitat enhancement and improves soil productivity. Every year cattle grazing is measured using residual dry matter monitoring which can estimate forage utilization and indicate the grasslands health. 

Invasive Species  

Invasive species on the reserve are largely composed of invasive plants on the reserve. These plants choke out the native grass and plant species on the reserve. European grasses largely compose the invasive plant species. These plants outcompete for resources and thereby reduce biodiversity, and with rare native plants, can remove populations. Grazing on the reserve helps to reduce the impact of invasive species by cattle. Cattle remove the live and decaying plants that choke out the native plant species.  

Species Conservation and Habitat Restoration 

The vernal pools are a unique ecosystem that is found in central and southern California that houses many rare and endangered species that are only found in these habitats. Flora and fauna species alike are threatened by the removal of these habitats, so research and efforts have been introduced to restoring these environments. There have been multiple angles addressed to help mitigate and restore damage done to pools. These range from removal efforts for certain invasive species, rehabilitating pools to accommodate native species, and even complete construction of new vernal pools. The artificial pools are noted to have observable differences to naturally occurring pools, however it is also stated that these pools gradually fulfill the same role that natural basins fill. 

Main Gate Signage and Interpretive Sign

A School of Engineering Service Learning Team was formed in Spring of 2014 to raise awareness about the new Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve by promoting informational and academic activities. Thirty-four students were a part of this team. The team addressed communication, access, and nature interpretation needs of the new Reserve. A beautiful, informative brochure describes the Reserve to visitors. One of the team's greatest accomplishments was the design and creation of a large interpretive sign. The sign was unveiled on April 16, 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the University of California Natural Reserve System. Funding for the sign came from the campus Natural Reserve System and the School of Engineering. 

Vernal Pools Reserve - Service Learning Team Members

Scott Walker (Team Leader; Spring 2015; Fall 2014)

Patrick Isaac Coldivar (Deputy Team Leader; Spring 2015)

Stephanie Gimble (Team Leader; Fall 2014; Spring 2014)

Daniel Toews (Team Leader; Spring 2014)

Robert Aguilar (Fall 2014)

Michael Dealbert (Spring 2015)

Andrew John De Los Santos (Spring 2015)

Jake Egger (Spring 2014)

Lauren Garcia (Spring 2014)

Nathan Garcia (Fall 2014)

Logan Graves (Fall 2014)

Amy Hang (Spring 2014)

Jenna Heckel (Spring 2015)

Jose Hernandez-Cruz, Jr. (Spring 2014)

Bryan Juarez (Fall 2014)

Adam Mansour (Spring 2014)

Denzal Martin (Spring 2015)

Robert Martin (Spring 2015)

Maria Martinez (Spring 2014)

William Mayse (Fall 2014)

Maria Medina (Spring 2014; Fall 2014)

Sandy Vasquez Molina (Spring 2015)

Myvi Nguyen (Fall 2014)

Daniel Oh (Spring 2014)

Furkan Ozedirne (Spring 2015)

Adrian Reyes (Spring 2014)

Mark Reynolds (Spring 2014; Fall 2014)

Jessica Rivas (Fall 2014)

Atis Srihiran (Fall 2014)

Brandon Tran (Naturalist leader; Spring 2014; Fall 2014; Spring 2015)

Mai Yee Vang (Fall 2014)

Nick Wlodychak (Spring 2015)

Bao Xiong (Fall 2014)

Lucky Xiong (Spring 2015)