Report on a visit to the Stanford Hills with Resource Management
(courtesy of PATHS)
When Stanford's President Casper formally accused hikers and runners
of "despoiling the environment" in the Stanford Hills, and levied
some restrictive new rules severely limiting access, our first reaction
was one of defensiveness, disclaiming that human impact was responsible
for devegetation and erosion on Cardiac Hill or anywhere else in
the hills area. Slowly, reluctantly, our denial lifted and was replaced
by curiosity: What is the real ecological situation up there? What
is its history? Who is responsible for what? What could and should
We found two experts, Craig Breon, a local attorney for
the Audubon Society, and David Smernoff, a biologist and resource
manager for Palo Alto's Arastradero Preserve, who graciously agreed
to meet us for an early morning hike to observe the area and answer
our questions, on July 21, 2000. First we wanted to know: What's
up here? What's the situation? We learned that this is no pristine
wilderness area, having been highly disturbed by grazing since the
Spanish occupied the land, grazing which has continued for years
by Piers Dairy through its lease with Stanford. David and Craig
said that nearly the entire grassland area has been converted to
non-native annual grasses, which die off by winter. There are pockets
of the original native bunch grasses that could be protected and
expanded by appropriate resource management procedures. This area
has been impacted for centuries by human interaction, and therefore
does not need to be closed off to humans now to preserve its original
state. David said that there are some pockets of relatively intact
oak woodland. The oaks are under stress and sparse in some groves.
He explained that in California it is common to find the densest
oak groves in riparian areas and shaded canyons, with other groves
scattered amidst rolling grassland. He said that Magic, Inc., hired
by the University to plant oak trees, is helping replenish what
unmanaged grazing depletes, as cattle eat oak seedlings. Some riparian
(creekside) areas have fairly good diversity, although there has
been a lot of erosion. The native biodiversity could be expanded
by proper management.
What animals and birds should be here, we asked? Bobcats
and coyotes, even mountain lions are natural predators which still
probably pass through here, but are shy of humans and have been
scared away by encroaching urbanization. Birds are not nearly as
diverse as they could be. Amphibians are declining world wide. What
happened? We asked. Specifically, what's been the impact of runners
and hikers? We passed Cardiac Hill and couldn't miss this time the
eroded and widening trail. It was obvious that widening occurs in
seasonal wetlands when people try to avoid mud. Also, we could see
how old cow paths, deer paths and even vehicle tracks made in wet
ground become adopted as trails, and depending on the situation,
in rainy weather were often widened or gouged by water.
What has been Stanford's impact, we asked? David responded
with another question. "Is Stanford managing for stewardship or
for development?" When they manage for development, as they did
with Ohlone Field, there is what he charitably called "benign neglect."
This is what we see here in the hills. Then, of course, when people
widen trails to avoid mud, an area is devegetated and water runs
down into puddles, which happens when there is no trail management.
As he pointed out again and again, there is no evidence of trail
management here. No trail design. No master plan. No adequate mapping
of existing trails. The only resource management being done is by
Magic, Inc., which plants oaks and controls nonnative invasive plants.
The University, by contrast, plays no role in trying to protect,
restore or enhance the ecological resources in the foothills. What
has been the impact of grazing, we asked? We were told that grazing
didn't start with Stanford, that it was begun up here by the Spanish
over a hundred and fifty years ago, and was continued on both sides
of the hill by Stanford, until recently. Now grazing takes place
mostly west of the ridge. Grazing weakened and all but eliminated
the native perennial bunch grass that kept the hills green. During
the summer, these were replaced by annual European grasses such
as oats. We passed riparian areas, seeing huge stretches of eroded
banks, a result of grazing. Cattle have denuded the creek beds of
the native cottonwoods and willows that keep the banks intact. Thirsty
cattle have trampled the banks. How reasonable are the new rules
restricting public access? David felt it was disingenuous to blame
the public for despoiling the hills. The problem, he said, is lack
of stewardship. He found the rules restricting hikers and runners
to a four mile asphalt loop during the day "draconian and punitive."
What needs to be done up here, we asked? We received some
specific, practical suggestions. The trail up Cardiac Hill: Although
many value the trail as a cardiac workout resource, standard resource
management would counsel switchbacks or other more gradual ascents.
If such a trail were deemed appropriate for runners (e.g. track
teams etc.) there are ways to maintain such steep trails with appropriate
drainage features and routine maintenance. In either case, proper
planning and routine maintenance are necessary for all trail systems
in order to protect natural resources when providing public access.
Grazing: Craig told us about "holistic range management"
ideas that could be used here, where grazing is seasonally timed
to spare native plants and grasses but consume the nonnative annuals.
Riparian areas could be protected from destruction by giving cattle
alternative water sources, salt licks and other strategies to protect
willows and cottonwoods. Such grazing could be managed to control
fire danger. Riparian areas: Riparian areas could be restored by
plantings of natives such as willows and perhaps even cottonwoods
in some areas. Chutes (previously installed in the creeks in a misguided
attempt at erosion control) should be removed. Cattle grazing would
be prevented here.
Trail density: David pointed out that the 20 miles of trails
identified by Stanford's Conservation Biology Dept. do not constitute
excessive trail density in an urban interface open space such as
the Stanford Hills. Arastradero Preserve, a comparable urban interface
open space area, has 16 miles of trails on its 600 acres, and Rancho
San Antonio also has high trail density.
What steps should be taken first?
Trail mapping: Trail mapping: GPS (geographical positioning
system)and GIS (geographic information systems) technology should
be used to make a fair and honest assessment of the trail system
and natural resources, in conjunction with the aerial mapping which
has been used to date.
Master trail plan: Stanford could host a master trail planning
process allowing the public and resource experts together to create
a Master Trail Plan, giving strong consideration to establishing
regional trail connections through the Dish area to Arastradero
Preserve. For instance, if a trail straight up Cardiac Hill is an
important public resource, that could be incorporated into the master
plan with expert land management advise on how that might be accomplished;
or if certain meadows of wildflowers were considered a precious
public resource, a trail might be included nearby.
Vision for a preeminent Department of Resource Management at
Stanford University: The university could develop a preeminent
multidisciplinary land management program centered around the restoration
of Stanford land for the benefit of the both the public and wildlife.
Stanford could conduct research on this land in the emerging field
of ecological restoration, leading the world in understanding the
enormous complexity of restoring degraded ecosystems. Research projects
could address issues such as: a) the impact of dogs, on and off
leash; b) restoration of natural predators as a way to keep ground
squirrels in check; c) compatibility of cattle grazing in an open
space area; d) optimal trail density; e) resource managing to attract
or deter various species of plants and animals; f) fire ecology;
g) techniques of managing for wildlife diversity. This land could
be a vehicle for Stanford to showcase expertise in resource management,
for outreach to the community surrounding it, for team-building
for its own employees (offering time off from regular work in exchange
for time spent helping with restoration projects).