Keeping the Bay Wild—And Accessible

Keeping the Bay Wild—And Accessible

The San Francisco Bay Reserve’s China Camp site is home to a vibrant ecosystem that most residents and visitors can enjoy via an extensive trail system. Unfortunately, barriers can make it difficult for those with disabilities to have the same opportunities to explore this extraordinary patch of “wild” in one of the nation’s most important biodiversity hotspots.

“The value of accessible trails is the ability to get the disabled community out into the wilderness and learn about how important nature is to us,” says Nyri Scanlon, a research assistant at the Reserve who drew attention to accessibility issues on China Camp’s Turtle Back Nature Trail. “Even though my motorized wheelchair is heavy duty, the trail was too rough and rocky.”

This observation spurred an extensive project to create an ADA compliant path that is accessible for those in wheelchairs or with walkers, families with strollers, and people who can’t access non-compliant trails for other reasons. The project aimed to connect the newly renovated trail to the local community and showcase it as a resource and educational opportunity.

To celebrate the trail’s completion, the Reserve organized a walk in partnership with Friends of China Camp and Marin Lifehouse Agency, an organization that supports adults with physical and developmental disabilities. Fourteen participants completed the hike, with plenty of stops along the way to learn about the vibrant salt marsh habitat and endemic plants and animals like the federally endangered Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse.

“The trail at Turtle Back is excellent to be on,” says Nyri. “It is right up to the edge of the marsh. Trails are getting improved every day around the Bay Area, and I would like to encourage more events like this.”

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Teachers Workshop on the Estuary

Teachers Workshop on the Estuary

Oysters, rockweed, and living shorelines, oh my! Ten educators explored the Bay Area’s intertidal zones in a professional development workshop hosted by the San Francisco Bay Reserve. It included a series of virtual webinars, a research experience with oyster monitoring sites, and an in-person workshop at the Estuary and Ocean Science Center. Designed for upper elementary and middle school science, the series was part of Teachers on the Estuary (TOTE), a teacher training program at National Estuarine Research Reserves across the System.

“This workshop was unique because it combined research and pedagogy,” says Bella Mayorga, education program coordinator at the San Francisco Reserve. “Teachers got to work directly with scientists on an active oyster monitoring project and then connected that experience to classroom activities that meet Next Generation Science Standards and get kids thinking about their local estuary.”

Teachers were able to share what they learned with their students. One teacher replicated quadrat sampling with hula hoops in the schoolyard. Another planned to search for native oysters in a part of the Bay near their school using a monitoring protocol learned during the workshop. And another wanted their students to develop a testable research question about the Bay—similar to what the educators did in their training. At the final workshop, the educators presented on how they incorporated what they learned with their students.

This program was the result of a partnership between Karina Nielsen, Executive Director of San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) Estuary & Ocean Science Center, faculty from the SFSU Graduate College of Education, researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), and the San Francisco Bay Reserve. It was made possible by NERR funding, the Marin Community Foundation, and the California State Coastal Conservancy.

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Talk NERRdy to Me: Bella Mayorga

Talk NERRdy to Me: Bella Mayorga

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29—soon to be 30—Reserves. For the May issue, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Bella Mayorga, the new education coordinator at San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. They talked about feathered dinosaurs, science translation (into Spanish!), and how bad golf courses can make good marshes.

Nik: Ok, so, is it the San Francisco NERR, or the San Francisco Bay NERR?

Bella: San Francisco Bay. The Bay’s the important part!

Nik: Said no one in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, ever. You’re the newly installed education coordinator there. You’ve only been on the job since… March? How’d you get there?

Bella: I’m originally from outside of LA, in Rancho Cucamonga. I got a bachelor of science in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara, then I went right to grad school at the University of Michigan and got a master of Science in Environment & Sustainability. I moved back to California, actually, to start working with the NERR. 

Nik: How did your family get to Southern California? Were you a nature kid growing up?

Bella: My parents were born in Ecuador and moved to LA when they were teenagers. There wasn’t a lot of nature where we lived because it’s very developed, but my parents would always take me to the museums like the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Aquarium of the Pacific

Nik: What do you remember from the museums? What were your favorite exhibits?

Bella: I always loved the dinosaurs, and I think my current love of birds is a natural extension of that. I also just have a lot of good memories of spending time with my parents there. Even though neither of my parents have a formal natural science background, I always loved how they could appreciate the things there. 

Nik: I started my career working in a science museum, and we always wondered if we made any difference at all. Hundreds of thousands of kids would come to our museum every year, but it felt like they would just come, press all the buttons and eat in the cafeteria, and we had no idea if any of the exhibits or programs were sinking in. Every once in a while, though, one, like you, would say ‘oh yeah, that totally influenced me.’

Bella: The visits allowed me to see a lot of things I couldn’t see where I grew up. At the museum, you can see creatures from the Sahara or rainforest or deep sea. So it’s almost like reading, in the sense that you can visit places you wouldn’t normally be able to.

Nik: You said you were a bird lover. I like to think that in our system there are the mud people, the crab people, the grass people, the bird people—

Bella: Don’t forget the algae people.

Nik: I try to. Why birds, for you?

Bella: Because they’re extant dinosaurs! That part just blows my mind. You look at their eyes, those are dinosaur eyes.

Nik: And you can see that old lizard body underneath the feathers. How did you make your way to estuaries?

Bella: My pathway to estuarine science has been roundabout; I did my thesis on sustainable agriculture. But I went to school in UC Santa Barbara, and that campus is right on the coast. While I was there I worked as a restoration intern on the North Campus Open Space Restoration Site. It’s a site that was originally a giant wetland, and then they drained it and built a golf course. And you might be shocked to hear this, but it was a really bad spot to have a golf course. So the University bought the land and implemented a restoration project. Over the three years I worked there, I saw the estuary really take root.

Nik: You got a taste for restoration there, but some of your studies took you to other places in the world, not just California and Michigan, right?

Bella: Well, my graduate work was supposed to be in Puerto Rico, but with the travel restrictions over the past year, it ended up being virtual. Luckily my graduate degree specialization was in geospatial data science; with remote sensing we can do a lot of things without having to go there. But let the record show I’m actively trying to find an excuse to go down and visit the NERR in Puerto Rico, though!

Nik: They’re very welcoming. Did you ever get to go to Ecuador, to look up family or do any research there? 

Bella: My parents took me and my brother once when we were about 13. But as you might imagine, a lot of it was wasted on me as a thirteen-year-old. No one’s their best self when they’re thirteen.

Nik: So true. I happen to have a thirteen-year-old in the next room. [calls over shoulder] You’re not your best self!

Bella: I really wanted to go back and get more out of the experience, so I went during college as part of a study abroad program. We stayed in a lot of field houses, did little research projects, got to go to the Galapagos Islands. I can say that I definitely appreciated everything a lot more, considering I was paying for it this time!

Nik: You’ve gotten some great experiences, but you only just graduated! You’re at the very beginning of your career, and yet like any good Millennial, you’ve already blogged it all… How did you convince SF Bay NERR you were their next education coordinator?

Bella: They’ve told me now that what really stood out is how I express myself and my research background. I did a study in undergrad, interning with Stacy Philpot at the University of California Santa Cruz, and we published a paper together that came out in 2020. I also submitted my master’s thesis for publication in an open access journal. I think they liked that research background and my hands-on experience in a wetlands restoration project. They could also see that I have a genuine passion for the ecosystem and that this job really aligns with my professional and personal interests. I want to connect people to these beautiful places and the science that goes on here.

Nik: Is that going to be a particular focus of yourstranslating the science that goes on at the NERR? Or translating the weird ramblings of Mike Vasey? Is it too soon to ask what you’re going to be working on?

Bella: In the Bay Area, there’s people from a lot of different cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages. I think the language of science is another language that’s learned. But science can be really scary for people who haven’t really interacted with it before. Everything’s so systematic and there’s a way of speaking that’s not really the way most people would communicate. In estuaries, a lot of people will be more inclined to care if the work that’s being done here and the threats and challenges that the estuary is facing are communicated to them in a way that they can understand, and in a way that’s not just “doom & gloom.”

Nik: Why is “doom & gloom” tried so often, and why doesn’t it work?

Bella: I think stage one of learning about environmental problems is: you hear something like ‘you should recycle.’ And you think, ok, yeah I can recycle. But then you start learning about all the systemic problems about how recycling isn’t actually the answer and it’s really easy to get discouraged. 

Some of the classes I took were on climate psychology, which shows that all doom & gloom does is put people off the issue and activate cognitive mechanisms that make you want to dismiss the issue. Climate change is one of those problems that triggers every psychological inclination we have to just forget about it.

It’s difficult for people to understand it, see how they can help, and see how what they do makes a difference. But they don’t have to address climate change on a global scale in order to be impactful; you can create a really positive impact by focusing on a local ecosystem. 

So connecting people to the work at the SFBNERR and how we can save the estuaries we have locally is a really great opportunity to get people to care more about climate change. 

Nik: I’m putting you on the spot, newly installed Education Coordinator, but how are you going to get people to care? How are you going to make your NERR as inspiring as the museums you visited as a kid?

Bella: The first step is getting people interested in the ecosystem and habitat itself. I just put together a feather lab for Rush Ranch’s discovery day. A great first step is birds, because that’s something people feel stewardship of relatively easily, they’re charismatic megafauna, and often very cute!

Another thing I’d like to do is make our NERR’s education program more accessible to diverse audiences. I’m conducting a needs assessment where we’re reaching out to different groups that the Reserve hasn’t interacted with in the past, which includes working with community science educators, mentors from afterschool programs, educators that work with special education children, faculty from SFSU.

Nik: Will you have the capacity to do bilingual science education at the Reserve?

Bella: That’s something I want to do. At China Camp they are trying to do some Spanish-language content, and the Puerto Rico NERR actually has a Spanish language climate change activity booklet, so I connected them to that resource. 

Nik: There’s your ticket to Jobos! You get a Science Collaborative transfer grant, some travel money, get down there, bring all those materials back. Ok, time for one lightning round question. I was going to ask favorite animal, but I’m going to skip right to: favorite bird?

Bella: The Oak titmouse. It’s the first bird that I identified on my own. I heard its call and then suddenly it came into view, and it was exactly as cute as I wanted it to be. I love its little crest, which looks like constant bed head, and reminds me of myself sometimes.

Nik: My bird up here in Maine is the Northern Mockingbird. One of the first I could identify, and it too reminds me of mealways sitting on top of something, yelling.

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Welcome Bella & Adriana!

Welcome Bella & Adriana!

Bella Mayorga (left), new education coordinator at California’s San Francisco Bay Reserve. Adriana Reza (right), new education coordinator at Texas’s Mission-Aransas Reserve.

Please join NERRA in extending a very warm welcome to the two new education coordinators who have just added their skills, passion, and experience to our Reserve family. Welcome, Bella and Adrianawe can’t wait to see where you take us!

Bella Mayorga is joining the San Francisco Bay Reserve as their new education coordinator. Not only does Bella bring a strong scientific background to the role, but as a bilingual speaker and first generation college graduate, she brings impressive skills in mentoring and teaching, and a passion for reaching diverse and underserved communities. 

As a long-time lover of the quiet peace and unseen bustle of estuaries, I am immensely excited to continue the work of the former Education Coordinator Sarah Ferner in connecting diverse audiences to the San Francisco Bay Reserve sites and ongoing research,” says Bella. 

“I’m very much looking forward to building on her accomplishments and bringing my own background and experiences to the education program. I also can’t wait to spend more time out at the Romberg Tiburon Campus, China Camp, and Rush Ranch!”

Bella graduated this year from the University of Michigan with a Master of Science in Environment and Sustainability. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). Her background is in geospatial sciences and ecosystem science and conservation.

Bella spent time in Ecuador in a Wildland Studies Abroad Program and worked on a study of avian use of urban gardens which was published in Urban Ecosystems 2020 (1-11). She was education coordinator for the Graham Sustainability Institute, for the University of Michigan Compass Mentors Program, and President for the Strategies for Ecological Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS) at UCSB.

Adriana Reza has joined Texas’ Mission-Aransas Reserve as their new education coordinator. She comes to the Reserve after starting her education career at the Texas State Aquarium in 2005, where she focused on distance learning programs using videoconferencing technology. 

“My passion is connecting students and the community to nature through hands-on programs. In my experience teaching through distance learning, there is a magic about showing students the ocean for the first time,” says Adriana. “I am excited to join a team of educators who share a passion to educate and continue providing engaging programming to our community.” 

During her time at the Texas State Aquarium, she managed multiple programs, facilities, and teams. She also worked at the Oso Bay Wetlands Education Preserve as an educator and at the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation as a project manager.

Adriana received a Bachelor of Science in biology from Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, and a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, focused on conservation education, through George Mason University.

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A Road Ahead for China Camp

A Road Ahead for China Camp

The road to San Franciso’s China Camp State Park. Photos courtesy Aimee Good, unless otherwise noted.

China Camp State Park is a beautiful place in our San Francisco Bay Reserve, treasured by local residents and visitors alike. Getting there, however, can be a problem. Especially when King Tide flooding overtakes North San Pedro Road, which provides park access, a commute corridor, and a back route for emergency vehicles and disaster evacuations. 

With local sea levels projected to rise at least three feet by 2100, the future of the park, its marshes, and its highly valued access road is uncertain. In response, the Reserve convened nearly 40 stakeholders to discuss options to manage and protect the road, the marsh, and the natural and human communities that rely on both of these resources.

“This is not just about transportation,” said Stuart Siegel, the Reserve’s coastal resilience specialist. “China Camp is a marsh of international significance and our actions will have major consequences, whether we do some kind of remediation or simply do nothing.” 

The stakes are high. Not only is the area a favorite recreational resource, it is one of the last places in the San Francisco Bay Estuary where a  tidal marsh sits next to untouched uplands and allows room for future marsh upland migration. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria use the state park for gatherings and rituals, and the marsh itself holds potentially significant archeological resources.

Through a series of workshops over two years, Reserve staff worked with a range of stakeholders, including local residents, regulators, state park and county public works representatives, conservation and recreation groups, and emergency response personnel. The goal was to better understand their priorities and work together on potential solutions. 

As a result, they now have five options for managing the future of North San Pedro Road, while preserving the integrity of the marsh and facilitating recreation. Options include raising the road, re-routing it, or leaving it in place, each of which addresses stakeholder goals in different ways.

“We’re glad that realistic alternatives for a lower cost, limited length causeway over the most frequently flooded parts of the road will be considered in the next phase,” said Gina Hagan and Mark Wallance, from the Santa Venetia Neighborhood Association in a letter. “Keeping the road functional and safe for recreation and emergency use is a high priority for our community and visitors to China Camp State Park.”

Reserve staff also provided science that informed the process. “NERRS science and other background work was so key,” said Aimee Good, the Reserve’s coastal training program coordinator. “Our yearly habitat monitoring data allows us to see a pretty comprehensive picture of changes to the marsh.”

Left: flooding on North San Pedro Road. Image courtesy Marilyn Bagshaw. Right: Sea level rise projections for San Francisco Bay Reserve.

“We know that sea level rise combined with subsidence of the road through China Camp is one of the first of many adaptation challenges our community will face,” added Hagan and Wallace. “What we learn from this project, we will likely apply to other parts of the same road system in the near future.”

This project was funded by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative, which supports collaborative research that addresses coastal management problems important to reserves and their communities. 

“The benefit of the collaborative science process is that it allows everyone to be involved and have input long before changes are actually made,” says Siegel. “It’s always difficult to try and make everyone happy, but these processes help us get a lot closer to what’s best all around.”

More information about this project, including the resources it generated, is available here.

Estuaries Are For Everyone

Estuaries Are For Everyone

The New England team for “Watershed Stewardship in Action: Deaf Students on the Estuary” fingerspells ‘estuary’. From left: Todd Czubek, Boston University; Suzanne Kahn, Wells Reserve; Jeanne Reis, The Learning Center; Joan Muller, Waquoit Bay Reserve; Maureen Dewire, Narragansett Bay Reserve; and Caryn Beiter, Wells Reserve.

Watching a heron hunt, walking along a golden marsh, fishing on a misty morning—little compares to the sense of wonder we get from being on the coast. For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we are celebrating some of the advances Reserves have made to make estuaries part of everyone’s coastal experience.

Finding the Right Words: Before 2018, American Sign Language (ASL) had no signs for words like “estuary,” or “watershed.” For people with hearing loss, this creates a barrier to experiencing and learning about the coast. That’s all changing, thanks to educators at our New England Reserves and their partners. Teachers and interpreters for people with hearing loss now have access to ASL coastal terms and instructional videos through the Teachers on the Estuary curriculum at the Wells, Waquoit Bay, and Narragansett Bay Reserves. Read more in the The Wrack from our Wells Reserve in Maine.

Making Trails More Accessible: California’s Elkhorn Slough Reserve has a new ADA-compliant trail welcomes visitors of all physical abilities, and features a flat, gentle path through a variety of habitats.

Improved Water Access: In Mississippi, the Grand Bay Reserve is outfitting their new education boat to accommodate wheelchairs. An ADA-accessible kayak launch is also in the works. The Reserve widened their Savannah Trail boardwalk and installed rails, boosting safety and helping wheelchair-bound visitors view more habitat.

Therapeutic Horse Riding: Access Adventure at Rush Ranch provides therapeutic horse riding in the San Francisco Bay Reserve for people living with mobility challenges, special needs children, the elderly, and injured veterans.

ReservesSan Francisco Bay, California