Talk NERRdy to Me: Mark Silberstein

Jan 21, 2020 | Elkhorn Slough, California, Healthy Habitats, Reserves, Talk NERRdy to Me

Talk NERRdy to Me is a column about leaders and luminaries from across our 29 Reserves. To jump into this leap year, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov, president of Maine’s Laudholm Trust, chatted with Mark Silberstein, executive director of California’s Elkhorn Slough Foundation, the capital “F” friends group for the eponymous Reserve. A humble paterfamilias to the NERRS community, Mark is a conservation veteran in one of the toughest land markets in the U.S: Central California. Guess it helps when your marshes are “stupendous! brilliant!” and actually getting bigger, thanks to partnerships between the Reserve, the Foundation, and others.

Nik: My notes say you’re new to the Monterey / Santa Cruz area and this Elkhorn Slough thing just started recently. 

Mark: It sure seems like a blink. Elkhorn Slough Reserve was established 40 years ago—in 1979–1980. We’re celebrating the 40th anniversary, and I’m happy to be here.

Nik: And you’ve been involved for how much of that time?

Mark: I was hired as the Reserve’s first Research and Education Coordinator, which is what it was called at the time, in 1983.

Nik: RCs and ECs were the same thing back then?

Mark: They didn’t have enough money to do anything else!

Nik: Where’d you come from?

Mark: I’d just finished my graduate studies at Moss Landing Marine Lab, and I’d been hired by The Nature Conservancy to start a volunteer program at Elkhorn Slough. When I was hired to work on Reserve programs, I brought the volunteer program over to the Reserve and began working with teachers on education programs. So it was like a gumbo of programs.

Nik: You’re a marine zoologist, though—aren’t teachers just too strange an animal to work with?

Mark: We had some great volunteer teachers who were passionate about this place and getting kids out here. So it was actually a good fit. But you’re right. I first came to Elkhorn Slough on an invertebrate zoology field trip from San Jose State in 1968 and was digging around in the mudflats. All that mud and all those strange creatures— it was intoxicating! 

Nik: Did you grow up in the Bay area?

Mark: I grew up in Cupertino. Back then it was just transitioning from thousands of acres of fruit orchards to the technology hub it is today.. It was called ‘The Valley of Heart’s Delight.’ Now it’s Silicon Valley.

Nik: The valley of Teslas and nannies.

Mark: The valley of expensive stucco homes. We used to go hang out in the local creeks and steal fruit from the orchards. When you see a place change like that it’s a real motivation to take care of places like Elkhorn Slough. I serve on the board of the California Council of Land Trusts. On top of the great work that public agencies have done, the land trust community has protected hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal California and millions around the state. Around here, it’s a neat contrast: right next to 4 million people you can walk into those mountains and see mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, all of that. We’re pretty lucky.

Nik: Your Elkhorn Slough Foundation is an accredited land trust. Why should I trust my land to you? 

Mark: As an accredited land trust, the Elkhorn Slough Foundation adheres to a set of standards that ensure these lands are protected and that we’re working in an ethical and legal way. We’ve got a track record. The promise that land trusts make is ‘we’re going to take care of this land in perpetuity.’ 

Nik: Who’s been around long enough to see if they are forever?

Mark: To be quite honest, these are all experiments. But I think of experiments with unregulated development, and we’ve got pretty good data showing that doesn’t work very well for the long term. Elkhorn Slough’s a place to answer the question—how do you do conservation in a working landscape? Based on the archeological records, people have made their living here for more than 10,000 years. We’re going to continue doing that. We need to find a way to make it both economically and ecologically sustainable.

Nik: What’s the favorite part of your many jobs that you’ve had? Mud lover that you are, the Hester Marsh rehabilitation project must have been such a gas for you.

Mark: That project is stupendous! Brilliant! It’s awesome to watch it evolve before our eyesit’s being colonized by pickleweed and other marsh plants. You see the extraordinary richness of this place. January 1st, we participated in the annual Audubon Count, the so-called Christmas count. For 40 of the past 45 years, Elkhorn Slough has been one of the top 10 counts in the country for number of species sighted in that single day. Last week, 196 species were sighted in one day. Over 45 years, we’ve recorded  340 species of birds identified in that 15-mile diameter circle.

Nik: Is [reserve manager] Dave Feliz the most peculiar animal found in Elkhorn Slough?

Mark: Dave’s a great naturalist, a stupendous birder, and a dyed-in-the-wool herpetologist. And so he brings us all sorts of interesting things and has made some ground-breaking observations. There are three endangered species of amphibians here: California red-legged frog, California tiger salamander, and the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander. He’s found them all! It’s a pleasure working together for the good of the Slough.

Nik: It’s nice to hear someone talk about the reptiles and amphibians of Elkhorn Slough and not your damn otters.

Mark: One of our board members is an algologist; she gets furious when we wave the otter flag. So everyone knows, we’re on record as loving the whole system. But otters are awfully cute.

Nik: Yeah, yeah. And everything flows down into a marine sanctuary?

Mark: Elkhorn Slough is, I think, the only site in the country where a NERR and a marine sanctuary are adjoined. The tidal waters of Elkhorn Slough fall under the jurisdiction of NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. And the 1,700 acre Reserve adjoins that, and the Foundation has preserved another 4,000 acres around that. We’re embedded in a rich agricultural area. I think something like 70-80% of all the strawberries that are consumed in the United States come out of these areas. Ironically, I think that has helped buffer this place from development.

We’ve really worked hard to build relationships with the farm community. An acre of prime farmland never goes on the market here, but the few times it does it goes for 60, 70, or $80,000 an acre. About ten percent of ESF’s land is in some kind of farming or ranching operation. We lease land out, we’ve converted 150 acres into certified organic production. We also lease out a cattle ranch. We’re trying to balance all these interests. Our uppermost goal is protecting these natural resources, water quality, and the extraordinary biology. 

Nik: Hey, I’ve always meant to ask—most of the rest of us NERRs have bays, rivers. What the eff is a slough?

Mark: It’s actually an Old English word. Look it up in the geological dictionary: it’s a meandering waterway through marshy or muddy ground. And for some reason, the use of that term is spottily distributed geographically. Here in the West there are sloughsfreshwater, saltwater, tidal, mud sloughs. But how that term leapt over the East Coast and landed here is one of those etymological mysteries. Maybe we need a Graduate Research Fellow on that.

Nik: Lighting round: salty or fresh?

Mark: Hard to choose. Which one of your kids do you like best?

Nik: The older one.

Mark: Well, I say both.

Mark Silberstein (left) visits the tide flats at the mouth of Elkhorn Slough with Dr. John Pearse (center), Professor Emeritus from the University of California Santa Cruz, and Jane King Silberstein from the Monterey Bay Aquarium (right).

ReservesElkhorn Slough, CaliforniaTalk NERRdy to Me: Mark Silberstein