History and Mission


The land that we now manage under the research, education and stewardship mission of the UCNRS has been used by people in different ways for over 6,000 years. Big Creek Reserve is on the sacred tribal homelands of both the Esselen and Salinan people who lived along the Big Sur coast, throughout the Santa Lucia mountain range, and in the interior valleys of Monterey County before being forced into the surrounding Spanish missions through the late 1700s and early 1800s. The impact of the mission period on Esselen and Salinan people was devastating, especially to these relatively small tribes, nearly leading to the extinction of their people and their cultures. Archeological evidence of the use of these lands by indigenous people can be found throughout the reserve, primarily in the form of grinding mortars and middens containing shells, tools, jewelry and bones. Ethnographic studies have also contributed to the twentieth-century understanding of tribal languages, trails, village sites and how people lived off the natural resources found in the area. It has been proposed that the tribal boundary may have been somewhere within the Big Creek Reserve, with the Esselen to the north and the Salinan to the south. Subsequent to the period of Mexican control in Alta California, many native people left the Spanish missions and worked as rancheros while westward expansion by gold-seeking and homesteading Americans was facilitated by government-legislated land grants and persecution of native tribes. Today, members of both the Esselen and Salinan tribes are still living in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, pursuing repatriation opportunities and relearning their indigenous cultural knowledge and languages. Big Creek Reserve is committed to acknowledging their ancient cultural history and practices and we are working to establish relationships with the tribes that contribute to the understanding and wise management of the Earth and its natural systems.

Homesteaders from various backgrounds worked the land from the late 1800s through the 1930s when the highway was constructed. This opened up the coast to the tourism industry, after which most properties became used more recreationally, including the addition of state parks and eventually the Ventana Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest. Read the oral history of the lives and events at Big Creek - In The Rough Land To The South, by Susan Georgette

Today, Big Creek is part of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System managed by the individual UC campuses under the mission to support research, education and stewardship. The UCNRS was conceived by Ken Norris who envisioned a network of research stations where nature could be studied in perpetuity in the face of changing land use. This idea grew to a reserve network whose mission facilitates various programs and operations that are tailored to the unique characteristics of each of the now 41 reserves across California.


University of California / NRS Mission:

The following mission statement has been approved for the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS):

"The mission of the Natural Reserve System is to contribute to the understanding and wise management of the Earth and its natural systems by supporting university-level teaching, research, and public service at protected natural areas throughout California."

University of California at Santa Cruz / Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve:

Within the mission of the NRS, the UCSC Campus Natural Reserves Advisory Committee has adopted the following statements on the principles and vision for the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve:

The guiding principle of the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve is to contribute to the understanding of ecological processes as they occur in intact, protected natural systems through on-site research and education, and to provide a benchmark for interpreting long-term environmental change.

The vision statement for the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve: The intact ecosystems and the aesthetic qualities of the Reserve will be fully protected for future generations of teachers and researchers. Its natural systems will be sustained to provide a benchmark against which to compare environmental changes elsewhere and through time. The reserve will be an access window through which nature can be investigated, observed and monitored, but not fundamentally altered. Human activities in the reserve will be managed so as to avoid disturbance to natural processes while providing a full program of investigation and teaching sufficient to support the UC and NRS missions. Students and faculty will conduct in-depth research about terrestrial and marine systems, acquiring knowledge that can be used to advance science and improve stewardship of natural communities and biological diversity. Investigators supported on-site will exchange ideas and enthusiasm. The reserve will inspire students and teachers to appreciate the character and value of nature per se, and to seek ways to balance natural and human-dominated landscapes. Reserve staff will provide data, logistical support, and expertise to visiting researchers, students, and other persons engaged in studies of natural ecosystems. As feasible and appropriate the reserve will also provide public services to the greater community by supporting nature study, land management efforts, and environmental improvement.