The Campus Wild
Concord Campus location fosters close connection to nature
Editor’s note: The Concord campus is intimately connected to the land and space around it. In this op-ed, Concord Campus Director Robert Phelps reflects on a fire that damaged several acres of university property and served as a harsh reminder of the intricate dance the campus plays with the land which faculty, staff and students have come to admire and respect.
On the afternoon of June 29, at approximately 3:40 p.m., a truck traveling past the Lime Ridge Open Space near the border of Walnut Creek and Concord backfired and the sparks flying from the vehicle’s tailpipe ignited the dry brush lining Ygnacio Valley Road. Pushed by a sustained 12 mph wind, the fire quickly moved east, charging up the Diablo foothills and snarling Friday commute traffic. Within 15 minutes the blaze crested Lime Ridge and jumped Crystyl Ranch Drive, spilling into the property of Cal State East Bay’s Concord Campus and forcing the evacuation of two residential subdivisions.
By previous agreement, the Concord Campus became the command center for emergency operations. First responders from multiple agencies, including Cal Fire, Contra Costa Fire, Concord Police, and University Police flowed in and out of the campus lots, a procession made easier by the fact that classes were not in session on that late Friday afternoon. Aerial tankers swooped down over university property, dropping pink-hued retardant all along the ridge, some of the drops within a few feet of residential fence lines. Ground crews fanned out to defend homes, and a Contra Costa Fire engine drove through a remote campus fence to get at the head of the fire. A huge command vehicle directed the action from faculty parking, while tired fire crews took pizza breaks on the red Adirondack chairs outside the student services lobby. By sundown, the flames were largely out, but not before roughly 300 acres burned, including some 15 acres of university property. Thanks to the work of first responders however, no one was injured and no structures damaged.
The Lime Ridge Fire was the most recent example of the Concord Campus’ close connection to nature, a relationship determined by its unique geographic setting. Slightly over a mile from Mount Diablo State Park, the university’s 384 acres lie in a pocket where modern suburban developments adjoin protected open space, making the site a vibrant meeting ground where students, faculty and staff regularly intersect with local wildlife.
The campus’ principle connection to Mount Diablo lies to the south along Galindo Creek. Originating on the western slope of the mountain, the creek runs under Crystyl Ranch Drive before enveloping the eastern edge of the campus. Protected by dense native foliage, the creek provides habitat for dozens of native species including deer, coyotes, bobcats, rabbits, and squirrels, as well as a variety of reptiles, amphibians and birds. A small tributary, typically dry, skirts the student parking lot, providing additional habitat before joining the main creek as it winds under Ygnacio Valley Road and into the city of Concord.
To the west, the campus comes up against the boundary of the Lime Ridge Open Space, a wildland co-maintained by the cities of Walnut Creek and Concord. Lime, an important ingredient in the manufacture of cement, was mined extensively on the ridge at the century’s turn. Much of the material extracted from the ridge eventually found its way to San Francisco, where construction crews used it to rebuild the city after the Great Earthquake of 1906. Mining operations ceased in the 1970s, and a collection of public agencies purchased the site and converted it to a permanent conservation area. Slowly but surely, nature reclaimed the ridge, but the scarring from decades of mining are still visible from dozens of hiking trails.
Lime Ridge adjoins the campus property for almost a mile, providing a natural connection point for the wildlife that inhabits the area. The ridge gradually descends into an open grassland that forms the southern portion of the campus. A marsh lying at its base remains green throughout the year, even as summer weather transforms the rest of the campus to a golden brown.
Much of the Concord Campus ecosystem remains hidden by the line of hills that form a crescent around the instructional buildings and parking lots. Yet the wildlife that lives on the ridge, grasslands and creek bank continue to spill into the main section of the campus. Most members of Cal State East Bay’s Concord community, whether faculty, staff, or students, have their own stories about natural encounters, from five-point bucks barring the entrance to administrative offices to snakes sliding across a pedestrian path; from red-tailed foxes hurrying up a campus hill to local raptors diving into the canyons that surround student parking.
Non-human members of the campus community appear with comforting regularity: wild turkeys roam the quad throughout the summer and fall. In the spring, students taking night classes might hear coyotes howling just over the hill. A lease agreement with a local rancher leaves cattle grazing on the hills overlooking the quad half of the year, mothers bellowing for their calves whenever they lose sight. A local cyclist, racing through the campus loop on a summer evening, reports a small bobcat sitting on the curb, calmly watching students drive by.
Beyond adding charm to the daily goings-on of university life, the Concord Campus’ location in an urban-wildlands interface offers an important opportunity for experiential learning and community engagement. Cal State East Bay faculty and students have begun taking advantage of that opportunity. Assistant Professor Patty Oikawa’s Environmental Science students twice journeyed from Hayward in the Spring to conduct fieldwork on the south side of campus, taking soil samples, cataloging campus flora, and mapping the site with GPS software. Campus staff has met with local conservation leaders on the important work of creek restoration. Faculty and staff have begun developing plans for the establishment of a permanent field station as a site for research and learning, making the “campus wild” accessible to all members of the Cal State East Bay community, regardless of home campus.