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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Student Farm launches effort to restore wildlife area ‘The Woods’

SLLC and student stewardship coordinators aim to create an outdoor refuge and community space for UC Davis community


By MALERIE HURLEY — features@theaggie.org


On April 17, the Student Farm at UC Davis was bustling with students chatting, mulching, hauling wood and painting in a small, forested area nestled snugly between the Student Farm Market Gardens and Community Gardens, known to many as The Woods. While many may pass by this site without batting an eye, these students represent a coalition involved in restoration efforts which aims to maintain stewardship of an area that holds deep meaning for so many.

The Woods, and the rest of Davis, resides on land that has been stewarded by the Patwin people for generations, and the recent restoration effort at the Student Farm aims to rekindle connections with Indigenous communities that have been harmed by colonization. 

According to The Woods Stewardship Plan, the space operated as an almond orchard in the 1940s and ‘50s, until it became the headquarters of the Market Garden and a community gathering space when the Student Farm was created in the 1970s. A committed group of volunteers in the 1990s and 2000s took up stewardship of the space, constructing a fence around the area to protect the wildlife and ecosystems within The Woods from outside interference. 

The space was subsequently used for a number of purposes over the next few years — as a community gathering space for spiritual groups, an outdoor classroom for the Student Farm, a site for Experimental College Community Garden efforts, an experimental aquaculture project and even the site of a wedding, according to Suraya Akhenaton, a Green Fellow and former Stewardship Coordinator for the space. 

As the number of volunteers dwindled over the years, the space became barren and trashed, with few volunteers active in maintaining it and preserving the ecosystems within it. 

In recent years, Sustainable Living and Learning Communities (SLLC) took over maintenance operations of the space. Upon receiving $19,000 in funding from The Green Initiative Fund in May 2020, SLLC hired current fourth-year sustainable environmental design and landscape architecture students Suraya Akhenaton and Lucy Yuan to be Stewardship Coordinators for the 2020-2021 school year. 

“I got to this space and thought it was the coolest project,” Akhenaton said. “I love the idea of balancing that ecological refuge in the space and then creating an intentional community gathering space and bringing people in to see the potential of what it could be.”

The pair, along with retired Student Farm Associate Director Carol Hillhouse and SLLC Projects and Partnerships Coordinator Ben Pearl, have been coordinating with students and SLLC volunteers to clean up the area and to create a stewardship plan for future implementation. They brought in a student chainsaw team to remove dead branches and debris, removed trash, held work parties to address weed management and removed the fence that had blocked off the area for so long. 

“We did a lot of planning and a lot of conceptual place making, deciding where plants would be good, deciding where seeding would be good,” Akhenaton said. “It kind of was also a lot of management with the grounds team on campus to identify trees that were hazards, seeing what they wanted to remove and then also having to rearrange plans when they removed too much.” 

The team identified practices for tree management, weed abatement, irrigation and planting, hardscape installation and community engagement for each season while collecting research to create an ecological report of the region. Additionally, they created fire safety, irrigation and weed management plans with ongoing adjustments being made to maintain the conditions of the site. Using this information, the team authored a 30 page stewardship plan in the spring of 2021 highlighting their findings and solidifying plans to maintain the site for the next few years. 

Akhenaton has continued their work throughout the 2021-22 school year after receiving The Green Fellowship, an SLLC grant program that provides funds for student restoration projects. She was able to hire a student intern team to implement the management practices highlighted in the stewardship plan. The team collaborated to create new designs for the site while continuing to lead efforts to clear out invasive species, mulch pathways, install seating, implement irrigation practices and restore 25 native plant species to the area with signage detailing their Patwin names. 

Akhenaton is now leading more community engagement efforts by hosting restoration work parties, stakeholder meetings and a heart painting party with local artist Will Durkee. 

While the stewardship of the site is ongoing, students can now use the space as an outdoor refuge to escape the hustle and bustle of campus. With the expansion of housing in the Orchard Park neighborhood, project leaders hope that more students will engage with the beautiful scenery this space provides and benefit from the wildlife living within it. 

Student Farm Director Katharina Ullmann hopes student engagement with the site will bring about a greater appreciation for nature while also connecting students to the Indigenous communities who have cared for the land for generations. 

“My hope is that The Woods can remain this sort of semi-natural area that supports oak woodland plants, wildlife, community and education,” Ullmann said. “I hope that people care for it and treat it in a respectful way. I hope that Patwin people, the Native American Studies Department, the Native American Student Union and the Native American Academic Success Center as well as other groups on campus connecting with Indigenous students, feel comfortable there and find ways to connect with the place that are meaningful.”

In addition to including signage educating visitors about Patwin plant terminology, stewards of The Woods are excited to continue developing stronger relationships with the Native American Studies Department, the public and elders in the region.

Akhenaton said that they believe it is important to acknowledge the Indigenous stewards of the land in this work and to make meaningful connections with Indigenous communities in the area.

“I want it to be a place where we value the Indigenous history of the land and make sure that there’s plant signage in local [Patwin/]Wintun languages and that there’s a land acknowledgement statement because it’s not my land, it’s not the university’s land and that should definitely be acknowledged,” Akhenaton said.

The restoration of the site has introduced a new habitat for wildlife in the Orchard Park area, with potential new benefits for the neighboring student farm ecosystems. The restoration of native plants to the area has introduced new insect and bird species which could provide increased pollination and crop production in the Market and Community Gardens surrounding The Woods. Additionally, Yuan said that restoration of the site aims to help the local ecosystems flourish, as the introduction of new species has invited predators like foxes and snakes into an area with previously unfavorable conditions for habitat growth.

Yuan hopes that the wild nature of the space will be preserved moving forward, allowing students to connect with nature in their own backyards. She said that since many other outdoor spaces on campus are paved and landscaped, The Woods offers students the chance to interact with the natural environment without leaving campus. 

“In essence, it’s one of the few areas left that’s mostly untouched and unaltered,” Yuan said. “I personally went and surveyed a bunch of plants and identified all of them and was really hoping to keep it shielded off to retain more of the natural environment that’s left there, and that’s what’s happening on the inside part of The Woods.”

Moving forward, students in the Orchard Park area will be able to use the space to connect with nature. Whether they go to do homework, have a picnic, host a community gathering or just enjoy the scenery between classes, the restoration of The Woods hopes to give students a new space to connect with the natural environment in Davis.

“I want it to be a space for people who might not be as familiar with outdoor spaces to feel welcomed,” Akhenaton said. “I want it to be a place where people can gather and respect nature, enjoy art and community and a really special little pocket of love on campus, and I think it’s already getting there.”


Written by: Malerie Hurley — features@theaggie.org



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