Presidio Ecologist Terri Thomas
Terri Thomas, '76, is the director of Natural and Cultural Resources at the Presidio of San Francisco, the emerald parkland and former Army base overlooking the Golden Gate. Home of some of the last natural habitats in San Francisco, the Presidio is an urban oasis for rare and endangered species.
A CNR forestry alumna, Thomas has been the top ecologist at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has also worked in Yosemite National Park, Shasta Trinity National Recreation Area, and Crater Lake and Everglades national parks. The Presidio's urban setting, unique mission, and significant place in history pose several challenges for both natural and cultural resources management. "Learning how to operate a national park that is required to be financially self-sustaining is a challenge," she says. "there are constituents who want it restored as closely as possible to its natural state, and others who want it restored in a way where the complex human history of the landscape is visible. Balancing it all and keeping it sustainable is an exciting project."
When I was growing up, I spent summers at our family cabin in the Sierra Nevada. My father also went there when he was a boy. That was where I was first inspired to work with nature somehow. That cabin always felt more like home that my urban home. When I graduated from Berkeley, I went to teach for the Yosemite Institute, an environmental education school. That's where I had a "you've got to connect people to nature" moment. Inspiring people to care for nature can make a difference.
My 15 years at Golden Gate National Recreation Area built on that moment. My focus has been developing programs that link the public to the natural world -including, community-based volunteer stewardship habitat restoration, and education programs. Examples include monitoring carnivores with telemetry, growing native plants, restoring habitat for rare species, and monitoring birds.
My father is an artist and my mother an educator. They are creative people, and I try to be creative in what I do here as well. It's an interesting and fun challenge to design this place around science, ecology, history, and recreation.
When I started at Berkeley I was a zoology major, but then I realized that I was more interested in applied work, so I switched over to forestry, with an emphasis in wildlife. After working a few years, I went to grad school at the University of Washington to focus on restoration science in natural parks. That was the beginning of a decade-long career focus on ecological restoration programs.
It's interesting how many people don't know about the Presidio's potential. Many don't know that the Presidio has such a variety of species. There are more than 350 native species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish that live here. Just last year, one of our studies found more than 50 species of native bees alone. The rich biodiversity is still being explored, and we're finding out new things all the time.
There's also a lot that the park needs. The landscape isn't pristine; it's fragmented with a lot of disconnected pieces, and we're trying to put some of those pieces back together. Although it will never be a pristine natural system, the mosaic of landscapes -designed, forested, and natural -supports valuable native species biodiversity and provides a wildlife corridor in a dense urban area.
We're being innovative in our approach to the Presidio's landscape, which can enhance restoration potential. For example, there are many landfills in the Presidio that need remeditation. Often this is accomplished by putting a protective cap on the landfill, but we are excavating most Presidio landfills to the native soil layer instead, and restoring those sites as closely as possible to their natural condition. So far, we've removed landfills in areas that were once serpentine grassland, sand dune, and riparian systems. If all goes well, they will thrive as those important and rare habitats again. The first project has progressed, and this year plant survival is good and we've started to see quail and the federally-listed Presidio Clarkia return to the landscape.
The most exciting thing for me is brining in the public. They see firsthand that they can make a difference by tracking fox, collecting native seed, planting native plants, and even pulling weeds. Since many people live close to this national park, they can have an ongoing relationship with the landscape, and experience the thrill of watching it change and thrive. Restore a little patch of barren land and soon they will see it teeming with wildlife. Plants blossom, insects come, then swallows eat the insects. Gophers move in, and hawks and coyote hunt the gophers. Volunteers see that when you restore even a small patch of ground, the return on your efforts is exponential.