Venturing inside the conservation fortress at the Scripps Coastal Reserve

UCSD’s Scripps Coastal Reserve has severely restricted public access to the reserve since the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to backlash from many residents of La Jolla. Professor of Ecology Carolyn Kurle dives into the nuance of this unique conservation problem.
Venturing inside the conservation fortress at the Scripps Coastal Reserve
Image by Mila De La Torre for The UCSD Guardian

The Scripps Coastal Reserve is a nearly-1,000 acre protected area in La Jolla managed by UC San Diego. The reserve contains a variety of habitats, including coastal canyon, bluff, sandy beach, rocky intertidal, mesa top, submerged coastal plain, and a deep submarine canyon. It is home to many rare and sensitive species. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Scripps Coastal Reserve has implemented severe restrictions on public access to the site. Nearby residents have complained about the restrictions for the duration of time they have been in place. The California Coastal Commission is currently investigating the university’s actions due to complaints from the public that they have a right to access the reserve.  

Controversy has surrounded the university’s closing off of a majority of public access to the site by placing temporary restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the university’s initial project narrative and request for a permit from the California Coastal Commission, the university sought to make these limitations permanent.  

While access to the beach is still available via Blacks Beach Way, members of the public are only able to access the cliff and bluff areas above via docent-led tours offered on the first Saturday of each month from 9 to 11 a.m. The La Jolla Light has published several complaints about the docent-led tours, including one instance of a tour being postponed without any official notice apart from a piece of paper on the gate of the reserve. 

The university’s basis for making the restricted public access permanent is that there has been a noted “improvement to the natural environment,” as Associate Director of University Communications Leslie Sepuka previously explained to The UCSD Guardian.

“The reduction of visitors is thought to have allowed sensitive wildlife to return to the reserve and has greatly aided [the] removal of invasive species that had disrupted native vegetation on the site,” Sepuka said. 

The need to balance public access and necessary protections for wildlife in a reserve is not an uncommon problem in ecology. Professor of ecology Carolyn Kurle explained that the university has chosen the fortress conservation approach, wherein biodiversity protection is achieved by creating areas free or nearly free from human disturbance. 

Kurle is an experienced conservationist both in practice and research, specifically focusing on marine conservation. She previously allowed her BILD 3 students to do an extra credit activity at the reserve, but had to stop that assignment in light of the new restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“[Fortress conservation is] used all over the place, and it’s only now kinda being examined as potentially short sighted and a little punitive,” Kurle said. “But on the other hand, if people are allowed to rampantly run around in a place you are trying to protect, that doesn’t work either because you are not actually conserving.”

Fortress conservation has been employed in reserves throughout the world, but as Kurle noted, there have been many critiques of this conservation practice. For example, one major critique of fortress conservation is that it alienates members of the public who are key to ensuring long-term sustainability in conservation goals. 

“Intentions are good to protect species or wild places, but they forget to take into account [that] people are using that space for reasons that might not directly relate to conservation or that might even be antithetical to conservation,” Kurle explained. “It’s worth taking those needs into account.”

For many protected spaces, fortress conservation generally conflicts with and dispossesses local and Indigenous communities who live off of or use the land. Because fortress conservation necessitates the most limited human interaction with the protected ecosystem, it often displaces Indigenous communities who have lived on those lands for centuries. 

Ironically, this displacement and alienation of local communities can be detrimental to the goals of conservation. This is because local communities can provide valuable insights into conservation, and having access to nature has been shown to increase positive attitudes toward conservation.

The issue of local cooperation rings true within the Scripps Coastal Reserve, with the university imposing these restrictions to the dismay of many members of the public. The disturbances caused to the local community by these restrictions are relevant, as Kurle notes that an important aspect of conservation is working with local communities.  

“It would be a great opportunity and a great public outreach opportunity to work with these folks and find out what their desires are [to] see if UC San Diego could reach some sort of agreement with people,” she said. Kurle suggested ideas such as limiting access to only the daytime, increasing signage, and having more educational workshops as possible solutions. 

The Scripps Coastal Reserve is just one of 41 reserves in the UC Reserve system, which provides a network of protected areas under UC management for conservation and research. While most of the reserves are closed to the public, the Scripps Coastal reserve was one of two reserves that previously offered year round public access. 

Kurle has previously conducted research across the reserve system and emphasizes its importance. 

“The UC Reserve system is amazing,” she said. “A lot of places have been donated to the university from private places, and they are now set aside for use with folks associated with the university to teach classes and do research.”

The idea that visitors caused detrimental effects on the reserve’s environment and disregarded rules is something that has been contested by local community members, many of whom have written letters to the La Jolla Light stating that they had not witnessed egregious rule-breaking of the reserve’s policies. 

Kurle recognizes that public access could cause detrimental effects to the reserve and that there may be evidence of some people who ignored the rules. That said, she also believes in investigating alternative approaches to mitigate these harms instead of shuttering public access.  

“What this place really is, is for teaching and for learning,” Kurle said. “If [anthropogenic harm] can be ameliorated by increasing signage and helping people understand what this place really is for …  then we could try again to open it and remove some of that fortress conservation concept and allow the general public to appreciate and use the space.”

Residents of La Jolla have filed complaints to gain back access to the reserve with the California Coastal Commission, which is currently investigating UCSD’s request for a permit to continue restricting public access. The Coastal Commission has the authority to decide whether the university is allowed to continue keeping the reserve mostly closed. 

In response to an inquiry from the Coastal Commission, UCSD submitted a 16-page document responding to questions from the Commission. In the document, the university noted that it considers its current policy on the reserve, to only allow research or “similar opportunities,” to be the best option.

“[The current restrictions] best prioritize the ecological function and cultural sensitivity of the Scripps Coastal Reserve and mission of the UC Natural Reserve System by eliminating the human-caused degradation,” the document reads. “In addition, public access is not necessarily congruous with the SCR’s research mission. The SCR is an outdoor laboratory where important university research occurs, and unmanaged public access can be detrimental to ongoing research at the SCR.” 

Kurle responded directly to a comparison the university made between the university laboratories being restricted to public access and the restrictions put in place with regards to Scripps Coastal Reserve.

“[It] is an interesting point, except that we are a public university funded by public money … It could be interesting to explore ways in which the public could have access to things like the Scripps Coastal Reserve to make them see where their taxpayer dollars are going,” she said.

For her part, Kurle commends the decision of residents to go through the Coastal Commission.

“It’s clear, even if it might be the right thing to do for UC to shut off access, they didn’t go through the proper channels by which to do that, and it’s unfortunate because it makes the university look heavy handed and dictatorial, and it creates animosity with our neighbors,” Kurle said.

Ultimately, the balancing act between total fortress conservation and unfettered public access is a nuanced issue. That said, Kurle believes in the importance of having all people connect with nature.

“We know there are really strong data demonstrating that when people feel a personal connection to nature, they are more apt to want to conserve nature. It has been shown in so many studies,” she said. “Any time you let people experience nature, it is a bonus for conservation.”

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About the Contributors
Carter Castillo
Carter Castillo, News Editor
Second year Comparative Politics Major and passionate student journalist. Proud owner of a 2012 Toyota Prius.
Mila De La Torre
Mila De La Torre, Photographer
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  • J

    JohnMay 28, 2024 at 8:48 am

    Another case of affluent property asserting their interests over the protection of ecological and cultural resources for future generations. Using a state agency to fight for a nice walk behind your house (rather than walking further down the street) is the height of privilege, especially when there are POC and tribal communities that could use the attention of the coastal commission in far more significant access issues.

    • F

      FrankMay 30, 2024 at 2:23 pm

      It is actually the opposite. The closure itself is being driven by the neighboring property owners who want to privatize a beach access that has been used by the public since 1956 (long before UCSD owned it) and they have used their power and influence with the university, itself a state body, to accomplish their goal, in clear violation of the California Coastal Act.

      The opposition to this illegal closure has not been driven by La Jollans as most want people out of their neighborhoods. It has been driven by UCSD alumni who came to love nature at this place. The overwhelming majority of public access users were UCSD students, not La Jollans. The confusion is that many of these people have written to the La Jolla Light because they have been covering it, but this is much more a UCSD students issue than a La Jolla issue.

      And oh yeah, check out UCSD’s record on protecting Kumeyaay cultural resources for future generations. UCSD has used the reserve for digging up human remains at free will as the reserve is for research and education. Maybe ask the Kumeyaay how they feel about UCSD, or simply search Google for it.

      The reserve has also improved dramatically in ecological condition over the decades before the closure, and volunteer restoration work has decreased dramatically since 2020. The aerial photos prove this pretty well. This closure had nothing to do with either ecological protection or the Kumeyaay. It is corrupt and illegal to the core.

      It’s really sad that UCSD has so successfully lied to people and that UCSD students don’t understand what an incredible place they are missing out on for the interests of the ultra-rich neighbors.