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The Bernard Biological Field Station

"A tour of the property readily convinces visitors of the importance of keeping such a beautiful expanse of land, shrubs, and trees for scientific purposes." Robert J. Bernard in An Unfinished Dream

What is it? Where is it? Who owns it? Who uses it? Are there tours?
The Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station (BFS) is approximately 85 acres of land owned by the Claremont University Consortium (CUC). It borders the Botanic Garden and is the open space north of Foothill between College Ave and Mills Ave. The Station is used as a natural laboratory for biology and other college classes, as well as for faculty and student research. Every year many Claremont schoolchildren visit the station. The BFS is not open for recreational use, but interested community groups can arrange tours (www.bfs.claremont.edu).

What is the habitat like?
Most is relatively undisturbed coastal sage scrub (CSS), a community fast disappearing in Southern California and considered threatened. Part of the eastern side was once a citrus grove but is now grassland. There is a small, manmade lake and several vernal pools. There is sycamore-oak forest in the north and willows around the lake. The variety of habitats, which includes some disturbed areas, makes it especially useful educationally.

Are there any endangered species present?
Yes, there is Nevin’s barberry. In addition, the CSS community itself is under severe threat with 80 to 90% already lost to development, and several animals that occur on the BFS are California Species of Special Concern. The Nature Conservancy has listed the Mediterranean biome, of which this is a part, as endangered.

How was the BFS established?
It is part of a large parcel donated in the 1920's by Ellen Browning Scripps for educational use. The land now houses colleges, the School of Theology, the Botanic Garden, the golf course, and the Bernard Field Station. When sale of part of the land now used as the BFS was considered in the 1970's, Donald McKenna raised money to buy it from the Scripps Trust and donated the money to CUC. The land was fenced, the pond was dug and the station named after Robert J. Bernard who had helped to guide the Claremont Colleges Group Plan from the start.

Is the future of the BFS secure?
No. Important college decision-makers view the land as space for building. Only a referendum petition and lawsuit prevented the western portion from becoming the site for the Keck Graduate Institute in 1999. As of November 2015, CGU owns land in the western part, and Pitzer, Scripps and Harvey Mudd own the eastern part.

Are there alternative sites for a field station?
There is no other sizeable, relatively undisturbed area within walking distance of the colleges. This close proximity means that many hundreds of students a year can do field work without having to spend time and money on transportation. In addition, the fence makes it safe for students to visit on their own and to leave equipment set up for long-term experiments. A more distant site, if one could be found, would be used very little.

Is some of the BFS protected?
The central 35-40 acres (see map) were temporarily protected from building as part of the lawsuit settlement when the Friends opposed building the Keck Graduate Institute on the BFS. The remaining acres are now owned by various colleges. Only Pitzer so far plans to preserve any of its land.

Is the protected portion enough land?
The BFS is already quite small in biological terms and any loss of habitat would not only immediately destroy many thousands of plants and animals, but would increase the rate of subsequent extinctions. The smaller it is, the less useful for teaching and research. If the protected portion were the entire field station then, because of its very narrow, rectangular form, it would have a very long perimeter compared to the area. This means that no part of the habitat would be safe from serious “edge effects” caused by the neighboring properties. Noise, light, water, and pesticide pollution, along with increased invasion by non-native species, would make the ecosystems virtually impossible to maintain. It would also leave a very short Foothill frontage so that most of the view of the mountains over natural vegetation would be lost and the character of the street would be changed.

Do the colleges have to build on the field station?
No. Nowhere does it say that either the number of colleges or the size of colleges has to increase indefinitely. Miss Scripps donated the land for educational use and the BFS is definitely that. The Bernard Trust specifically states the land can be used for a field station and gives no time limit for this use.

Is the field station the only place development could take place?
No--although the consortium has sold the quarry east of Pitzer (now called the East Property) to Pitzer and CMC for sports fields and parking so it is no longer available, there is still the land that used to be the Claremont golf course. That area is part of the land given by Miss Scripps for educational use.

Do the colleges have an obligation to take into account the wishes of their donors?
They do not always make decisions based on them. For example, the land recently used as a golf course, although part of the original Scripps donation just like the BFS, is still not in educational use. In the 1950's, the colleges sold part of the Scripps Trust to a developer (and then bought most back for the Botanic Garden). There are other examples.

Do the colleges have the right to propose building for the BFS land?
Certainly they do. They have the right to propose plans for any land they own.

What is the role of the City when developments are proposed?
California gives cities the police powers necessary to balance private property rights with public benefits and values. Cities set up zones which restrict development and also have the authority to make further restrictions within these zones. For example, the City of Claremont prevents fast-food restaurants in the commercial zone, and prevented the owner of the land that now houses Armstrong Garden Center from building a fitness center, clearly a commercial use but not one desired by the City. The City prevented the colleges from tearing down several Victorian houses on College Ave. The City devised the Hillside Plan to restrict development in residential areas of the foothills. Owners have a right to benefit from their properties, but not always in ways that they wish.

Is there general support at the colleges for building on the BFS?
No. Four of the five undergraduate faculties (one did not vote) voted overwhelmingly not to build there when KGI was proposed. Students sent hundreds of letters, circulated petitions and held demonstrations. Members of both groups spoke before City commissions and the City Council in support of preservation. There was also very considerable opposition from Claremont residents which resulted in a lawsuit and a successful referendum petition. There was considerable opposition to Harvey Mudd’s plan for a parking lot on the BFS.

What is the current situation?
CGU now owns part of the west of the BFS, and Harvey Mudd, Scripps, and Pitzer own 36 acres of the east. Only Pitzer has plans to preserve any of the land. There was no way to prevent this sale from moving forward, and it’s clear that each of these colleges intends to build on its part of the BFS at some point.

Why is the Bernard Field Station a poor alternative site for development?
It is an irreplaceable academic resource for the colleges as well as for Claremont schoolchildren and other community groups.
The most sustainable use of the land is its continued use as a stand-alone field station or as the campus of an environmental institute with a small footprint.
It is aesthetically important to the character of Claremont because it preserves an unobstructed view of the mountains over natural vegetation along a major route through the city.
It is culturally and historically important because it includes an area formerly inhabited by native Americans and preserves some of the ecosystem native to the Claremont area.
It is ecologically important as an area of natural open space housing thousands of native plants and animals. The colleges would be doing their students and Claremont citizens a great favor by protecting this natural area

Last updated 11/14/2015.

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