Acknowledgements 5 executive summary

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Reserve Designation and Operation

Under Federal law (16 U.S.C. Section 1461), a state can nominate an estuarine ecosystem for Research Reserve status so long as the site meets the following conditions:

  1. The area is representative of its biogeographic region, is suitable for long-term research and contributes to the biogeographical and typological balance of the System;

  1. The law of the coastal State provides long-term protection for the proposed Reserve's resources to ensure a stable environment for research;

  1. Designation of the site as a Reserve will serve to enhance public awareness and understanding of estuarine areas, and provide suitable opportunities for public education and interpretation; and

  1. The coastal State has complied with the requirements of any regulations issued by the Secretary of Commerce.

Reserve boundaries must include an adequate portion of the key land and water areas of the natural system to approximate an ecological unit and to ensure effective conservation.

If the proposed site is accepted into the reserve system, it is eligible for NOAA financial assistance on a cost-share basis with the state. The state exercises administrative and management control, consistent with its obligations to NOAA, as outlined in a memorandum of understanding. A reserve may apply to NOAA’s ERD for funds to help support operations, research, monitoring, education/interpretation, stewardship, development projects, facility construction, and land acquisition.
National Estuarine Research Reserve System Administrative Framework

The Estuarine Reserves Division of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) administers the reserve system. The Division establishes standards for designating and operating reserves, provides support for reserve operations and system-wide programming, undertakes projects that benefit the reserve system, and integrates information from individual reserves to support decision-making at the national level. As required by Federal regulation, 15 C.F.R. Part 921.40, OCRM periodically evaluates reserves for compliance with Federal requirements and with the individual reserve’s Federally-approved management plan.

The Estuarine Reserves Division currently provides support for three system-wide programs: the System-Wide Monitoring Program, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and the Coastal Training Program. They also provide support for reserve initiatives on restoration science, invasive species, K-12 education, and reserve specific research, monitoring, education and resource stewardship initiatives and programs.

C. Description and Mission of the Elkhorn Slough NERR

The Elkhorn Slough NERR is an ecologically diverse 583 hectare (1,439 acre) protected area located on the eastern shore of the Elkhorn Slough, near the Monterey Bay in Central California (Figure 1.2). Elkhorn Slough is a seven-mile arm of the Monterey Bay located half way between the cities of Santa Cruz and Monterey. This arm bends as it extends inland, and at the “elbow” lies the Reserve.

As the primary terminus of the Elkhorn Slough watershed, the Reserve is part of a biologically rich system containing a diverse landscape of estuarine habitats, freshwater ponds, and hills containing native upland vegetation. These areas are interspersed with roads, working farms and residential housing.
Within the Reserve’s boundaries there are lowland areas containing salt marsh, mudflats, and tidal lagoons, which flow into the slough’s main channel. The Reserve’s upland areas contain coastal prairie, maritime chaparral, oak woodland, pine and eucalyptus forest, and riparian/freshwater habitats.
Elkhorn Slough’s tidal waters are part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is the largest of thirteen sanctuaries in the National Marine Sanctuary System. The entire Elkhorn Slough estuary has also been designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Birding Conservancy, and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve by the Manomet Bird Observatory.
The Elkhorn Slough NERR represents the California Biogeographic Region and is protected for long-term research, water-quality monitoring, education and coastal stewardship. The Reserve also offers opportunities for public access and is home to an award-winning visitor’s center. The property features several well-maintained hiking trails and has boardwalks, a wildlife viewing blind, and a fully-accessible scenic overlook.
The Reserve is owned and managed by CDFG and operates in partnership with NOAA and the local, non-profit Elkhorn Slough Foundation (ESF). At the State level, the Reserve is administered through DFG’s Central Coast Regional Office (Region 3) located in Yountville.

ESNERR Mission

The mission of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is to improve the understanding and stewardship of Elkhorn Slough and its watershed.

Figure 1.2. Map of the Elkhorn Slough in Central California.

D. Description and Mission of the CDFG

In 1870 the Board of Fish Commissioners was established “to provide for the restoration and preservation” of fish in California waters. This was the first wildlife conservation agency in the country. In 1878 the scope of the agency was expanded to include the management of game as well as fish and the agency’s name was later changed to the California Department of Fish and Game.

Today, CDFG maintains native fish, wildlife, plant species and natural communities for their intrinsic and ecological value and their benefits to people. This includes habitat protection and maintenance in a sufficient amount and quality to ensure the survival of all species and natural communities. The department is also responsible for the diversified use of fish and wildlife including recreational, commercial, scientific and educational uses.

CDFG Mission

The mission of the Department of Fish and Game is to manage California's diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.

E. Description and Mission of the ESF

The Elkhorn Slough Foundation (ESF) is a nonprofit, member-supported organization working to conserve and restore Elkhorn Slough and its watershed. The Foundation works with ESNERR and other local, state, and national constituencies.

ESF was formed in 1982 primarily to support the work of the newly created Elkhorn Slough NERR. Its early successes included the creation of the volunteer, education and research programs at the Reserve and opening and expanding public access. Within a decade ESF took on a new role, when it began managing 800 acres of land owned by The Nature Conservancy. By the late 1990s ESF made the strategic decision to acquire, protect, and manage land itself.
In 1999, ESF adopted the Watershed Conservation Plan, developed with key partners including the Elkhorn Slough NERR. This plan remains the basis for ESF’s Strategic Initiative. The plan calls for the balanced conservation of land and embraces the notion of a "working landscape." It calls for the protection of lands in four areas: the "Northern Crescent" of Elkhorn Slough, bordering on Carneros Creek, the Slough's primary source of fresh water; the "Southern Crescent" of the Slough, bordering on the Reserve; Moro Cojo Slough, which lies south of Elkhorn Slough; and the wetlands of the Springfield Terrace, west of the slough.
ESF currently manages more than 3,500 acres of conservation lands.
ESF Mission

The mission of the Elkhorn Slough Foundation is to conserve and restore Elkhorn Slough and its watershed.

. National Focus on Estuarine Conservation

Estuaries—the vibrant coastal zones where rivers join with the sea—are uniquely productive natural systems. An estimated 95 percent of commercial fish and 85 percent of sport fish spend a portion of their lives in estuarine and coastal habitats (Pew Oceans Commission. 2003). But like so many natural environments, the nation’s estuaries have fallen on hard times. Since the arrival of the Pilgrims, over half of our fresh and saltwater wetlands—more than 110 million acres—have been lost to development (Pew Oceans Commission. 2003). Within the estuaries that remain, human impacts are taking a toll. In 2001, 23 percent of the nation’s estuarine areas were considered impaired for swimming, fishing, or supporting marine species (U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. 2004).

The degradation of the nation’s estuaries has come from multiple sources. Polluted runoff from the land has degraded estuarine habitats. A decline in fish stocks has weakened a complex web of marine life. Non-native species have been introduced, both intentionally and accidentally, often resulting in significant economic costs, risks to human health, and ecological consequences that we are only beginning to comprehend.
Reversing human’s impact on estuaries has taken on increased urgency in recent years, in part because things could get much worse. Experts predict that by 2025, 75 percent of our population will live within 50 miles of the coast (U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. 2004).
On a national level, several groups have recently mapped strategies for protecting our oceans, coasts, and estuaries. Two of these groups, the United States Oceans Commission and the Pew Oceans Commission, have recommended several policy initiatives, some of which have already taken effect and many others that are being discussed on both the state and federal levels.
An initiative more specific to estuaries, the Estuary Restoration Act, was passed in 2000 and resulted in the creation of A National Strategy to Restore Coastal and Estuarine Habitats (RAE and NOAA. 2002). The Act makes a strong federal commitment and encourages public-private partnerships to restore habitat in America’s estuaries. Specifically, the Act:

  • Makes restoring America’s estuaries a national priority.

  • Creates the federal Estuary Habitat Restoration Council.

  • Requires development of an Estuary Habitat Restoration Strategy.

  • Sets a goal of restoring one million acres of estuarine habitat by 2010.

  • Authorizes $275 million over five years for restoration projects.

  • Requires enhanced monitoring, data sharing, and research capabilities.

G. Conservation of Elkhorn Slough

Elkhorn Slough has faced many of the same human impact issues as other estuaries across the nation. Over the past 150 years, human actions such as the diking and draining of wetlands, diversion of a river, and the construction of a railroad, boat harbor, roads, dams, and levees have seriously altered tidal, freshwater, and sediment processes in the modern day Elkhorn Slough watershed. Hundreds of acres of salt marsh, channel, and tidal creek habitats have been lost or degraded as a result of these human modifications.

In addition to these local changes, at the state level California is home to one third of “at risk species” identified in the United States. The state is considered to be one of the 25 most significant biological hotspots in the world (Figure 1.3) (Stein 2000). There are twenty-one threatened or endangered species in the Elkhorn Slough and neighboring Pajaro and Salinas River watersheds (see Appendix 5).
Beginning in earnest in the 1970’s a large citizen movement to protect Elkhorn Slough and its surrounding watershed began to take shape. This led the state to recommend that a management plan be developed for the Elkhorn Slough watershed and that both the Monterey Bay and Elkhorn Slough be considered for designation as national sanctuaries.

Figure 1.3 Map of biological hotspots found in the United States

In 1974, the California Coastal Commission, acting on recommendations from the public and local agencies, nominated Elkhorn Slough for designation as a federal estuarine sanctuary. In 1980, 405 hectares (1,000 acres) of Elkhorn Slough lands located on the old Elkhorn Dairy were purchased by the CDFG and the Elkhorn Slough Ecological Reserve was formed. With the site’s Federal designation came the name Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Sanctuary, and later the name was changed to the Elkhorn Slough NERR. Also, the CDFG purchased 283 hectares (700 acres) on the north side of the slough near its mouth and created the Moss Landing Wildlife Area.

In addition to the state-owned protected lands, during the last 20 years more than 3,000 hectares (7,000 acres) of key watershed habitats have been acquired and protected by ESF and The Nature Conservancy.
Today, an impressive variety of agencies, organizations, and individuals dedicate themselves, in whole or in part, to the conservation of Elkhorn Slough and its watershed.
H. References

Pew Oceans Commission. 2003. America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change. Philadelphia, PA.

Restore America's Estuaries (RAE) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (NOAA). 2002. A National Strategy to Restore Coastal and Estuarine Habitat. Restore America's Estuaries, Arlington, Virginia.
Stein, B. A., L. S. Kutner, and J. S. Adams. 2000. Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States. The Nature Conservancy and Association for Biodiversity Information. Oxford University Press, Inc. New York. New York.
U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. 2004. An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century. Final Report. Washington D.C.


Elkhorn Slough NERR Mission, Vision, & Beliefs

The mission of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is to improve the understanding and stewardship of Elkhorn Slough and its watershed.


ESNERR is a hub of substantive research, education, and resource management which models:

  • biodiversity through the protection of existing native habitat and the restoration of disturbed habitat through adaptive management practices

  • quality, hands-on interaction with watershed habitats without significant negative impact on the environment

  • inspiration of diverse audiences to make personal commitments to environmental stewardship

  • objective and responsible information exchange, interaction, and learning

  • broad-based community involvement

  • sound, up-to-date, and fiscally responsible infrastructure

  • high professional standards by staff and volunteers

  • long-term strategic planning


Global environmental health depends on widespread commitment to stewardship, both individually and collectively.

As an integral part of a natural system, the Reserve should maintain a watershed perspective.
Conservation best served when education, research, and resource management are interdependent and mutually supportive.
Reserve education should reflect best educational practice.
Everyone has the capacity to increase their knowledge and appreciation of the environment.
Reserve research should adhere to the highest standards of scientific inquiry.
Research should be widely accessible and results should be disseminated in a manner which is timely, clear, accurate, and unbiased.
Research should guide resource management decisions.
Optimal management of the Reserve contributes to long-term global environmental health.

Chapter II.

ESNERR Conservation Planning Process

To achieve long-term measurable conservation success in the Elkhorn Slough watershed, we combined Reserve-developed methodologies with tools developed by the disciplines of conservation planning and program design in a novel approach we hope will provide future direction to Reserve staff and their conservation partners. We first used extensive staff expertise and existing data to create a conservation assessment, which helped us to prioritize conservation targets. We then analyzed those targets to ascertain their predominant stresses and overall threats. Finally, we developed a comprehensive list of all of the actions needed to address stresses and threats and prioritized those actions which we felt could be achieved in the next 5 years. We plan on continuing this process, honing our conservation planning by collecting better information, and monitoring our performance in the coming years.

A. Conservation Assessment Framework

Conservation Action Planning

To assess the current environmental state of the Elkhorn Slough watershed, Elkhorn Slough NERR used a modified version of a conservation planning tool developed by the Nature Conservancy, referred to here as “Conservation Project Planning Workbook” (CPPW) (The Nature Conservancy 2005). The CPPW methodology provides a science-based approach for developing and evaluating the effectiveness of conservation strategies. The CPPW approach focuses on documenting and detailing the following components:

  • Systems: Out of the entire list of all possibilities, define and prioritize fewer than 8 focal conservation targets, describing their key ecological attributes.

  • Stresses: Identify the most serious types of impacts which threaten the conservation targets. Prioritize the stresses according to its severity and the geographic extent of its impact.

  • Sources of stress: Clearly articulate the causes or agents of destruction or degradation. Rank these sources according to the ability to reverse it and its contribution to each stress.

  • Strategies: List the full array of actions necessary to abate the threats or enhance the viability of the conservation targets. Determine who would be responsible for each, and how much time and money it would take to accomplish these tasks.

  • Success measures: Define the specific thresholds that would determine success in protecting the systems. Detail the monitoring process for assessing progress in abating threats and improving the biodiversity health of a conservation area.

The logic underlying the CPPW framework is simple (Figure 2.1). It works by identifying priority conservation targets, which in the Reserve’s case consist of ecosystems (all species associated with plant communities) and maintaining the long-term viability of these targets. The process focuses on the actions and resources that must be brought to bear to address the sources of the stresses to conservation priorities.

The Elkhorn Slough NERR used the first three steps of TNC’s CPPW framework: prioritizing conservation targets (systems), describing each target’s critical stresses and sources of those stresses, and ranking those identified stresses.

Figure 2.1. Framework for the Five S conservation planning tool (Low 2003).

After progressing through the first three steps of the CPPW process, the Elkhorn Slough NERR staff reanalyzed the targets by ranking each in terms of:

  • estimated historical acreage loss,

  • significance of the representation of the habitat in the watershed,

  • number of listed species within the conservation target,

  • overall urgency of addressing the conservation target in the near future,

  • feasibility of restoration of the conservation target,

  • the relative importance of the Reserve’s niche in addressing the conservation target, and

  • whether staff felt that addressing the conservation target was within the Reserve’s Mission.

The purpose of this reanalysis was to rank the targets derived through the CPPW analysis because staff felt that financial and time resources were too limited to equally prioritize all targets. Staff also felt it important to corroborate the detailed, quantitative (‘bottom up’) CPPW approach with a more qualitative (‘top down’) approach – such a pairing of approaches has been suggested in the conservation literature (Hockings 2003).
Logic Models

In approaching the final two steps of the CPPW framework (‘strategies’ and measures of ‘success’), the Elkhorn Slough NERR incorporated yet a third conservation planning approach, the logic model framework. The logic model framework is gaining popularity in program development throughout the United States (University of Wisconsin Extension 2006) and many in the NERR system are increasingly familiar with it because of training through NOAA’s Coastal Services Center (Hinchcliff 2004). The logic model approach is designed to help clearly articulate long term goals and identify the suite of actions necessary to achieve those goals. The approach also requires identification of “SMART1” objectives for short, mid, and long term timeframes that would indicate progress towards the long term goal (Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2: The essential elements of a typical program logic model, which is read from left to right using the terms “if” and “then” between boxes (e.g., if I have these resources then I will hold these activities; if I hold these activities, then I will get these outputs, etc.)

B. Description of Watershed Conservation Threats

Within the Elkhorn Slough watershed, we prioritized six of what we felt were the most threatened habitat types to include as the conservation targets as defined by the CPPW process. We avoided listing the suggested 8 top conservation targets because we felt that focusing on six would better focus limited conservation resources. Later in the planning process, we further narrowed the conservation targets to five, grouping the riparian and freshwater wetlands into a single category. These are:

  1. Tidal estuary

  2. Coastal prairie/Coastal scrub

  3. Maritime chaparral

  4. Riparian/Freshwater wetlands

  5. Coast live oak woodlands

We then identified the stresses affecting each of these systems (Table 2.1) and looked at the relative seriousness of the stress, which is a function of the following two factors:

  • Severity of damage. What level of damage to the conservation target over at least some portion of the target occurrence can reasonably be expected within 10 years under current circumstances? Total destruction, serious or moderate degradation, or slight impairment?

  • Scope of damage. What is the geographic scope of impact to the conservation target expected within 10 years under current circumstances? Is the stress pervasive throughout the target occurrences, or localized?

For each of the five conservation targets, we identified one or more stresses that ranked either “high” or “very high” in terms of severity and/or scope of the stress (Table 2.1). We also identified 3 of the most important sources of those stresses: agricultural activities, invasive species, and residential housing (Table 2.2).

C. ESNERR Conservation & Organizational Goals

Using the “high” and “very high” stresses identified during the TNC CPPW process, we developed a set of long-term conservation goals. The first six goals focus on protecting and enhancing native biodiversity and natural ecological processes in the watershed. Goals seven and eight are broader and support a more general understanding and appreciation of coastal ecosystems. The last goal is the Reserve’s organizational goal and supports the long-term health of the Reserve’s human and physical organization. This last goal is critical to achieving the aforementioned conservation goals.

The Reserve’s long-term goals are:
Habitat-Specific Conservation Goals

  1. Protect and restore the watershed’s key estuarine habitats

  1. Protect and restore the watershed’s key freshwater wetland habitats

  1. Protect and restore the watershed’s key maritime chaparral habitats

  1. Protect and restore the watershed’s key coastal prairie habitats

  1. Protect and restore the watershed’s key coast live oak habitats

Broad Conservation Goals

  1. Reduce pollution across watershed habitats

  1. Monitor priority habitats and key species in the watershed and identify emerging threats

  1. Educate the community and inspire them to consider environmental conservation when making decisions that affect Elkhorn Slough and its watershed

Human and Physical Organization Goal

  1. Maintain a viable Elkhorn Slough NERR organization.

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