At 9 a.m. on a foggy, drizzling Thursday, a lone surfer rides the waves at Sands Beach, part of the 117-acre Coal Oil Point Reserve. Otherwise, the place is deserted, except for one pajama-wearing plover docent on the dunes.

Cristina Sandoval, the director and sole employee of the Coal Oil Point Reserve, is tucked away in the vine-covered wooden shed that serves as her office. Twenty yards from that, hidden in the pine trees, is the green double-wide Sandoval shares with her husband, biologist Kevin Lafferty, and their two daughters. Reserves are usually run by Ph.D. biologists like Sandoval, who live on-site and work virtually around the clock – Sandoval almost always works weekends and evenings in addition to her eight-hour workday. She is also on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for emergencies.

“Living on the reserve is good sometimes and a bad sometimes. I love to be near nature even though I’m in the middle of Goleta,” Sandoval said. “Sometimes it’s a little scary because sometimes weird people come by the house. You lose a bit of privacy.”

It can be hard separating work from home when you live where you work.

“When you live on-site you think about the job all the time,” Sandoval said. “It’s hard to get away from work. You have to make tough decisions, especially when you care about your work. Do you stop the trespasser or do you read to your kid?”

Plovers or People?

While winter storms and high surf have threatened the reserve, most of the destruction is not caused by Mother Nature. When Sandoval first moved onto the reserve about six years ago, she spent most nights breaking up rowdy college parties on Sands Beach instead of sleeping or spending time with her family.

“People were having parties, barbecues and fireworks on the beach,” she said. “Students have gotten used to it now – they know it’s not a place to party. Very rarely now I have to do that.”

Despite the problems she has had with rowdy beachgoers, Sandoval said public access is an important part of the reserve and, if managed properly, can help the environment in the long run.

“I have to balance access with preservation, and even though it’s challenging, I think it’s worthwhile. It brings conservation and environmental issues and science to the public,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for education. So many people pass by that we can have signs and talk to them.”

Sandoval said about 75 percent of beach users are local college students, and for this reason, she would like to see students get more involved in the upkeep and restoration of the reserve.

“I’d like to have students start taking ownership and understand the value of the reserve. With all the students coming here at one time or another and only me here, I cannot protect it alone,” she said.

While there are many public access beaches in the area for recreation, only two are reserves: Coal Oil Point and the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve. Sandoval said some people have had a hard time accepting that the needs of the reserve have to come before their desire to have unrestricted access to Sands Beach.

“Sometimes if you have to restrict access of beaches, if you put up a fence or move a trail they don’t realize that humans already took too much,” she said. “We already have most of the habitat in the area. This reserve shows how much we’ve taken. We’ve lost a number of species: deer, bear, fishes in the slough, plants; the plovers stopped breeding.

“It shows that setting political boundaries of a reserve isn’t enough. You have to actively manage it. There are people everywhere. Even the remotest areas are subjected to impact from us,” Sandoval said. “The problem we have with understanding the impact we have on nature is that we only look at the short term. For example, when I first moved to California I could see abalone everywhere on the coast. Now, 13 years later, my kids have never seen an abalone. As our lives move on we don’t realize how much we’ve really lost.”

Sandoval said increasing the number of local college student volunteers will further the process of creating a safer habitat at Coal Oil Point Reserve. There are currently about 35 student docents volunteering at the reserve, and Sandoval is hoping to have at least 20 more for the summer. The reserve also needs student groups, individuals or local organizations to pitch in and contribute labor to the habitat restoration and trail consolidation program.

Sandoval will need even more assistance with the plover program this summer because most of the reserve’s 35 student docents will be leaving town. Because she is expecting more plover nests and eggs this year, Sandoval expects they will need at least 50 docents to take shifts protecting the area.

Until two years ago, when a lone western snowy plover egg was discovered on Sands Beach, plovers had not nested at the reserve for decades. The discovery gave Sandoval hope that something could be done to reinstate plover nesting in the area. Last year, she received a grant to install a small, moveable fence on the upper portion of part of the beach, preventing unleashed dogs and people from disturbing the plover’s nesting habitat. Docents are recruited to enforce the boundary and shoot crows, which eat the plover eggs, with slingshots. The fence and supervision worked, and 16 baby plovers were born at Sands Beach last year; 14 survived to adulthood.

Sandoval said she also needs volunteers for the habitat restoration and trail consolidation projects.

“Our job is very broad. We primarily are responsible for attracting and providing structure for research and outreach and preservation programs. In order for those programs to succeed, a lot of our job is stewardship: maintaining buildings, fences, paths, restoration and negotiating with other property owners in the area,” she said.

The Making of a Reserve

Prior to Sandoval, the reserve was maintained using a process she calls “passive management,” leaving it pretty much abandoned.

“Those 30 years of neglect caused people not to see it as a reserve – it was seen just as an open space they could use,” she said.

Coal Oil Point is the only reserve in the University of California’s 34-site Natural Reserve System that allows public access. UC Santa Barbara runs six reserves, including those in Carpinteria, the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Cruz Island, the eastern Sierras and Coal Oil Point. Coal Oil Point’s habitats, located on UCSB’s West Campus, include coastal dunes, coastal terrace, south coastal estuarine lagoons, vernal pools, mudflats and beach and rocky intertidal zones.

Coal Oil Point was one of the first reserves created in the Natural Reserve System in the early 1970s after faculty members pushed the UC to establish a series of protected natural habitats for research and conservation purposes.

“It wasn’t easy doing outdoor research before the reserves because the areas that were preserved were on private lands and could be destroyed at any time. They realized that in order to do any long-term research, they needed reserves,” Sandoval said.

UC started with only a handful of reserves that became so popular with faculty they had to expand the program into the current 34-reserve system. Most of the reserves are larger than Coal Oil Point and have one or two stewards who work part time. Although Coal Oil Point is small, about 2,000 people visit it each year because of its proximity to Isla Vista and Goleta.

Improving Upon Nature

In the next few years, Sandoval would like to create a few main trails for beach access and do away with all the others to protect habitat for wild animals. Different animals can handle closer proximity to people, but if there isn’t enough undisturbed habitat between trails, it can cause problems with mating and nesting.

Sandoval said she hopes to have the trail consolidation project completed in the next two years, but is limited by budget and labor. With the help of volunteers, Sandoval has started work on the perimeter of the reserve and around the slough. She wants to create trails that not only provide quick access to the beach, but also serve as an informative nature walk with educational signs. She would like to see the toxic, non-native eucalyptus trees the crows nest in become part of this project, but is limited by funding.

Sandoval said the trail consolidation project will help the research function of the reserve as well. Although research is the second most important function of the reserve system, little of it occurs at Coal Oil Point. The amount of public access has kept some researchers away from the reserve, Sandoval said, because of the threat that their research will be influenced by outside factors.

Evolving From Insects

Sandoval received her B.A. in biology and her master’s in ecology at a Brazilian university, where she studied Amazonian spiders. She moved to the U.S. in 1987 to earn her Ph.D. and do two years of post-doctoral work in evolution. She and Lafferty were having difficulty getting jobs in the same area, and ended up volunteering at the reserve.

After her husband was hired as a research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Goleta, she stayed on as a volunteer; two years ago, she was hired as director.

Sandoval has not abandoned her research, although she has gone from studying arachnids to studying insects. Her research on walking sticks has turned up 12 new species, including Timema cristinae, named in her honor. She does most of her research in the Santa Ynez and Santa Monica Mountains.

“My interest in research is directly related to my interest in conservation. I do this work because I’m fascinated with diversity,” she said. “Evolution is an incredible process. It created us so that now we can look back and study it. We’re the only species on earth that can do that, can tell how we came about. We’re also the same species that can destroy.”