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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Finding Best Management Practices With River Ridge Institute

Feb 26, 2016 02:06PM ● By Ronda Alvey


March 2016
By Jordan Venema
Photo: Tamara Orth

You may not study ecology, but that won’t prevent you from belonging to one. Ecology is a branch of biological science observing the relationship between organisms within their physical surroundings, like a big ol’ scientific tug of war.

Ecologically speaking, what happens over here can have lasting effect over there, as seen in the current drought, where dwindling snowpack and watersheds result in dried-up wells across the state. It’s through an understanding of the relationships that tie together our ecology that we can be better prepared to maintain and preserve it.

That mentality has motivated biologist Gary Adest since childhood, and lately became a mission when he and his wife began the educational nonprofit River Ridge Institute.

“The quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat all depends on people interacting with nature in a thoughtful, long-range vision,” says Adest. “And that’s what we’re trying to teach.” 

The Institute organically grew out of Adest’s approximately 700-acre ranch along the north fork of the Tule River in Springville. He and his wife “accidentally” purchased the ranch in 1998, and spent the next 15 years turning it into a profitable business raising organic
grass-fed beef. 

Last May, Adest, who has a Ph.D. in biology from UCLA, turned his attention to developing the educational branch of his ranch, through planning workshops, offering tours and classes, and facilitating volunteer opportunities to demonstrate best management practices for sustaining
the land. 

Why did Adest feel the need to pick up this mantle? “We work in an unusual place,” he explains, “below where the rangers work.” And between the park and urban areas is “this belt that stretches almost throughout the entire Sierra Nevadas of California – so 400 miles – with millions of acres of privately owned land that is under nobody’s management except the individual property owners.” 

The reality of land management practices, Adest continues, is that “whatever the landowner is doing with the land becomes the best management practices.” Many of these practices, which can range from fencing to brush and pest removal, or just how the land is cultivated, are handed down generationally, or done through common sense or propriety. But when a field researcher and biologist purchases a ranch, you better believe he’ll immediately begin putting those existing methods to the test.

Adest instantly began cataloguing and creating an inventory of how to improve his land. For the sake of resiliency, “you want as much complexity as possible,” explains Adest. “What do people usually do with branches? Stuff them into a plastic bin and they go away. Or,” he proposes, “let’s take these branches and build wildlife habitats with them” – for rabbits, quail, squirrels and snakes, all kinds of creepy crawlies. “Plus, we’re not putting particulate matters into the air through burns or using fuel to drive to the landfill.” They may be small practices, but a minor shift in habit can have a positively lasting impact on the land.

Over the years, Adest has continued to challenge his own practices. “My training as a research scientist would never let me just do something and then walk away. You continue to observe (the changes over time).”

As both researcher and owner of a working ranch, Adest has partnered both locally (through tours and workshops) and nationally (through organizations like Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife) to model these practices. “We work cooperatively to create and install habitat improvement, grazing improvement, water quality improvement – fixes, if you will,” says Adest, which begin here at his own River Ridge Ranch. “Imagine the idea of one little institute causing federal institutions to take a second look at their regulations. I don’t think that happens very often.”

Like any good ecologist knows, the small can impact the large, so during the spring, the Institute is offering its Trout in the Classroom program for third through seventh graders. By partnering with local Kaweah Fly Fishers and the California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, students learn embryology by raising trout eggs in temperature-controlled tanks. Once the trout have grown, students release the fish into the north fork of Tule River.

The institute also offers a hands-on, how-to workshop about techniques for watershed management and preventing soil erosion. Adest hopes his stream and restoration workshop, which will be offered in October 2016, can be repeated throughout the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

As Adest puts it, “We’re all faced with the current circumstances that we’ve inherited from past circumstances.” It falls on us to take care of what we’ve been given. 

River Ridge Institute • (559) 539-0207