Photo Courtesy of Greg Gilbert

City on a Hill Press: Why did you establish the Forest Ecology Research Plot (FERP)?

Greg Gilbert: There were two reasons. I’ve been working on plots like this, like in Panama, since 1991. I have a long history of doing research. I knew the kinds of things that could be done. In the mid-2000s, I got a grant to dosome work on the sharing of pathogens among different host species. Most of the work was to be done in Panama and some was to be done in a temperate zone. What we needed was a mapped forest. In the tropics, we had that 50-hectare plot in Panama, and there weren’t any in California where we were doing the other part of the work. So part of that grant went to mapping a forest for us to use to model how pathogens would move through space.

The goal had really been to establish a plot like the one in Panama. I saw this tremendous opportunity for students to do research right outside their door, to take classes and get people out into the field. If you have a mapped plot and put some resources into understanding the diversity that’s there, to be able to follow it through time, it makes it really easy for students interested in lichen or frogs to come in and do their work on top of that, because a lot of the background work has been done. The big motivation was to build something for students to do research on, but it also fits into this growing network started with that plot in Panama.

CHP: Is it funded by UCSC?

GG: A little bit. They provided a little bit of money to get things started. We got a grant to install meteorological stations in the plot as part of a course. We combined it with a course on environmental electronics in order to look at what’s happening with temperature and things like that. They provided a little bit of funds now and then, early on. A lot of it comes from the Pepper-Giberson fund, which is an endowed chair. I now hold that chair, it’s a rotating chair, and it’s provided some funds. Those funds have gone to promoting development of the plot. The National Science Foundation has provided some funding as well.

CHP: What does its induction into Smithsonian Institution’s Global Earth Observatory (CTFS/SIGEO) network mean for FERP?

GG: There are some additional requirements. We’ve made our data public since it was available, but now it’s also available through the network to anyone who wants to use the spatial data. It’s free access data for where the trees are and things like that. We’re trying to get more and more data up there, we’ve got the weather data now. We’ll be able to participate in a lot of cross-site comparisons. CTFS provided us with a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment, mostly Tyvek suits to protect against poison oak. It’s more about being part of an intellectual network — we’ve always followed their protocols, and it’s about making sure everyone at the plots is using the same sort of data and measurements so we can make these sorts of comparisons.

CHP: Why do you think that the FERP was chosen, since CTFS is a tropical forest initiative and we fall in a mediterranean climate zone?

GG: CTFS started as a tropical network. It started in Panama and moved from there. What people sometimes noticed and complained about was that all the sites were in tropical zones. So, a few years ago, people got interested in doing the same thing in the temperate zone. In the last 10 years, there have been plots like this created in the temperate zone. Following the CTFS guidelines, there’s been this growth in temperate zone plots — there are some in China, the northeastern U.S., and Europe. We’re the only mediterranean climate plot.

CHP: What is the FERP primarily used for by UCSC?

GG: Mostly internships, student theses — that’s the No. 1 use. This year, we’ll probably run about 45–50 interns on plot. We’ve been doing that since 2007. We have a number of senior thesis projects that go on every year. The secondary use is for classes. I take my plant disease ecology lab there, there’s a herpetology class that uses it, a plant ecology class uses it — a wide variety of classes use it. We’ve had classes from other UCs come here to use it — Berkeley, for example. They’ll come down to see a mapped forest plot. The other thing is faculty research.

CHP: What are your hopes for its future development?

GG: It’ll be expanded. One of the things about joining the CTFS/SIGEO network is that they’d like to see it bigger. I’d like to see it bigger because it lets you see individual species through time. It’ll be 16 hectares instead of six — the re-census should be done this quarter and then we’ll start the expansion. Once that’s established, the website should be an easy place for people to access information and use it. The biggest thing is to institutionalize it, so that it’s taken care of and that it’s used as a resource for classes across campus.