Out West student blog

Investigating historical ecology

a man holding an oar in a kayak on a lake looks toward the camera and smiles
Theo Gress kayaks on Lake Natoma in California

Theo Gress, MS '23
Hometown: Sacramento, California
Area of Study: Biology
Intern, San Francisco Estuary Institute

Theo Gress shares how studying the past ecology of a place can inspire better restoration work

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) is an interdisciplinary scientific institution whose mission is to “provide science-based actionable guidance for holistic nature-based solutions to stressors from climate change, landscape modification, habitat loss, and inequity.” During my internship with SFEI, I have worked on researching the historical ecology of the Suisun Bay and marsh, making a sign for a native plant garden at San Francisco’s McLaren Park, and classifying land cover type at high resolution within cities using a Geographic Information System (GIS). 

Exploring old writings and photographs for the historical ecology project felt like the work of a detective. I learned that old maps and photographs can provide information about the past ecology of a place, even though no one document gives a complete picture. While the data collection and organizing I did this summer is a tiny piece of this project, researching historical ecology is a service to our community because it allows society to reimagine the value of habitat restoration.

I also helped develop the content for an interpretive sign at McLaren Park. The sign will show how the historic ecology, native peoples, and current community of the region are all connected by place. This project clearly was geared toward public education, a service to the community that I believe is vital.

These two projects are very different in scope and required different skills. What amazes me about SFEI is the breadth of experience and expertise of their staff, which allows them to work on many types of projects. I have certainly enjoyed and benefited from being part of their team for the summer! One of the most memorable days for me was an in-person workshop to discuss the future direction of the Urban Nature Lab, a part of the Resilient Landscapes Program at SFEI. It was interesting to participate in group discussions with the goal of better aligning the lab’s projects with SFEI’s mission. I learned that when landscape architects, environmental scientists, and ecologists are working on the same goal, they are better equipped to create nature-based solutions to our environmental challenges.


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