SSU Students & Faculty Prepare for Climate Change on Banks of Copeland Creek

SSU CEI and Sonoma Water support SSU faculty and students to enhance native biodiversity on campus and give students professional experience preparing for climate change.
June 17, 2022
Students Emily Ledford & Savanna Thomas plant native species along Copeland Creek.

A Refuge from Climate Change

Copeland Creek may be one of SSU’s best kept secrets. This green corridor of lush plant life gives students, faculty, staff and community members a place to relax, connect with nature, and take a break from offices, classrooms, and busy days. And joining us along the creek may be birds, deer, bobcats, raccoons, turtles, and even otters.

But this small creek is more important than many people realize - not just for people but for many other species in our region.

Wendy St. John, lecturer in the departments of Biology and Geography & Environmental Planning (GEP), said riparian areas serve as wildlife refuges and natural highways. They also sequester carbon.

Riparian corridors are “a beacon to every kind of wildlife,” St. John said. As climate change develops, “riparian habitats will be increasingly more important, because when you have a tree canopy and a river, you get a little area where the temperature is a little cooler and a little bit more humid most of the year.”

Creating a Refuge

SSU’s Copeland Creek is a particularly important component of the Russian River Watershed, given its quality and diversity, making restoration and ongoing care even more critical.

“The quality of the riparian vegetation makes a big difference with regards to the number and type of species it can support,” said Claudia Luke, Director of SSU’s Center for Environmental Inquiry. “Our section of Copeland Creek on campus has been overrun by a few invasive species that keep the native species out. The climate is getting drier and we need to help them or we will lose them.”

Since 2016, SSU’s Center for Environmental Inquiry (CEI), with funding from Sonoma Water has been supporting students and faculty efforts to restore Copeland Creek on campus. “The goal of the Copeland Creek Restoration Project is to improve native biodiversity and give students professional hands-on experience with environmental challenges,” Luke said.

The work builds on faculty and student efforts to restore the creek. “CEI does all the messy stuff it takes to maintain the kind of consistent long-term effort needed for restoration,” Luke said. “We secure funding, develop long-term restoration plans and annual reports, coordinate permits and treatments, supervise student teams, gather and curate data, and recruit students and faculty to get involved.

Professional Student Experiences

St. John is an important partner on the restoration project. She has designed her Restoration Ecology course around the management and restoration of Copeland Creek. As part of the course, St. John brings students out of the classroom and down to the creek to learn by doing - by engaging with the land and its plant and animal inhabitants.

Students learn professional skills, including writing restoration monitoring plans, collecting data on vegetation and insects, and evaluating the results. “Students do real restoration work right on campus,” said St. John. “It’s been very successful.”

CEI and St. John have also been instrumental in recruiting faculty from a dozen other courses to engage their students. Over the years, students have conducted research and assessment surveys on vegetation, erosion, water quality, birds, and wildlife.

“Students get to learn survey techniques while at the same time collecting actual data about our creek system. This leads to data that can be analyzed. Over the years, we’ve developed this nice big dataset,” St. John said. Students are also “learning actual skills about how to remove invasive species; how to plant things; how to propagate native plants. So, they get that connection in their literal backyard.”

In addition to developing real-world skills, students have fun doing the work and get excited by their discoveries and achievements.

“Discovery is what we can get when we look at this campus as a living lab,” St. John said. “We are in our own environment. This stuff is right here. That is one of the big strengths of using Copeland Creek as a learning tool.”

All Disciplines Can Take Part!

Luke stresses that Copeland Creek and the other campus natural habitats are not just for GEP and Biology students. All students, faculty, and staff can benefit.

“The importance of human connection with ecosystems is across all disciplines,” Luke said. “There is no business without planet. There’s no philosophy without planet. There’s no discipline that is independent of planet. The very essential nature of that is our personal connections with the places in which we exist.”

CEI helps professors across disciplines develop assignments that help students engage with the campus’ natural habitats - including art, communications, business, English, and many others. “This is such a beautiful place on campus,” Luke said. “Anything faculty can do to work this amazing resource into their curriculum helps SSU achieve our core value of sustainability and environmental inquiry.”

Health and Academic Benefits

In addition to engaging on an academic level, Copeland Creek also helps improve mental health, well being, and learning outcomes.

“Decades of research show that simply being outdoors in a natural setting improves learning outcomes and provides positive health benefits,” said Luke. “So it’s an important tool for our students, faculty, and staff to use for academics, as well as managing stress.”

In addition, “students on their own can be encouraged to seek out these spaces that they’re comfortable in or think are beautiful on campus and along the creek,” said Luke. “That can be really beneficial for them.”

St. John said this type of encouragement is even more important in the wake of COVID-19.

“Most of us feel like we spent the past two years indoors, because we did,” St. John said. “When I bring students to Copeland Creek, they tell me how good it feels to be outside. (And) when we are outside, it feels safe from the standpoint of we’re not all squished together in a classroom where we’re not able to social distance.”

Through it all, St. John hopes students learn the most important lesson: “We’re not separate from nature. We are part of nature, and nature is part of our community.” As climate change continues, “we’re going to be actively competing with wildlife and the needs of wildlife. The more we understand how to live alongside wildlife, the better it’s going to be for everyone.”

The Copeland Creek Riparian Restoration Project is one of many water management related projects funded by Sonoma Water through the WATERS (Watershed Academics to Enhance Regional Sustainability) Collaborative.

Between 2012 and 2019, the WATERS Collaborative engaged 3,164 students and 50 faculty in disciplines across campus to work with more than 30 community partners on water-related projects. Topics included pollution, flood, drought, and restoration.

If you’d like to participate or donate to the restoration of Copeland Creek - or learn more about the WATERS Collaborative - please contact CEI Director Claudia Luke at