When she first heard about the recent grass fire near Cal Expo, Sacramento State environmental studies professor Michelle Stevens “went crazy,” but was sure that it wouldn’t get too close to the project she had spent the last two years on.
That night, she tried to go to bed.
“I didn’t sleep all night,” said Stevens. “I was just praying, ‘please, God, those trees will take 20 years to get back.’ ”
In the morning, the fire had been extinguished, and Stevens rushed to the site of her and her students’ work to find the flames had come within 50 feet of the Bushy Lake Restoration, a wetland area and 20-acre pond just outside the gates of Cal Expo, which is part of the American River Parkway.
On Friday, the scheduled unveiling of the project came as anticipated, with a large gathering of Sac State administrators, professors, students and alums, including Assemblyman Kevin McCarty and Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna.
The students who had worked on the project eagerly awaited the chance to show off their work — an expansive project investigating how to use native plant life to protect the ecosystem from the danger posed by the frequent fires in the area.
Environmental studies graduate Kayla Henry, who worked on the project during her senior year in 2015, said it was surreal to see the unveiling after years of work.
“When we first came out here, it was for a class,” Henry said. “I had never heard of this place before, so it’s really cool to see what it’s grown into with this project and how many people are here now.”
Orn Bodvarsson, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies at Sac State, said that the Bushy Lake Restoration highlights the importance of universities and communities “working together.”
“You have faculty who are leading students in the field, the students are applying what they learned in a classroom and helping the community solve a problem, and so both are made better off,” Bodvarsson said.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who wrote a bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown earlier this month that will make the American River Parkway eligible for state funding, said that the integration of Sac State’s professors and students were integral.
“This is an asset that touches all walks of life,” said McCarty. “Having all these entities engaged together is only going to give positive results for the parkway.”
Stevens and the school will apply for the newly eligible state funding, and hope that if and when it comes, it will serve as a boon for the project that helps maintain the home for the animals that live in and around Bushy Lake, including turtles and river otters.
Seeing the attention the project garnered at the unveiling moved Stevens.
“As a woman especially, I try to work twice as hard to set a good example for the students. Everything out here is my blood, sweat and tears,” Stevens said. “To have all these people out here to see it, to think that it’s gonna grow, that more people will help — we can really do monitoring out here and protect the wildlife.”
For Stevens, the broader goal of the project remains the same — to help provide a place and a chance for young people to go outdoors and experience the wilderness.
“This morning I watched a little girl riding her scooter to school and I thought, ‘Gosh, children don’t get to go into nature anymore,’ ” Stevens said. “They don’t feel comfortable in nature and their parents don’t feel comfortable in nature.”
“I want to give every child an opportunity to come out into nature and see all the wonderful things we share our world with.”