The Outback Survives 50 Years at Pitzer – Barely

by Mac Crane and Phoebe Duvall

For most people, the term “Outback” calls to mind images of kangaroos and the Australian wilderness. Pitzer students, however, know the Outback as the carefully preserved patch of indigenous landscape at the northeast corner of campus.  Although there are no wallabies or wombats, Pitzer’s Outback is home to quail, woodrats, white sage, and many more native plant and animal species. Today, the Outback is one of the last remaining areas of coastal sage scrub, a highly endangered ecosystem native to Southern California.

Since Pitzer’s founding, the Outback has been used for many purposes, and it has shrunk considerably as the college developed. Over the years it has been a dump, a party ground, and a space for art and research.  Yet, students and faculty have taken a greater interest in the preservation of the space in recent years.

Paul Faulstich, a Pitzer alum and professor of environmental analysis, has worked for years to make the area an integral part of the campus.

“Now we’re at a place where we understand that what is left of the Outback has a value to it that is inherent to the land itself and that it deserves to be protected and appreciated,” he said.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the future site of the Outback was used as an illegal dumping ground for the city of Claremont. During their construction, the other colleges used the space to dispose of dirt and other building materials. Real estate developers first intended the site for residential lots, but the Claremont University Consortium purchased the land for the schools in the ‘50s. Harvey Mudd owned the land for a period, and then Pitzer bought it before the school’s founding in 1963.

The Outback first covered a little over 15 acres of Pitzer’s 34 acre campus. The original undeveloped land encompassed what is today the East Mesa and Holden Parking Lots, the Gold Student Center, and the new Freshman and Phase II dorms.  Despite its size, both the administration and students throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s largely ignored the space.

“When I was here it was really a no-man’s zone. Not many people ventured out there,” said Faulstich, who graduated in 1979. Some professors held art classes in the space, but students continued to use it as a dumping ground for everything from bottles and old projects to tires and mattresses.

“There was very little regard for the space as a natural space,” Faulstich said.

Over the years, the Outback has also been a place for more deviant activities, such as weekly keggers, bonfires, and drug use. Students have long used the space to get away from the watchful eyes of administrators.

For the first 30 years not much changed, but in the ‘90s the land took on a new significance for the school.

“When the school started to grow in terms of students, faculty, and finances, the Outback started to be looked upon as an open slate for development,” said Faulstich. The first wave of construction included the Gold Student Center (completed in 1995), an athletic field, and tennis and basketball courts.

Around this time, faculty and students began to take a more active interest in preserving the Outback as a natural space.  John Rodman, professor of environmental studies and the arboretum director at the time, began restoration efforts in the mid-’80s, but the construction spurred him to tackle more extensive projects.  He envisioned the space as a wild botanical garden to showcase various California plants, many of which were not native to the Coastal Sage Scrub ecosystem.  The new developments on campus also inspired students and faculty to successfully petition the administration for increased funding for the Arboretum.

Nonetheless, development continued apace with the construction of the freshmen dorms, completed in 2007. In 2010, Faulstich began teaching the class Restoring Nature, where students learn about ecological restoration theory while working in the Outback itself.  In contrast to Rodman’s vision, the class (and the Arboretum mission more generally) aims to restore the natural sage scrub by planting native plants and removing invasive species.

“The class is really trying to solidify [the Outback’s] import as a natural space, integrate it more into the life of the campus and make it an indispensable resource for us socially, pedagogically, curricularly, and aesthetically,” Faulstich said.

The class has certainly increased awareness of the Outback’s value among the students, but interest peaked in 2011 when construction of the Phase II dorms greatly reduced its size. A fire department mandate required the school to clear more land than originally planned, sparking a school-wide controversy over the construction. Now, tempers have cooled and about 3.5 acres of the Outback remain.

Although it is hard to predict what actions future administration will take, the size of the Outback should now be stable. In an effort to secure the coveted Platinum LEED certification for the Phase II dorms, the school has committed to maintaining the Outback as a natural open space at its current size. The LEED certification is recognition of environmentally sustainable construction.

“It’s a little thing that could be a wedge to stop [the Outback] from being taken over,” said Joe Clements, the current Arboretum director.  Additionally, the administration has helped secure grants that have funded restoration and maintenance efforts such as signage, rope fences, and even a part-time restoration fellow.

Today, thanks to the efforts of Faulstich, Clements, and many students, the Outback is a well maintained home to many native plants and animals.

“People should be able to see that a small sample of the environment that used to be here,” said senior Peter Vanderhooft.  “There are values in the land beyond human values, and those are important to consider now and in the future.”

The Outback is best accessed from the north end of the Phase II dorms. There is a path anyone can take to explore the native life, and there will soon be benches as well. Aside from its ecological value, Faulstich hopes the whole Pitzer community will take advantage of this local wilderness.

“Go visit it, treat it with respect, learn about it, observe closely, listen quietly, look at it in new ways,” he said. “Just go experience it.”

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