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Faculty and student restoration work at Bushy Lake reaping tangible rewards

The western pond turtle is one of the varied species of animals and vegetation that have been helped by Professor Michelle Stevens and Sac State students working at Bushy Lake. (Photos courtesy of Michelle Stevens)


For the past five years, Sacramento State Professor Michelle Stevens and her Environmental Studies students have quietly been working to restore wetland and riparian acreage at a “magical place” along the lower American River.

Now their work at Bushy Lake is reaping tangible rewards.

Recently, the project received $350,000 in funding from the California Wildlife Conservation Board. Later this month, the nonprofit Environmental Council of Sacramento will honor the work of Stevens and Moiz Mir, a Sac State graduate who supervised student plant experiments at Bushy Lake.

Students at Bushy Lake
Sac State students have performed significant environmental restoration at Bushy Lake, work that has gained widespread recognition. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Stevens)

The organization named Stevens its Environmentalist of the Year and honored Mir, now program coordinator at the sustainability nonprofit 350 Sacramento, with its Early Career Environmentalist award. Stevens and Mir will receive their awards on Earth Day, April 22.

“It’s validation of all of the hard work, and I really, really appreciate it,” Stevens said.

She and her students are an important part of an ongoing effort to restore the riparian habitat at Bushy Lake, which is located on Cal Expo property within the lower American River Parkway. In partnership with Sacramento County Parks, Cal Expo, and others, they have been planting native grasses, pulling invasive weeds, cleaning up trash, and monitoring the activities of turtles and birds.

Bushy Lake, which spans 20 acres in an abandoned oxbow of the lower American River, is a vital habitat for western pond turtles, one of the native species Stevens and her students are trying to protect. For the turtles, listed as a “species of special concern” in California and endangered in other western states, the area represents one of the last remaining refuges along the lower American River.

Besides the pond turtles, the area is home to river otters, beaver, coyotes, possums, skunks, and at least 139 species of birds, including great blue herons.

“It really is a magical place that hardly anyone knows about,” Stevens said.

The state grant, which runs through June 2023, will fund efforts to protect the turtles; restore native plants; and educate the public about Bushy Lake’s history and environmental importance. The information will be used to develop a conceptual restoration plan that will help guide ecological management of the area in the future.

Stevens and her students have been working in the area despite the COVID-19 pandemic, donning face coverings and gloves and following “all safety protocols to the letter” as they go about their business, Stevens said. Their tasks include conducting western pond turtle surveys and planting vegetation that is important to Native California people. The vegetation creates a landscape that resists the spread of fires along the parkway, which has been damaged by flames in the past.

“It’s pure joy to work with my students in the field,” Stevens said. “It’s sublime. I can’t think of anything better.”

The Bushy Lake restoration site is open to the public. To reach it, drive north on Howe Avenue. Turn left onto Hurley Way and left on Ethan Way, around the southeast side of Cal Expo. Park in the large field near Cal Expo’s Gate 12.


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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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