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CSUS botany professor’s dream closer to realization

POSTED September 9, 2011 10:11 p.m.

An arboretum intended to celebrate California’s diverse collection of plant life – and a former California State University, Stanislaus professor – could break ground as soon as mid-October.

But that’s only if California State University, Stanislaus can raise the final $30,000 needed to pay for the project, more than 30 years in the making.

The brainchild of former CSU Stanislaus botany professor Wayne Piece, the Trans-California Pathway Project would transform a vacant swath of the university’s Turlock campus into a scenic trip through the state’s plant life – and into a living laboratory.

“His idea for it, his hope for it, was that it would be a living arboretum and classroom for his botany students,” said Tiffani Burns, CSU Stanislaus director of development.

A lot of Pierce’s students hadn’t seen the wide variety of vegetation in the State of California, with drastically different species native to the Valley, foothills, and Sierra Nevada. Pierce’s idea was simple: to bring the different species to one place, a meandering river, walking path, and arboretum on the CSU Stanislaus campus.

In the late 1970s, a rough sketch for the Trans-California Pathway was drafted. By 1987, the project was approved by the Campus Planning Committee, and the first phase of the project began in 1988 with the planting of a grove of Valley Oak seedlings.

After that initial push, the project’s momentum slowed. Pierce, the driving force behind the project, found himself busy with teaching. But he kept applying for grants for the project, and asking faculty for small donations to make his dream a reality.

In August 2008, Pierce passed away.

And in stepped his wife, Donna Pierce, to ensure her late husband’s long-time passion at last became a reality.

“It was important for Donna to see through,” Burns said, “to see this come to life. This is kind of her way of honoring him and the work he did.”

In October 2009, the university broke ground on the arboretum, slated for the nearly 4 acres of vacant land alongside W. Monte Vista Avenue, near the intersection with Geer Road. Since then, all the irrigation and electrical work has been installed, but the campus needs more funding to complete the effort.

“We’re in this last push to get this last bit of money so that in mid-October we can break ground on this final phase,” Burns said.

In total, more than $210,000 has been raised for the privately-funded project since its inception. The final phase, grading earth, installing water features, and eventually planting the diverse collection of greenery, is expected to cost about $150,000, with just about $120,000 currently sitting in the project’s coffers.

Should construction begin in mid-October as planned, most of the ground-moving work could be done as soon as mid-November. After letting the ground settle for the winter, the site could be planted in spring, during a big party with local citizens becoming involved, Burns said.

Once completed, the arboretum will largely mirror the original plan drafted by Wayne Pierce in the 1970s, with alpine plants closest to Geer Road, a waterfall transitioning into foothill plants, and a meandering river flowing into a pond with valley greenery nearby. The pathway will feature crushed granite walkways, water features which utilize recycled water, and benches to take in the view.

Each grass, bush, or tree will have a sign with the plant’s name in both English and Latin, along with a description of the species. The signs will allow for self-guided tours and K-12 field trips – and serve as a resource for landscapers in search of indigenous, drought tolerant plants, Burns said.

Of course, the primary purpose of the development remains as it was since Wayne Pierce first imagined it: an outdoor, living laboratory for botany students. But Burns expects that anyone who steps foot on CSU Stanislaus will be able to enjoy the view.

“Anybody who walks on campus, it's going to be just incredible,” Burns said.

To donate to the Trans-California Pathway Project, call 667-3482.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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