UC Santa Cruz Professor Erika Zavaleta
UC Santa Cruz Professor Erika Zavaleta
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Tapped for California fish and game commission, UCSC ecologist wants to invite more voices to the table

If her appointment is approved by the state Senate, UC Santa Cruz ecologist Erika Zavaleta would become the campus’ only faculty member actively serving on a state government commission.

Erika Zavaleta has seen California’s natural resources through many lenses — as a journalist, wilderness ranger and author, and from her current role as a UC Santa Cruz professor of ecology.

Tapped by Gov. Gavin Newsom for the California Fish and Game Commission earlier this month, Zavaleta hopes to draw on that broad background as she joins a five-member panel tasked with a big job: overseeing wildlife conservation across the state. One of her primary goals as she steps onto the commission, Zavaleta said, is to open the door for a wider range of Californians to join the conversation about that subject.

“Who feels like they have a voice at that table?” Zavaleta said. “I would really like to see it expand. Because I think the truth is, there’s not that many Californians who don’t have some sort of interest or stake in wildlife and the landscapes of California.”

Her appointment requires approval from the state Senate, which is expected. Once approved, Zavaleta would become the only UCSC faculty member actively serving on a state commission, campus officials confirmed.

Zavaleta, 49, is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who joined UCSC’s faculty in 2003. Raised in New York, she is the daughter of immigrant parents. Her father came to the U.S. from Bolivia, her mother from India.

“I was really outward-facing internationally growing up, because my parents had both come from, each of them, from a different country and another continent,” Zavaleta said. “And I think that that engendered a real interest, actually, in the U.S. and what was going on here, and in learning more about it.”

So she set her sights on California. Moving out West to enroll at Stanford, Zavaleta studied anthropology before earning her Ph.D. in biological sciences.

She began her career in journalism, writing about environmental and tribal land issues in the West for High Country News. She then worked as a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, becoming further immersed in land and wildlife stewardship issues.

As an academic, Zavaleta has studied the links between biodiversity and human wellbeing, global and regional environmental changes, terrestrial ecosystems and plant communities. She is the co-author of the textbook, “Ecosystems of California.”

“I’m a scientist,” Zavaleta said. “And I think that I have a lot to offer (the commission) in that respect, but it’s a different expertise. So I have a lot to learn about the legislative, regulatory and judicial processes that I’m now involved in. And it’s an honor to be entrusted with, with that the responsibilities that I’m taking on — even though I’m coming at them from a different background than others in the past have brought to the commission.”

California’s Fish and Game Commission is the oldest wildlife conservation agency in the country predating, even, its federal counterpart. Newsom announced Zavaleta’s appointment on March 24.

Mark Carr, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC, celebrated the announcement in a campus news release.

“Historically, there has not been strong science or diversity representation on the commission, and Erika’s appointment represents a marked change in the composition of the commission,” Carr said.