Lisa Micheli, climate change warrior

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Lisa Micheli is an expert in watershed science who is at the forefront of studying and responding to climate change and she lives right here in Sonoma, her favorite place in the world.

The executive director of Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,200-acre nature sanctuary in Santa Rosa, Micheli recently received a Local Hero award from Bay Nature, the East Bay-based conservation magazine, for her “extraordinary work in service to the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area.”

Since taking the helm at Pepperwood in 2009 she has expanded it from what was once “a field trip place” into an ecological research center where scientists focus on climate adaptation strategies. Under her management Pepperwood has been recognized by the National Science Foundation as a “field station of global significance.” And even with all the highbrow research going on, Pepperwood, located in the Maycamas Mountains, remains a terrific place for kids to learn about nature.

“Science needs to solve practical problems with very applied research,” Micheli said. “At Pepperwood we are studying how to prepare for climate change and what it is going to look like.”

There are five scientists on staff and they host scientists from all over the world to answer such questions as “how to manage fuels and be ready for drought.”

Micheli grew up in Massachusetts, living her early years in the dorms at Harvard University where her parents were students. She later became a graduate of Harvard herself and went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental water resources and a doctorate in energy and resources at UC Berkeley. She summarizes her education by referring to herself as a hydrologist – a person who studies water. “It is a great thing to study because water connects to everything,” she said.

When she was 14 years old, Micheli’s father brought her along when he attended a retreat at Skyfarm in Sonoma. During that trip in 1975, she thought, “I’m moving here someday,” and she never lost sight of that goal. When she finished her undergraduate studies she took a job with the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco and after living and studying in there and Berkeley, she headed to Sonoma Valley once she finished her PhD in 2000.

Before Pepperwood, Micheli worked at the Sonoma Ecology Center for eight years specializing in creek and watershed restoration, and she was also an instructor at Studio M exercise studio, where she continues to work out.

“Sonoma is my place. It is a very nurturing place to be and I have a great community of friends here,” he said. Micheli is currently single although she remains close to her two stepchildren who are now in college. She recently spent two weeks in Costa Rica volunteering on an environmental research project.

Although she doesn’t like being the center of attention, she was honored to receive the local hero award at a recent dinner in San Francisco, where she gave a speech that was largely about thanking her staff at Pepperwood. “I was putting the credit where it was due,” she said, explaining the teamwork atmosphere at the preserve.

Even with her close understanding of climate change, the main consequences of which she says with be “floods and droughts,” she is optimistic about the long-term future of the earth. She worries about the loss of biodiversity and of plants and animals that are becoming extinct. But “the planet is going to survive no matter what,” she said.

The question is: are human beings going to solve the effects of climate change and survive with it.

“Our challenge as a species is to see if we can make it work out and be here because otherwise we will be gone and the planet will go on.”

Micheli said that in order to reverse climate change we have to reduce greenhouse gases and “consume less.” She believes businesses have to be part of the solution. “The private sector can probably do more toward solving the problem than the government,” she said.

While she said many of her colleagues are much more pessimistic about the future of the human species, she finds hope in the younger generation. “When you talk to young people they really get it.”

She also encourages the notion that if everyone makes “simple and small changes” like replacing a lawn, every positive change accumulates to have a big impact.

“People need to feel like they have enough,” is the challenge Micheli believes will help make a long-term difference in the fate of humankind.

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