California State University, Chico’s Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve (BCCER) provides a diverse habitat for hundreds of species of plants and animals, a living laboratory for the curious and impassioned, and miles of trail recreation for the ambitious. Now, thanks to an incredibly generous donation, the 3,950-acre reserve will continue to strengthen its educational mission.

Professor Emeritus Wes Dempsey, his wife, Phyllis, and their family have donated $1 million to BCCER—the largest cash gift the reserve has ever received.

The Wesley and Phyllis Dempsey Endowment in Memory of David P. Dempsey will directly support the education of the next generation of land stewards and conservationists—from supporting graduate student research in the recently launched master’s-level Wildland Management Program to providing transportation assistance for many of the 1,300 local elementary grade schoolers participating in BCCER’s Outdoor Classroom program.

“This legacy endowment is a monumental testament to the Dempsey family’s commitment to the natural world and the importance of stewarding these increasingly scarce and valuable lands,” said Ecological Reserves Director Eli Goodsell (Criminal Justice, ’07; MA, Environmental Policy and Planning, ’11). “We are humbled and eternally grateful for the unprecedented level of support from the Dempsey family.”

BCCER, which is owned by Chico State Enterprises, is located on the ancestral land of the Mechoopda Indian tribe. It has been part of the University since 1999, serving students, researchers, and the public on its expanse adjacent to Upper Bidwell Park, roughly 14 miles east of Chico State.

Dempsey is a well-loved and highly respected retired faculty from the University’s Department of Biological Sciences—and his commitments to the campus, community and his profession were widespread. While he taught at CSU, Chico from 1954 to 1992, Dempsey developed the Campus Arboretum and Guide to Campus Trees, created the Yahi Trail Map and Interpretive Trail Guide for Bidwell Park, and led more than 1,000 tours for schools, the Sierra Club, California Native Plant Society and the Chico community. He also taught field biology at the University’s Eagle Lake Field Station from 1979 to 1991, and was the first recipient of the Distinguished Emeriti Award from the College of Natural Sciences.

Wes and Phyllis Dempsey pose and smile with Eli Goodsell while displaying a framed poster of the BCCER.
“Supporting the Reserve’s mission—‘where education meets the land’—ensures that California’s natural heritage will be appreciated by many generations to come,” Wes Dempsey said.
Contributed photo

Having encountered what would eventually become BCCER while looking for a nice fishing spot decades ago, Dempsey learned the area was fire-managed for hundreds of years by the Mechoopda, became entranced by its vast wildlife and connected deeply with the land. Ever since, it has been one of his favorite destinations in Butte County. Now in the golden years of retirement from CSU, Chico, he saw it as a natural fit to continue giving back to the community.

“I care deeply about the vision for perpetuating this remarkable wilderness next to the city,” Dempsey said. “It’s important to educate young people to carry on the work of our conservation heroes.” 

The Dempsey family is especially appreciative of Goodsell’s vision, hard work, and stewardship. Since becoming manager of the University’s reserves in 2017, Goodsell has worked tirelessly to increase student success through experiential learning; develop and expand innovative sustainable land stewardship activities for devastating wildfire mitigation, forest health, academic goals, cultural practices, and wildlife habitat conservation; establish and increase research, scholarship, and inquiry consistent with regional Indigenous and traditional knowledge; and expand community and cultural engagement.

“His building of support and partnerships continue to make BCCER an important educational space to help all be excellent land stewards,” said Dempsey. 

CSU, Chico President Gayle Hutchinson noted that the unique educational opportunities that come with BCCER—from fire-mitigation exercises to wildlife webcams to elementary school field trips—are made possible through philanthropy.

“Our Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve is a special place and unique among CSU spaces—it provides a wide range of learning opportunities for students and these opportunities grow with the support of donors such as the Dempseys,” Hutchinson said. “It is my hope that the Dempseys’ gift to Chico State serves as inspiration for future donors to invest, not just in the University, but also in its distinctive areas of education and community building.”

A college professor and college student look at and study plants around them in a wide open space drenched with sunlight.
Professor Don Miller (right) works with undergraduate Jessi Carson in one of Miller’s classes—one of many offered by the University on the BCCER property.

Donations like the Dempseys’ quickly give BCCER support it can count on to advance its strategic goals—but Goodsell welcomes philanthropic gestures of all kinds.

“Whether adopting an acre at $10 a month or leaving a legacy with a planned gift, community support is imperative to propelling innovation and adaptation for an increasingly threatened environment,” he said.

Helping the CSU, Chico Ecological Reserves provide wildland firefighter training along with scholarships for critical gear such as boots to undergraduate and graduate students in its program is just one example of solutions to local community challenges, Goodsell said, made possible by community giving, that will have impacts for generations to come.

“Many of these students would not have been able to afford this federally recognized training or the essential protective equipment needed,” Goodsell said. “Now these students have participated in local and regional prescribed fire projects, which enhances the health of our local watersheds, while preparing them for careers in stewarding natural lands throughout California and beyond.”

The Dempseys hope their financial gift encourages the success of the Wildland Management Program, while also helping to preserve BCCER’s natural beauty.

“Ultimately, we want wildlands to be valued for their own sake—as areas for conservation of biodiversity, and not just for human recreation or utility,” Dempsey said.

“Supporting the Reserve’s mission—‘where education meets the land’—ensures that California’s natural heritage will be appreciated by many generations to come,” he continued. “We hope to inspire other philanthropists to support wildlands and education nationwide.”