Deb Jensen is director of education at the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy.

Monday, 8 Nov 1999


Waking up to the sound and smell of rain this morning was, well … refreshing. It has been months since any precipitation has fallen as rain here. Conversations have been punctuated by fears about drought, global warming, and post-El Niño weather patterns. This rain won’t mean much in terms of measurable water in reservoirs, but parched, dust-covered plants will benefit.

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Collecting riparian plant specimens and soil samples is my first official duty of the day. Living at Middle Ranch near the largest fresh water drainage on the island means I can walk to the collecting site. Walking in the mist gives me time to appreciate the miracle of fresh water on this arid island off Southern California surrounded by the salty sea.

We are training volunteers to become environmental educators in the local schools. Today is the day that they will participate in three lessons we have written specifically for Catalina. The outreach program, Catalina ISLAND (Investigations Stimulating Learning About Natural Diversity), tackles major themes and issues relating to the local and global environments. The diversity lesson, “Planet of Plenty,” involves observation and investigation of plants found in different natural communities on the island. The goal is to prepare our eager volunteers to facilitate classroom and field experiences.

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Our education department has three employees and a long-range plan that literally calls for reaching millions. Catalina has only 3,500 permanent human residents, but nearly 1 million people visit the island every year. The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy owns 88 percent of the island and is responsible for protection of its natural resources. An equally important part of our mission allows for educational and recreational use of the island. Our calendar reflects the breadth of local and visitor education programs we undertake, as well as our philosophical campaign to raise the ecological literacy of as many people as we can.

After the volunteer training, Karen, Jeff, and I debrief. Did we communicate effectively? Did the volunteers get what they needed? Next week, we go into the field with the group. After 20 hours of training, will they be ready, confident, and prepared to motivate learning? Volunteers inspire me. In a nonprofit organization, they are the opposable thumb that makes progress possible.

Tuesday, 9 Nov 1999


Today was moving day. It has taken months to complete the remodel of our education department office. There is simply no way to rush a job on this island. All resources are in limited supply, including human resources. Which gave us an opportunity to practice patience while going about finding the most responsible materials.

Jeff, my assistant, has been the conscience for the project. He researched many of the materials and equipment. Carpet, paint, drywall, cabinetry, counter tops, lighting, and space heating were all conscientiously chosen for environmental gentleness. The “new” furniture was painstakingly selected at a huge warehouse of reusable office equipment. The old solid wood doors and window frames were refinished by hand and rehung. We have a few regrets: the vinyl floor covering should have been cork, the insulation could have been recycled material, and the cabinets should have been from certified green forest products. All in all, though, it’s been a good effort. We sure learned a lot about procuring green building materials.

Our phones are non-functional. Callers get a ringing on their end of the line, but we hear nothing at our end. Deliciously quiet, but surely frustrating to callers. The electrician might be able to get here next Monday to help us figure out what the problem is. Another example of what is meant by “island time.”

Sometime in the middle of the day, I met with our exhibits designer. My department is responsible for maintaining a natural and cultural history artifact collection. The exhibit we are working on now showcases the early people of the island and their soapstone industry. Catalina has thousands of archeological sites, and soapstone quarries are among the most important and fascinating. We are waiting for comments from tribal descendants on the exhibit story line and design.

Again today volunteers made my job easier. Four with strong backs and great attitudes helped for six long hours. By the time we left tonight, my desk was the only spot in the office still piled up.

While the remodel was going on, my commute was a one-minute walk from my house in Middle Ranch to our temporary work space at the ecological restoration department offices. Now, I drive 30 minutes to cover 10 miles on a mountainous, narrow road. At this time of the year, I usually miss sunset. But tonight I was rewarded by spotting three poorwills on the road and a burrowing owl who stood patiently while I photographed him in my headlights. Sometimes the 10-mile drive takes me an hour.

Wednesday, 10 Nov 1999


There are three developed areas in the interior of Santa Catalina Island, several developed coves along the leeward shore, and two communities: Avalon and Two Harbors. Avalon, the biggest developed area at one square mile, is home to about 3,200 people. Two Harbors is a village with a population of about 120 or so. The developed coves are mostly education and recreation camps or yacht club facilities, all quite rustic. The developed sites in the interior are El Rancho Escondido (formerly the Wrigley family’s Arabian horse ranch), the Airport in the Sky (serving private planes and the island’s commercial air freight line, and the location of our Nature Center and remodeled education offices), and Middle Ranch.

I live at Middle Ranch, the biggest development in the interior. Here, the Conservancy owns and maintains 12 modest houses for employees, a native plant nursery, facilities management shops and a warehouse, stables and a pony club arena, and the ecological restoration department office. The island’s primary freshwater reservoir is in Middle Canyon, a stone’s throw from all of this development.

I woke up today thinking about development and fresh water. Probably because of the meeting of our Earth Day group two nights ago. We have been trying to make Earth Day a year-round endeavor, possibly renaming the committee. What about Green Island/Isla Verde: Catalina’s Environmental Action Group? So far, there have been monthly meetings but not much action. Questions abound. How can we motivate others to reduce consumption of all resources? We live on an island, waste disposal is an issue, fresh water is very limited, natural ecosystems are fragile. What are the best mechanisms in our community, economically dependent upon tourism as it is, for educating and motivating residents and visitors?

By the time I arrived at the office to continue the moving-in odyssey, I had been preoccupied for hours.

Thankfully, the rewards of my job are many and rich. For instance, in three different canyons, three different large raptors punctuated the blue, blue sky. A red tailed hawk in Middle Canyon, a peregrine falcon (I think) over Skull Canyon, and an osprey over Cape Canyon. On the drive to and from work, these rewards remind me of why I am here. I became an environmentalist because of beauty and wonder.

The second reward on this day came from Avalon School. I went to observe Karen, our interpretive naturalist, teaching a lesson on biodiversity to second graders. Imagine, seven-year-olds thinking about biodiversity and understanding the concept. I feel so good about our school programs! After a lead-in discussion about differences and variety in kids and
candy (!), Karen had the youthful researchers examine some of the plants native to Catalina. Their observations were remarkable! Their budding understanding of the importance of diversity in a community was evident. On Friday this class will take a field trip to investigate plant biodiversity in the wild. I hope beauty and wonder will embrace them.

This is a rather atypical week to be writing a diary! My office phones are not working — I figure this gives me about an hour and a half per day. And I have no scheduled meetings — usually five or six hours a week are spent that way. My computer at work isn’t hooked up yet and all my correspondence and reading material are in piles. I’ve been physically engaged in moving, but my mind has had freedom to muse and that, actually, is a luxury.

Tomorrow I will be reconnected to all of the technological tools designed to make me more productive.

Thursday, 11 Nov 1999


The office remodeling saga continues. For the first hour and a half this morning, I functioned primarily as a traffic director. The locksmith, electrician, and flooring installer each came with an assistant (making six workers total) to take care of details. Thankfully, Lenny, the Conservancy’s facilities director, was present also. He is an awesome manager who knows everything about making sure stuff works. When this remodel began last winter, the initial plan was for me to be the project manager. What a fiasco that would have been! In reality all I did was decree that we would use green materials and then review and sign invoices. My admiration for Lenny grows daily.

At about 11:00, I met with Jeff, who had just returned from meeting with Dr. Bill Bushing, our vice president and Internet guru. Bill developed much of the Conservancy’s expansive Internet site before the rest of us had the techno-savvy to understand its potential. Now we are striving to make it a more collaborative effort. Up soon will be images and text about the philosophy and programs of the education department. We are anxious to get into more meaningful content, hence the next Internet assault: The Young Researcher’s Introduction to Santa Catalina Island. Jeff has taken on the challenge.

After lunch, the flurry of activity subsided a bit and I finally unburied my desk enough to dig into preparation for the upcoming Conservancy and Community Dialog.

The Conservancy has an interesting relationship with the local community. Simply stated, our mission is to protect the island’s native biotic communities while also allowing for public access for education, research, and appropriate recreation. As legal owners of most of the island, this mission might seem simple to carry out. However, many residents have a tremendous sense of place and a passionate attachment to the island. Actions taken by the Conservancy are subject to deep on-the-street critique because people care so much.

Last winter, we began to talk to community members in a new way. This was absolutely necessary because several critically important projects require a community of support for success. To date, the most controversial project is feral animal removal. Deemed necessary by scientists who point to decades of research and portentous case histories from other islands, the complete removal of these animals is significant to local residents who think of them as part of the island’s history. The Santa Catalina Island feral animal removal project is under the expert direction of Peter Schuyler, our director of ecological restoration.

The Conservancy and Community Dialog is truly a team effort. A panel of experts will present background information and then anyone in attendance can ask questions, express concerns, give suggestions. My role is to moderate and facilitate the event. Preparation means having a full understanding of the issues, knowing the panelists and their backgrounds, preparing for a large aggressive crowd, and being able to adapt for a small crowd. Attendance could be 300 or 30. We have pressing ecological issues to bring to the community. I hope the school auditorium is packed.

Leaving work after dark, over 100 miles of California coastline is too visibly aglow from Catalina. It’s a motivating reminder that work on behalf of our shared environment requires a certain relentless commitment. On this Veteran’s Day, I think about human veterans, war victims, and the way we live. I say a silent blessing for Earth and all her systems.

Friday, 12 Nov 1999


The air temperature was already 72 degrees by 8 a.m. when I got to the top of the hill where I wait for my car pool. The Southern California Edison field repairman stopped to tell me about a Hutton’s Vireo he spotted in Cottonwood Canyon. It’s an island endemic and rarely seen, or maybe rarely identified. Mike is a respectable birder and I appreciate his sharing. I wonder if he thinks about global warming?

At the office, with the telephone functional, I set about reconnecting with the world outside. First call was to one of our board members. He has invited me to speak at a his yacht club’s monthly luncheon in Los Angeles next week. We decide that slides and a talk about the July wildfire on the island would be interesting.

Catalina is a prime destination for thousands of Southern California boaters, and several hundred are Conservancy members. Most of them never get beyond the beach to explore the terrestrial wonders of the island’s canyons and mountain tops. So, I will talk to them about island biogeography and about the fire. It was the largest fire on Catalina in almost 100 years, a relatively cool surface fire that licked several Ironwood groves.

The Ironwoods are a Catalina endemic subspecies, an ancient species extincted from the mainland sometime after the last ice age. How these trees would respond after fire was unknown. Two months after the fire, we photo documented basal sprouting in the burned groves. Tragically, within two weeks of the documentation, some herbivore or other had chewed everything off to one-quarter inch. Deer, introduced to the island about 50 years ago, are suspected. I will use the fire story to illustrate ecological relationships on the island … and on the mainland.

The point of these talks, I have found, must go beyond the delightful wilds of Catalina. I keep trying to bring it home by asking people to think about what they do in their own neighborhoods, in their businesses, in their lives, to protect the air, the water, and habitat. It’s relatively easy to inspire people to want to protect beautiful places. It is urban environmental education that is critically needed.

Many phone calls later, our CFO managed to get through to me. One of the best aspects of the not-for-profit world is the continual need to do more with limited funds. This keeps us creative, thrifty, inclusive of volunteers, clear in our mission and priorities, and connected to our resources. It seems as if I will need to revisit the 2000 budget submitted last month. Friday is a bad day to start messing with budgets. I put it on the list for Monday.

For me, vocation and avocation, life and work, are the same. When I get to that fuzzy, exhausted-yet-insomniac state of burn out, I get into the kayak or pull on my hiking boots, pack camera or sketch book and journal and then I disappear for a few hours or a few days. Whatever it takes to suck up enough solar energy to recapture dynamic balance.