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Life on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

Rob Taylor on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge | Rob Taylor
Rob Taylor on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge | Rob Taylor

By Dr. Rob Taylor, Restoration Ecologist for the National Wildlife Refuge Association

What a damn cliché it is to say “time flies” but doesn’t it?  It’s been twelve months since I arrived at Midway and probably a good time take stock of the situation. And given the fact that my previous post, a sort of mini-travel guide to the atoll which I expected to have broad appeal, seemed to founder a bit on the internet shoals, perhaps it’s time to spice up this blog with revealing personal details, juicy gossip and perhaps a couple of scandalous photos thus making it better suited to modern-day social media. Violence? You’ll have to wait for that as I plan on devoting an entire future post to it.

I came to Midway with a couple of goals in mind. To take break from the responsibilities of the job that I’d had for 13 years and to expand my professional horizons while gaining some new skills. I also realized that as the years were passing by, the list of places I wanted to see was growing faster than the list of places I was visiting and thought spending a chunk of time out here in the far Pacific Ocean might be a good first step towards my goal of “seeing the world”. I also looked at this this assignment as a personal challenge. How would I fare living in such a small and remote place so far from family and friends? Would the isolation — very limited options for entertainment and internet that brings back memories of the old dial-up days – drive me nuts? Or would it compel me to do slow down and focus on low-tech activities that modern-day, hectic life had prevented me from doing?

“So how’s that all working out for you?” you might be wondering. I’ll try to answer this question first from a professional perspective and then from a personal one.

The opportunity to work on island restoration and seabird habitat issues (as opposed to North American temperate grasslands) has been great. Not only is Midway Atoll a very different ecosystem from the grassland I had been working on, but the scale of the work is very different. At Midway we are working to create habitat basically from scratch (an abandoned golf course, building demolition sites, etc.) which is in sharp-contrast to the work I was doing on the Zumwalt Prairie where the focus was on protecting and enhancing habitats that were mostly intact. The intensive restoration work being done at Midway combined with the sites extreme isolation requires that plants need to grown right here in our own native-plant nursery before being planted at restoration areas. This has exposed me to many new facets of restoration ecology, including seed collection, plant propagation methods, and detailed restoration site planning. It’s also given me the chance to conduct a variety of experiments, for example, on best practices for broadcast seeding for different native grass and forb species.

In addition to new skills my experiences here have changed the way I think about ecology and conservation. Living in close proximity to millions of albatross with such an intimate window into their lives has given me insights into nature I could never get from reading books or any other means. Is nature fragile or is it resilient?  This question is at the heart of many debates regarding the place of humans in the natural world. If you believe that nature is finely-tuned sensitive to disruptions, you’re probably of the mind that people need to live as lightly on the planet as possible to avoid doing harm to the plants and animals that we share it with. The counter-argument, that after billions of years of evolution, plants and animals have been through it all, leads many to believe that people are just as much a part of nature as other species and that we shouldn’t make such a fuss. Albatross are some of the toughest animals out there and have survived for millions of years in some of the most challenging environmental conditions the planet can dish out. The annual survival rate of an adult Laysan albatross is over 95% and birds don’t seem to even age in any conventional sense. The oldest known wild bird ever known is a 67 year old Laysan albatross that was born in the middle of a Navy base on Midway and continues to return each fall to breed within a stone’s throw of where she was born. Despite the obvious toughness of these seabirds though they can be taken down in a matter of days by a single mouse.  What this says to me is that nature is be both tough and vulnerable simultaneously and you need to look at each species and each situation anew and not put too much faith in your assumptions or past experiences.

Laysan albatross on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge | Andy Collins, NOAA
Laysan albatross on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge | Andy Collins, NOAA

Related to this are my thoughts about what kind of knowledge is most needed if we – humans – are to figure out how to protect the plants, animals, and ecosystems that make our world such an amazing and hospitable place to live at a time when our numbers continue to grow and our technology gives us virtually super-human powers. Almost 25 year ago I gave up a career as a computer scientist to study of ecology because I wanted to do something that might help reverse what I perceived as downward trend in the health of the natural world. In graduate school I learned how to do research and collaborated on several research projects during the years I worked as an ecologist for the Nature Conservancy.  Scientific research — at least some research – is important but the typical study looks only at how a one or two factors (fire, grazing, etc.) affect one or two other things (the population size of some species, the amount of some nutrient in the soil, etc.) over the course of a few years in some particular place. Results of such studies tend to be very limited and are time and place specific. Research is also typically designed and conducted by “experts” without a lot of direct involvement from the people who are supposed to benefit from the knowledge gained making the results difficult to understand and apply in the real world. I worked on a really cool project with folks from Oregon State University on the effects of cattle grazing on grasslands and unlike many studies we deliberately measured the effects of different levels of grazing across a wide range of species. But the study only looked at grazing in June and only for two years. Despite the huge amount of effort put into that research, the results were complicated and have proven difficult to translate into specific recommendations for land managers.

Another way of acquiring conservation-relevant knowledge is something called adaptive management which might be best described as a cross between formal research and old school trial and error. Adaptive management was developed nearly half a century ago but started to attract a lot of attention in the 1990s as a way to address the uncertainties in managing complex systems and provided a means improve what seemed like a pretty spotty track record of decision making in land and water management, especially by government agencies. If research provides you with facts about how nature works, adaptive management gives you a way of figuring out how to apply that knowledge to real world situations. I feel that what prevents us from being better stewards of the planet these days is not a paucity of facts but our inability to apply that knowledge effectively.

Restoration at Midway usually requires starting from scratch with plants grown in our own native-plant nursery. | Rob Taylor
Restoration at Midway usually requires starting from scratch with plants grown in our own native-plant nursery. | Rob Taylor

Several things are required to actually do adaptive management: setting objectives, monitoring indicators of the species or ecosystem and then using the data to evaluate how well management is working and then deciding whether to continue with the status quo or trying something different. Today, the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as many non-governmental organizations and private land managers have adopted adaptive management as their foundation for decision-making. Well, at least in theory, that is. It turns out that actually doing adaptive management is pretty challenging. Crafting thoughtful objectives for a wildlife refuge, national park, or ranch requires discipline and often falls pretty far down on the list of priorities for a land manager or biologist. Because the effects of management can take a long time to manifest, monitoring needs to be done consistently over the long-term, spanning the tenure of personnel whose responsibility it is to conduct it. Long-term monitoring is much more difficult to fund than research and often must come out of the core operating budgets making them very susceptible in times of budget shortfalls. Finally, adaptive management is not something that a group of ecologists and biologists can do on their own as it takes coordinated effort across all parts of an organization, from top-level managers to the folks with their “boots on the ground”. Successful implementation of adaptive management requires that an organization be capable of executing a well-choreographed “dance” for years if not decades.

At a meeting of the Society of Ecological Restoration some years back Debbie Pickering and colleagues at the Nature Conservancy presented a paper on how adaptive management was being used to manage habitat for the rare Oregon silverspot butterfly at the Cascade Head Preserve on the Oregon coast. In that paper I recall her remarking on how difficult it was to find other examples of anyone actually doing adaptive management, despite its apparent standing as a best management practice. I took that as a challenge and spent the next few years working with my colleagues at the Zumwalt Prairie to reshape and integrate the planning and monitoring we were doing into an information-driven management program. When I left, things certainly weren’t perfect but I think I can honestly say that we were doing adaptive management.

One of the attractions of this job here at Midway was the chance to take what I’d learned about adaptive management on the Zumwalt Prairie and apply it to a new system (ecosystem + human organization).  According to my job description, my primary role here is to “set up a robust habitat restoration monitoring system that can be utilized and maintained by USFWS staff to holistically evaluate the success of restoration efforts, encompassing and integrating complex and large-scale weed control and native plant propagation programs” and I have been working for the past twelve months to do that. While translating my ecological skills and knowledge from grasslands to islands has been, on the whole, fairly successful, getting things done within the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been more of a challenge that I had anticipated.

Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Battle of Midway National Memorial and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. | Ian Shive
Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal. Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, Battle of Midway National Memorial and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. | Ian Shive

Prior to this job, I didn’t know much about the inner workings of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and my work experience with the federal government was limited to a three month stint I did as a biology technician at Carlsbad Caverns National Park one summer while I was still in graduate school.  Although I am not actually employed by the government (my paycheck comes from a non-profit partner organization called the National Wildlife Refuge Association) my position here at Midway gives me with a quasi-insider’s view of the workings of the agency.  I have met some extraordinary and dedicated staff; true professionals that give me confidence that our land and its wildlife are in good hands. The volunteer program here at Midway brings in people of a variety of backgrounds though all sharing a deep love of wildlife and natural places and a willingness to work their asses off in exchange only for food and a place to rest at the end of an exhausting day. It’s also been informative to see how the agency approaches science-based land management and conservation, as opposed to how it was done by my former employer, The Nature Conservancy. But it’s also revealed some real limitations in the ability the organization’s ability to implement adaptive management effectively at a remote location such as Midway. Two significant obstacles are staff turnover and communication challenges. Because of its remote location and the personal sacrifices that are requires, the typical tenure of a Fish and Wildlife employee at Midway is just a couple of years and volunteers and interns rotate through every six months. The communication style here is very different from what I’ve experienced working for other organizations and tends to be more towards the “need to know” end of the spectrum and often I feel like I am out of the loop on things that I should know. Because adaptive management requires people in all facets of an organization to work closely together good communication is critical and I have tried to help with that by developing a set of shared calendars. Midway is also more “complicated” than the average refuge and staff may be asked to set aside their normal duties for a day or a week to respond to an emergency or assist with a special event.

Midway has also given me a chance to reflect on the years I spent working with Nature Conservancy, both in terms of the organization but, more importantly, the work I was doing on the Zumwalt Prairie. Beyond a couple of my former co-workers back in Enterprise, I’ve had surprisingly little contact with my former TNC colleagues. On the academic side of things are pretty quiet too.  I still enjoy conversations with a graduate student from the University of Idaho and exchange occasional email with one or two colleagues from Oregon State. When I left my job with TNC last year it was with the intention to resume my work on the Zumwalt Prairie in some capacity when my assignment on Midway concluded and thought I had made that clear to my colleagues, but I’m not sure that the message got through and I now wonder how easy it will be to re-connect in the future. And though I felt like I had developed a good reputation and was kind of a “go to” guy, now I wonder whether this I was simply the benefactor of the reputation of my employer. These are the kinds of things you think about on an island.

From a personal perspective, my time here on Midway, despite some hardships, has been a positive experience, though not in the way I had expected. Living on an island in the middle of the blue Pacific might sound dreamy to some people and I guess it did for me, but it’s important to keep in mind that, despite the white sand the blue lagoon, this is not a pristine paradise but an abandoned military facility still in the early years of recovery that also happens to be located such that garbage is constantly washing up on its shores (look closely at the white sand and you’ll see fragments of multi-colored plastic). The atoll is small – less than 3 square miles in total – and though a bi-weekly plane connects us with Honolulu, you can’t leave without permission (I’ve been “off-island” twice). For anyone who’s become accustomed to the connectivity that characterizes our modern lives, life at Midway can feel pretty isolated.  I’ve half-jokingly suggested getting t-shirts made that say “Midway Atoll” on the front and “We Can’t Google Shit!” on the back.

The limited options available here on Midway make life more simple for sure and I find myself having much more of a “daily routine” than I ever had previously. I wake up and go to bed at pretty much the same time every day – even weekends. I swim every afternoon after work as long as the ocean conditions abide.  Every day, I go to lunch at the Clipper House at 11:35 am. On Sundays I have made it part of my routine to break with my daily routine and just try to do things different. I could go on more but it would be very boring and I think you get the point. What I will say though is that I find this kind of habitual lifestyle to be pretty satisfying overall. It’s always seemed to me that as people get older they tend to be more set in their ways and I wonder if life on Midway is easier to adapt to now that I’m past the half-century mark.

Living so far from family and my close friends has certainly been one of the biggest challenges of this assignment and I am grateful that my wife, Andie Lueders, has been so supportive of the whole thing. Midway, however, is a much more social place than most people would imagine. The number of people living here (there are about 45 as I write this) is just big enough to make it work and the fact that nearly everyone here is far from home and family and living in what is basically a small, self-contained village makes it feel like a real community. The highly skewed sex ratio (of the 45 about 6 are female and most of those are under the age of 30) and the fact that over half of the residents are from Thailand creates some interesting and odd dynamics; as a guy I’ve often felt utterly ignored by most of the long-term male residents though I am not sure all of the attention given to those of the opposite sex would be preferable. Already having a good friend working here on Midway before I arrived also has made things much easier for me and thank god I haven’t pissed her off too badly yet. Not only has Ann Humphrey been a solid friend but she has also served as my ambassador to the greater Midway community and makes sure I know about all of the social events and other activities.  The Thai men have also been very kind and welcoming and despite some language difficulties I have made some good friends. The Aree house – a residence that is home to several Thai men but also serves, informally, as a “hang out/party/karaoke spot” — plays a tremendous role in maintaining a fun and social atmosphere here. To its residents, who put up with the parties even when sometimes they’d probably rather be sleeping, I extend a most sincere ขอขอบคุณ !   Sports – especially ping pong and pickleball – have also helped me stay busy and make friends.

Friends old and new (Apiwat Juethong and Ann Humphrey) | Rob Taylor
Friends old and new (Apiwat Juethong and Ann Humphrey) | Rob Taylor

Adding significant spice to Midway’s social scene are also the cohorts of Fish and Wildlife volunteers that arrive every six months as well as the visiting workers (which include everything from marine biologists and archeologists to engineers to filmmakers). Although I think the majority of people I have met during my life are interesting to some degree, the typical Midway visitor is of a special breed and I’ve enjoyed many fascinating and informative conversations, some revealing extraordinary personal connections. I may have even made one or two new lifelong friends. This is not to say I don’t miss my good friends from home and even find myself sometimes feeling nostalgic for acquaintances I only ran into occasionally. You might think that in an age where we can communicate so easily by phone or email that I’d keep in better touch with friends, but I get surprisingly few emails and even fewer phone calls. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of the sorry state of my social life or just that most folks today have replaced direct, personal, communication with Facebook and other forms of social media. On the rare occasion when I receive a letter or package in the mail it is a genuine treat – many thanks to those of you who have been so thoughtful!

Every "care package" is photographically documented before being consumed! | Rob Taylor
Every “care package” is photographically documented before being consumed! | Rob Taylor

I wasn’t sure how I would deal with the isolation of being here and the hundreds of “extra hours” of time that I’d have to myself.  I have not filled my idle hours reading the classics or becoming an accomplished painter though I have read a few books and created a few childish-looking drawings. I’ve heard that one of the things missing people’s lives today, when a smartphone can be turned to during moments of boredom, is time to reflect. Here at Midway we certainly don’t have that option and I think I’ve benefited from having more time to think about the things that make me happy and how I want to spend the rest of my professional and personal life. Writing this blog has been an important part of that. I had not actually planned to write a blog prior to coming here but quickly realized how exceptional and strange a place Midway is and felt compelled to share my thoughts and experiences. Like a lot of people, I find writing, especially when I know I’m going to put it out there in public, difficult and the final edits always makes me a little queasy. Although I wish I was mature enough to not care what other people think, I guess I still do. Thank you to those who have taken an interest and shared your reactions, positive or otherwise (my Fish and Wildlife Service colleague Lonnie recently informed me that I’d mistakenly referred to a “short-footed albatross’ in my last post!).  I have just six months still to go on this assignment but dozens of things that I’m interested in writing about.  I hope you keep on reading!

To follow Rob Taylor’s journey, visit his blog at http://18-on-midway.blogspot.com/

Permanent link to this article: http://refugeassociation.org/2017/05/life-on-midway-atoll-national-wildlife-refuge/

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