One small step for Buddy, one great leap for bisonkind

By: Tigran Nahabedian (Photos courtesy of Ojai Valley School)

Buddy “hangs” out with an Ojai Valley middle schooler as he gets ready to launch!

When people think of bison they think of rolling hills and grassy plains, or perhaps even the bison on the National Park Service arrowhead. There is one bison, though, that is WAY different. This bison meets with members of Congress and Cabinet Secretaries, travels through national parks and historical sites, and has even grazed in the White House garden. He is also an extreme athlete whether he’s rock climbing, diving with world famous oceanographers, or pushing new heights.

On May 11, 2017 at 6:53 am PST, Buddy Bison entered his capsule and secured his place in history as the first bison in near space. Mission control for this launch was Ojai Valley School, led by a fantastic team of middle school students under the supervision of Mr. Mike Mahon, assistant head of school.

Launching Buddy Bison into space was a natural fit for Ojai Valley School (OVS) because community service and outdoor and STEM education are key principles of student life at OVS.  Mike Mahon said, “We all love outdoors and we all love science.”

This was the third year anniversary launch of Project X at Ojai Valley School, a program where students launch camera equipped capsules with the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration and missile command at Point Mugu Naval Air Station.

This year broke all records; Buddy hit a record height of over 100,000 feet and had magnificent views of Channel Islands National Park, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Los Padres National Forest, the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and Carrizo Plain National Monument.

The students behind this historic launch were Eugene, Tajmana, Zachary, Tim, Max, Josh, Jenny, Gao, Hayden, Vicky, Adam, and Grace, all students from 6th to 8th grade. The students showed great enthusiasm and were almost without words as the capsule raced into near space. I am pleased to report the mission was a complete success. Buddy Bison had a perfect touchdown and was greeted by the OVS recovery team. The students gave him a hero’s welcome as he returned to campus.

I am grateful I was able to report on this launch and hope to join the Project X team in 2018.

An Island Adventure: 25 years as the Island Ranger on San Miguel Island

By: Tigran Nahabedian (Photo courtesy of Vahagn Nahabedian)

Buddy Bison and I took a trip on an Island Packers boat to San Miguel Island, the most remote island in Channel Islands National Park. As we passed the other four Channel Islands we saw a blue whale, hundreds of common dolphins and sea birds that call the Channel Islands their home. We made the trip to experience life as an island ranger and to interview Ranger Ian Williams who has spent the last 25 years working and living in this wonderful place.

After bringing our gear to the ranger station, Ian gathered us to train us about unexploded ordnance safety.  It is very important for all visitors and staff to stay on the trails and not pick up any objects on the island. This is important because the island used to be a Navy bombing range.

Daily duties of a San Miguel Island ranger start with raising the American flag at the ranger station, logging weather data, water usage and supply, posting a weather report for the visitors, cleaning and resupplying the restrooms, and interacting with the visitors in the campground. Later, there are ranger-guided hikes because visitors must hike with a ranger at all times on San Miguel Island. On the guided hikes, rangers use fox telemetry units to record data on the island fox. After the hikes, there are plenty of maintenance jobs on the island to be completed by the ranger. I cleared invasive plants, recovered old survey ribbon, tracked island fox and even got to document the location of historic artifacts.

Buddy and I were very lucky to visit at the same time that Betsy Lester was on the island. Betsy Lester spent her childhood on the island and you can read about it in her book San Miguel Island: My Childhood Memoir 1930-1942. She shared many great stories of her childhood with us, which is very special to me because it is rare to get the opportunity to meet people who have experienced the islands before they became a national park.

San Miguel Island is famous for its large seal and sea lion colonies that no photo can truly capture. I saw thousands of animals lying on the beaches. The abundant wildlife on and around the islands is what makes the Channel Islands truly unique.

There is no better person to talk about San Miguel Island than Ian Williams who has amazing knowledge!

What is your name?

My name is Ian Williams

What park do you work at and what is your job?

I work at Channel Islands National Park where I am the San Miguel Island Ranger

How long have you been working here?

I have been working here for 25 years

How long do you stay here?

I stay here for a week at a time so my schedule is I work nine days on and five days off with eight of those days here on the island working nine-hour days and then I go work an eight-hour day at headquarters, take five days off, and then come back out and do it all over again.

So, when not on the island, do you work on the mainland?

So, I have my headquarters day and a little bit of time on my transportation days before I go out or after I go back in when I catch up on projects, meet with people, pick up supplies and stuff like that.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

I enjoy the fact that it is an old time generalist ranger position that’s a true backcountry ranger job where I am living someplace that’s really remote, someplace that is really hard to get to. You know, when people come out here they really appreciate the fact that they made it all the way to San Miguel Island. I also enjoy that in my job I get to do a little bit of everything. I do the law enforcement. I get to lead hikes.  I work with researchers.  I do all the maintenance work.  It’s an old time jack of all trades ranger position.

What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

Ah, the hardest part is probably getting here. So, at San Miguel we fly out to get here. We charter an airplane from Channel Islands Aviation, but San Miguel is a pretty windy, foggy place and the weather doesn’t always cooperate with us. You may wait two or three days to get to or from the island. So I find it kind of refreshing in some ways at even the almighty federal government can’t come and go as it pleases. It’s up to nature whether we get here. In that respect, it’s the ultimate wilderness.

Why should a visitor come to San Miguel Island?

Oh, gosh there are lots of reasons it all depends on what their interests are. For someone that’s seeking solitude, it is an incredible place to come and camp. We have got one camper on the island right now who is the only camper in the campground. You know he’s got all of the beach at Cuyler Harbor all to himself, so the kind of solitude you can get here is really remarkable. It’s also an incredible place for wildlife, especially for seals and sea lions; it’s probably the only place where you find six different species of seals and sea lions. On a typical day, you can take a hike to Point Bennett and see three of them out there pupping and breeding during the season.

San Miguel is one of the least visited places in the park. How many visitors come every year?

Well, I figure we usually we get somewhere between one hundred and two hundred people that would stay in the campground (the last couple years obviously we haven’t because the island was closed for a while) and private boats and boaters that come out with Truth Aquatics on multiday trips. If we add it all together I figure we have got about a thousand individuals that might set foot on San Miguel in the course of a year.

What piece of advice would you give the next ranger who comes here and does this job?

Well, I would say keep your eyes on the future and stay in touch with the past. You know, we have had rangers on San Miguel for forty years now and we have got log books that go back all forty years, so read the old log books, get to know the people who came here before you, stay in touch with the traditions and know that to be a good ranger on San Miguel you have got to be a generalist.

Tigran’s Travels with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke

Buddy Bison Student Ambassador with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at Channel Islands National Park. Photo courtesy of Vahagn Nahabedian.

Our Buddy Bison Student Ambassador, Tigran Nahabedian, was recently invited to give a special tour of Channel Islands National Park to the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. In addition to learning about the wildlife and history of the islands, Tigran and Secretary Zinke discussed the importance of our nation’s parks and ways to improve them for the future. Read about Tigran’s account of their meeting below:

“On April 17, 2017 Commander Ryan Zinke came to Channel Islands National Park to learn about the islands, wildlife, history, its use and to talk about how he is going to make the parks a better place. Commander Zinke has the authority and power to help the national parks because he is the Secretary of the Interior. I became interested in Commander Zinke when he was nominated to become Secretary of the Interior and I started to research him, I read his book American Commander and everything I could find about him on the internet. He was the Commander of Seal Team Six, a congressman from Montana and he enjoys hunting and fishing.

I wrote him a letter in January before he was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior and said that I was very excited he was going to solve the deferred maintenance issue in our parks. Deferred maintenance is when something falls into disrepair like a dock or a road and the park managers say we will fix it later because we do not have the money now. It is a huge problem with over 12 billion dollars in needed repairs.

Our national parks are as American as our national flag. Just consider Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Fort McHenry and the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner, the Liberty Bell, and the battlefields that shaped this nation: all of these places are national parks.

Secretary Zinke wrote me a letter and invited me to give him a tour of Channel Islands National Park.

We left from Santa Barbara and went to Prisoner’s Harbor on Santa Cruz Island. We saw dolphins and sea lions on the crossing and I spent the trip across the channel talking to the Secretary, his wife, his staff, rangers and other visitors. I was one of the only people outside of his staff that knew he was going to the islands and it was really special to me because it was National Park Week.

I was able to talk to the Secretary about the recovery of the island fox, the fastest recovery of a mammal under the Endangered Species Act. I gave him a fox photograph to remind him that when we put our minds to solving a problem we can achieve great things with strong partnerships.

We also discussed the deferred maintenance issue, and I showed him pictures from the Channel Islands National Park and Tule Spring Fossil Beds National Monument. Tule Springs is a new National Monument and for years people have dumped trash on the monument lands. The Secretary agreed that this is an easy problem to solve and must be solved.

I left the Islands and returned home feeling that the National Parks are in good hands and confident that the Secretary will help the parks to the best of his ability. His role model is Theodore Roosevelt, and he is fond of quoting the Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone that the parks are for the ‘Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.’ I am looking forward to working with him again in the future. As Secretary Zinke says, ‘We all rise and fall on the same tide.'”

Extra Desert Please

Our Buddy Bison Student Ambassador, Tigran Nahabedian, knows that winter can be an exceptional time to visit national parks! Tigran and his family recently took me on an adventure to several national park units in Arizona. Read about some of Tigran’s trip highlights below:

Buddy Bison loves adventure and we had some great adventures this winter in Arizona, where my grandmother lives. I love Arizona and Arizona is a great place for junior rangers. They even have their own Junior Archeologist booklet that lets you collect rockers. We packed our bags and after many hours of traveling, found ourselves in Organ Pipe Cactus National Park.

We didn’t know much about Organ Pipe Cactus National Park before we got there and we weren’t alone. A ranger told us a story of a superintendent that missed the park and drove into Mexico. We pitched our tent and that night heard javelinas outside the tent. We learned that javelinas are peccaries, not pigs.

The next day we got a junior ranger booklet and went on a very bumpy scenic drive. Along the way, we stopped every time we saw water to look for tracks and we saw some good ones including a mountain lion! The mountain lion had been spotted in the area and this one had BIG paws.  I love all the desert vegetation but at this park all the wildlife was out at night. Buddy wouldn’t have enjoyed eating there—not much grass and lots of thorns.

Buddy and I were recognized from the Subaru Share the Love commercials. Everyone had nice things to say and were very supportive.

Next we went to Coronado National Monument and my mom got to wear a full suit of armor. It took two people to help her put it on and take it off. Can you imagine having to wear that every day?

Another great park near Sierra Vista is Kartchner Caverns State Park. This is a must-visit cave and offers one of my favorite cave tours. You must see Kubla Khan because it is enormous!   

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting the Petrified Forest National Park. There is so much more than I expected. The petrified wood is beautiful and I saw some amazing pieces. What I didn’t expect were all of the Native American cultural sites and I particularly liked the incredible petroglyphs. 

Also, we visited three national monuments that I really enjoyed—Walnut Canyon, Sunset Volcano Crater and Wupatki. These three monuments are really close together and I think they should combine them to make a single national park. The number of cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon was incredible. At Sunset Volcano Crater, I saw an interesting squirrel with long rabbit-like ears called the Abert’s squirrel. Wupatki had many clay-colored pueblos and I was fortunate to meet Astronaut Bo Bobko there.

The last park we visited was the Grand Canyon National Park. This was the first visit for my mom and she loved it. Grand Canyon never disappoints. When you visit there in winter, I would recommend going to El Tovar Lodge to enjoy a nice cup of hot chocolate.

Some people wouldn’t consider camping in the snow but it can be a ton of fun! Just remember to dress in layers, have warm sleeping bags, and bring your fuzzy Buddy Bison.

(Above photo courtesy of Vahagn Nahabedian.)

Ambassador Tigran: Channel Islands’ Hero

Tigran Nahabedian, our first Buddy Bison Student Ambassador, does more than just go on adventures with me! Find out what he did below!

“The Channel Islands National Park (CHIS) and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary are important to me because they changed my life. I first visited and became a junior ranger when I was five years old. For the last two years, I have volunteered with the National Park Service and was honored to represent Let’s Move! Outside and Every Kid in a Park. Because of this, I met the National Park Trust (NPT) and became their first Buddy Bison Student Ambassador. As an ambassador I really wanted to help CHIS because it was where my journey began. I joined the Channel Islands Park Foundation and told NPT how I wanted to do something for “my” park. They said they could help but I never expected how much they would do!