Buddy Bison Student Ambassador Participates in The Parks and Tech Challenge

I love volunteering and trying to find ways I can help the National Park Service (NPS). One of the biggest problems facing the national parks is deferred maintenance. Deferred maintenance is like when all the floorboards in your house need to be fixed but you only have enough money to do one room. And while you try to earn more money for the floors, other things start breaking down like your bathrooms or your stove, and the whole time you are trying not to fall into the basement! In the NPS, is it is such a big problem that over 11.3 billion dollars worth of repairs have been delayed, from small things like their bathrooms to even the Statue of Liberty, which has over 160 million dollars in needed repairs.  Because of this problem park rangers, visitors, and other park enthusiasts have come together to find solutions to this problem.

Buddy Bison and I joined the Parks and Tech Challenge at Golden Gate National Recreation Area with my family for two days this February. It was really inspiring to see so many people working to find ways to help our parks. The Pew Charitable Trusts, and Civic Makers sponsored the event I was so happy to see how incredibly dedicated they are to this cause.

I chose to participate in the “Improving the Visitor Experience” category and started a group that became “One Park” (pictured right). My parents started another group, “Team VIP.” My group was designing an application for smartphones that would be a one-stop shop for everything parks related. This would include: digital junior ranger programs, maps, park information, campground reservations, plant and animal identification, and ways to report park problems to park staff. This system would save the parks money by reducing printing costs and park waste, and create better visitor experiences without increasing park staff. I had a great group and made many new friends.

I was also very happy to see two people I really admire come into the room when it was time for judging, Grace Lee with the National Park Trust and former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis (pictured above). We were all very excited to see each other. It was an honor to be selected by my group to be one of the presenters. We did not win the challenge, but I think we will all be winners because we came up with many great ideas for Pew Charitable Trusts to take to the Department of the Interior.

A Washington, D.C. Adventure with Buddy Bison

Buddy Bison and I recently traveled to Washington, D.C. for an incredible adventure. We started by meeting with the National Park Trust and  Junior Ranger Bryan and his family. Our next stop was to an amazing park that all visitors to Washington, D.C. should visit, Rock Creek Park. While we were there, Bryan and I sat down for a really interesting interview with Superintendent Julia Washburn:

1. What is your name?

​Julia Washburn

2. What is your job in the NPS?

​Rock Creek Park Superintendent

3. Rock Creek Park was the third national park and was created in 1890, what makes Rock Creek Park unique?

​Rock Creek Park manages 3,000 acres of green space in Washington, D.C. including a 1,700 acre Deciduous Forest ​in the heart of the city.  I like to think of the park as a microcosm of the National Park Service, we have wonderful natural resources as well as numerous cultural sites including Fort Stevens, a Civil War Battlefield.

4. What is your favorite animal in the park?

I love the foxes, but I think I have to pick the coyotes as my favorite because I think it is so unique to have coyotes in the middle of a city!​

5. We have heard a lot about deferred maintenance, what challenges does Rock Creek Park face?

Rock Creek Park has $52 million dollars of deferred maintenance needs.  Really the infrastructure of the Park Service is in great need of repair and rehabilitation.  We are very grateful to have the money now to reconstruct Beach Drive, the most scenic road in the park and an important commuter route for D.C.​

6. You were the Associate Director of Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers at the National Park Service, what can you tell us about the future of the Junior Ranger Program?

I think the Junior Ranger program is strong and will continue long into the future.  It is a wonderful program for kids and families and very important to the public.  I was a Junior Ranger here at Rock Creek Park when I was 7 years old.​

7. What were some of your favorite ranger stations before you became Superintendent?

Rock Creek Park is my favorite park and always has been, but I really love Crater Lake as well.  I think it is such a beautiful and magical place.  I also love the red rocks of Arches and Canyonlands out in Utah.​

8. How many years does it take to become a Superintendent?

That all depends.  It took me 27 years, but I know some superintendents that only took about 10 years to rise to the park manager level.  It just depends on what path your career takes you.​

9. What do you hope to accomplish as Superintendent of RCP?

​ I have four priorities as Superintendent: 1.  Stewardship–this park has thrived for 128 years and I want it to be healthy and strong on my watch; 2. Access–all people deserve easy access to this park and should feel welcome here, I want to make sure we have great transportation options to the park, outreach programs, and that we create a welcoming environment here for everyone; 3.  Community Engagement–Rock Creek Park is part of the greater Washington, D.C. community and I want to make sure we are good neighbors, are responsive to the public, and actively engaged in the community; 4. Employee Engagement–Everyone who works here deserves to feel great at work and be happy to be a civil servant, I want to make sure that management at the park is responsive to employees and that we create a positive work environment for all.

10. In your opinion, what is the ideal National Park Service? What things could the NPS do to improve?

The easy answer is we need more money to do our job properly. We are not funded as well as we should be in order to take care of these places the way they need to be taken care of. I think the Park Service could do a lot more to support its employees and create a better environment for our employees. For example, if you want to be a superintendent, it should be easy for you to know how to go through the process to become one. People should feel like the park service really supports them and that we are creating a healthy environment for people to work in, a better culture for the organization.

11. What can visitors do help the national parks?

Visitors can do a lot. First of all, people impact the parks and there are things you can do back home to care for the environment. One of the most important things you can do is live a sustainable life and to not impact the environment as much as we have been as a population. By just living your life in a way that you’re recycling, that you’re planting native gardens, pollinator gardens that you’re making sure that you’re taking care of your storm water that runs off your roof and your driveway. How is that storm water managed? All of those things that help you live a sustainable life. That’s a really important thing you can do to help your national parks. You can also volunteer. We really need volunteers, as you know we have a lot of volunteers in the park service. We can’t run the park service without volunteers. You can give money to a friends organization or the National Park Trust or the National Park Foundation. You can be part of an organization that advocates on behalf of the park service. You can join a friends group and come and do volunteer work with the friends group or help out in the community to promote the parks. There are many ways private citizens can help the Park Service.

 

We had several other really great national park visits including: Ford’s Theatre NHS, Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality NM, the Washington Monument for the Cherry Blossom Festival, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, Frederick

Douglas NHS and then I volunteered at the Ellipse in President’s Park with the National Park Trust and Buddy Bison for the White House Easter Egg Roll.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to volunteer with the National Park Trust and fellow Buddy Bison Ambassador Bry at the White House Easter Egg Roll. It was so great to see the kids’ reactions to Buddy Bison while they were standing in line and it was very nice of Superintendent John Stanwich to take us on to the South Lawn. I hope that because of National Park Trust’s efforts, more kids will be able to experience our national parks.

As I stood in front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, I reflected on my own dream, that one day every child will visit our national parks.

Volunteer Season in Full Bloom

Our National Parks help protect America’s native plants and animals. Buddy Bison Student Ambassador Tigran Nahabedian volunteers at Channel Islands National Park in Ventura, CA, and recently helped restore Anacapa Island with classmates from the Ojai Valley School (Ojai, CA). Tigran and his fellow students helped remove the invasive red-flowered iceplant from the Island, and replanted affected areas with native plant species. Read about Tigran’s restoration project below: 

It is the mission of the National Park Service around the country to preserve, protect, and maintain our national treasures. Our national parks are as American as our flag, just consider Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Fort McHenry and the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner, the Liberty Bell, Mt. Denali, and the beautiful Yosemite Valley. This makes restoring native plants and wildlife a high priority and everyone’s responsibility, especially this generation’s.

Reintroducing native plants helps native animals find food and shelter, which will in turn increase the variety and number of animals you will see.  That is why Buddy Bison and I decided to go to Channel Islands National Park, to help their restoration efforts there.

Buddy Bison with red-flowered iceplant.

Buddy Bison and I joined with Ojai Valley School (OVS) as part of NEEF’s Hands on the Land program on an Island Packers boat across the Santa Barbara Channel, heading straight for

Anacapa Island. Our mission was to remove invasive iceplant, to make room for native plants. Anacapa Island is an essential nesting ground for seabirds.  Before Channel Islands National Park was established, Anacapa Island was owned by the Coast Guard, who built a lighthouse to make sure passing ships didn’t crash into the island. They also planted iceplant, a plant from South Africa, to help with landscaping and erosion control. Sadly, it did the opposite and spread around the island. It also absorbed a high amount of water needed by native plants; and it made the surrounding soil saltier, making it even harder for native plants to grow. Those are some of the reasons why Buddy Bison and I wanted to help the Park remove iceplant from Anacapa.

As soon as we reached the island, a few park volunteers, OVS students, Buddy Bison, and I were led to the area where we would be working. It was filled with many large patches of iceplant. After removing the patches of iceplant, we prepared for the next step, reintroducing the native plants.

Removing iceplant is a good thing for the ecosystem, but it leaves nothing to hold the soil down, and that is why Channel Islands National Park installed a greenhouse on the island specifically for the purpose of growing native plants. This means that the native plant seedlings will have a safe place to grow that is right near the areas where work needs to be done.

A few months later, on another OVS Hands on the Land trip, Buddy Bison and I hiked up to the greenhouse and walked inside. The entire room was filled with plant seedlings waiting to be planted into the ground. We all grabbed the potted seedlings and walked in the rain to the plot where we were working. We then took the seedlings out of the pots and placed them each in their own spots. After that, it was time to go on the boat—Buddy Bison and I slowly watched the seedlings we planted get smaller and smaller in the distance. Even though we got wet and muddy, we had a great time. 

Tigran (on left), Buddy Bison, and a friend on Anacapa Island

The following year on a Channel Islands Park Foundation trip, my good friend Linda Mohammad from National Park Geek, some other volunteers, California Institute of Environmental Studies (CIES) staff, Buddy Bison, and I helped plant more seedlings. Many of the plants in the plot were not seedlings anymore; the whole area had grown and was looking quite healthy.

On another OVS trip, we got to work on a different island, Santa Cruz Island. This time, we were removing invasive cheese weed, which was introduced during the island’s ranching history. My group did this over a period of two days on a multi-day camping trip.

There are many challenges the national parks are facing, including: differed maintenance, an insufficient amount of staff, and the difficulty of protecting native species. Buddy Bison and I are very optimistic about the future. There isn’t a challenge in our national parks that we can’t fix.  We need your help. If you love the parks, I encourage you to find a little time to volunteer and get involved: https://www.nps.gov/getinvolved/volunteer.htm

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.