Chico nature lover John Lane’s efforts in Papua New Guinea are paying off
John Lane’s idea of vacation is a little different from most people’s. Instead of sipping cocktails on the beach or taking in the wonders of a national park, he prefers to head to lands unknown—literally—sometimes even creating national parks in the process.
Lane, an adjunct natural-sciences professor at Chico State and an avid caver, has led explorations in Borneo and Sumatra, both in Southeast Asia, and both yielding important scientific finds that led to environmental protection of the regions. His latest adventure has been on New Britain, an island of Papua New Guinea, off the coast of Australia. He’s been there three times since 2006, the latest just earlier this month with his wife, and it looks like he’ll be going back next summer to establish a base for conservation efforts.
The island, which is covered in volcanoes and oil palms—there’s a huge plantation there—has been largely unstudied, but is considered a biodiversity hotspot because of its unique makeup. That’s what originally attracted Lane, who heard about it while in Borneo.
“Nobody lives out there,” Lane said of the miles and miles of pristine, untouched landscape. While the island is home to more than 400,000 people, many of them have never ventured into parts that are constantly shrouded in clouds. “They believe there are spirits there,” he explained.
During his first, “reconnaissance” trip, he set out with two others in search of new species and the remains of a plane shot down during World War II. The pilot of that plane, Fred Hargesheimer, was rescued by the natives and now lives in Nevada City. The region Lane returned to study is by Lake Hargy, named after Hargesheimer, who had landed nearby.
It was a miserable few weeks, Lane said, as the airline had lost his luggage and it rained the entire time he was there. But although they didn’t find the plane, he laid the groundwork for visits to come—with the end goal being to establish environmental protections on New Britain, as logging has become a threat to Papua New Guinea’s natural resources.
Ken Grossman, owner of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., had helped fund the Sumatra trip—and when Lane approached him about New Britain, Grossman said he’d back him again. Fellow Chicoan Kelly Meagher also offered funding.
Of course, Lane didn’t find the plane the first time around. In fact, it was the locals who found it.
“I told them, ‘If you find Fred’s plane, I’ll come back,’ “ he said. And back he went, this time with Hargesheimer in tow, to visit the village that had taken him in and see the plane’s final resting place.
A year later, in August 2007, Lane, traveling partner Ralph Cutter and 10 others returned to the area, called the Hargy caldera, to do research and collect samples. (A caldera is the summit of an extinct volcano.) Butterfly specialist Don Miller, also a professor at Chico State, was among them. Altogether, they discovered a significant number of new species of butterfly, frog, snake, prawn, fish and even a tree kangaroo.
“They weren’t known to live there,” Lane said of the kangaroo. “A local tried to sell us one.”
The team, which also included several local “boys” (men on the island are called boys), a group of kayakers and filmographers from National Geographic, also discovered an active volcano.
The region is unique, Lane said, because of not only the huge amount of volcanoes, the large limestone mastiffs and location relative to the equator, but also because no one lives there—and no one has ever looked there before.
The results of their six-week trip were recorded in a final report, with recommendations on how to preserve the land. Since then, the government of Papua New Guinea, along with the Oil Palm Foundation (which runs the plantation on New Britain) and the United Nations Nature Conservancy have agreed to work toward conservation of the Hargy caldera region.
Lane and his wife, a librarian with the Glenn County Office of Education, were invited to return for two weeks in December to attend a workshop about what to do next. At the top of the list: establishing a research station in the caldera for long-term research, as well as eco-tourism.
“All this stemmed from Fred getting shot down there in 1943,” Lane said, shaking his head.
This wasn’t the first time Lane ventured into unknown regions and ended up protecting their resources. He and Cutter traveled to Borneo in 1996, mostly to explore the caves there, and their discovery of new species led to the region being named a national park. The expedition was even catalogued in National Geographic magazine.
Shortly after, the pair explored Sumatra and were able to secure certain spots as conservation areas, particularly to protect the endangered tigers there.
These trips Lane leads aren’t all fun and games, though. “They’re all hard in their own ways,” he said. For example, in Hargy caldera they got more than a meter of rain—during the dry season. And the food was some of the worst he’s ever tasted.
“We called it fat camp because one guy lost 50 pounds in six weeks,” Lane joked. “I’m amazed that I keep going back. But I feel like I’m continuing Fred’s legacy.”
Hargesheimer, who published the book The School That Fell From the Sky in 2002, returned to the village that had saved him 15 years after leaving and built a school there, as a token of his gratitude. That school is still standing.
“It’s a great feeling knowing you’re the only one who’s ever been there,” Lane said of his adventures. “And it’s refreshing to know that there are a lot of those places left in the world—you just have to spend a little more time to find them.”
“People say it’s like walking on the moon—but people have done that. So, it’s not like walking on the moon.”