The adventure continues
John Lane’s work may help preserve Papua New Guinea island
John Lane, Chico’s intrepid adventurer, recently completed his eighth trip to Papua New Guinea, going back to retrieve the specimens of plants, insects and animals collected two years ago with Chico State biology professor Don Miller. The specimens provide a way to measure and track the environmental health and stability of the rainforests of New Britain, an island off Papua New Guinea.
Lane has made it his mission to help protect the pristine environment of the island, which sits just north of Australia. Much of the New Britain’s forestland has been clear-cut by logging companies and replaced by palm-oil plantations. Palm oil is used in a number of products, ranging from cereal and crackers, to cosmetics and biofuel.
For years, Lane had partnered on the expeditions with Chico State’s College of Natural Sciences, where he serves as an adjunct professor. The financial support Lane raised —much of it from Ken Grossman, owner of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.—would go into a fund at the University Foundation and then get dispersed as the expedition grew near. But two years ago, Lane’s relationship with the university soured (see sidebar, page 23).
And though the campus is no longer involved in his overseas adventures, Lane is determined to continue his work on the island, efforts he hopes will lead to long-term conservation of its unique environment.
Lane is not driven by money or the promise of fame. His motivation, it seems, is primal: human curiosity and the thirst for adventure.
But he tells his stories of adventure—like getting attacked by a cassowary, the world’s third-largest flightless bird, or waking to find a leech stuck to his eyeball—with the calm detachment of a guy describing a weekend barbecue.
For example, there is the story of the local villagers asking Lane and his party for $70,000 in exchange for access to land, and then accepting cans of tuna, a tarp and a chair in lieu of the money. He notes that there are more than 850 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea and that the locals refer to white visitors as “dim-dims.”
Lane returned from his latest trip last month.
“We collected butterflies, moths, spiders, frogs, snakes and geckos,” he said. “My sole objective was to get this collection. Otherwise, the whole project is done and all the effort, time and money just would be dissipated.”
He worked with the Papua New Guinea Department of Environment and Conservation to reclaim the samples, not an easy task in a developing country.
“That department does not have working email or working telephones,” he said. “I’m talking to other scientists in Papua New Guinea who are getting their collections or doing work for oil-palm plantations, and I’m asking them, ‘I need to get these collections and I also need to get these permits, can you help me out?’”
He finally got word that the specimens were in good condition, which was a great relief.
“Initially they were going to send them to me six or seven months after the expedition,” he explained. “But they didn’t show up. It turns out the guy who was supposed to send them didn’t have any money to do so. I realized I had to go get them.”
There is a lot of planning, obviously, that goes into such an expedition. Lane said he approaches the Papua New Guinea government six months in advance to submit all the paperwork that explains the mission.
“First, we get permission from the landowners and from the palm-oil plantation and we submit that,” he explained. “They say, ‘OK, you’re good to go,’ and we send our passports to the New Guinea Embassy in Washington, D.C. We are granted permission, and we travel there to get our permits to do our study and make our collections.
“In most countries, you would have the permit prior to going. But with Papua New Guinea, you actually have to be there in person and stand by as they go through the process. The last thing you want to do is take the specimens and not have a proper permit. If you get caught doing that, you can go to jail and you can lose the entire collection.”
The expedition two years ago cost about $25,000 and included 10 members—three students and seven instructors from Chico State—and about 25 villagers all camping in the jungle.
“Generally, there are about three or four villagers helping us out by collecting,” Lane said. “The rest are just hanging out and eating our food. They are there out of curiosity, and it’s fun. They stay awake all night telling stories or playing music, and there is a lot of interaction between us.”
One story connected to Lane’s adventures is particularly fascinating. There is a palm-oil company, a lake and a territory on New Britain all called “Hargy.” That name comes from Fred Hargesheimer, an American pilot shot down during World War II while doing photographic reconnaissance over the island. He survived for 30 days on chocolate bars from his knapsack and snails fished from the streams before being taken in by the villagers who hid him from Japanese soldiers until he was rescued by the crew of an Australian submarine.
Twenty years later, in 1963, Hargesheimer returned to the island and provided money to build the Airmen’s Memorial School for the local children. Hargesheimer wrote a book about his experience called The School That Fell From the Sky. And in 2006, he accompanied Lane to the island after his plane had been found by villagers near Lake Hargy.
Hargesheimer, who lived in Grass Valley and died in 2010, gave the majority of his estate to help maintain and operate the school, which is administered by Hargy Oil Palms, Ltd.
Lane said the popularity of palm oil presents a continuing threat to the region, though Hargy Oil Palms is cooperating with Lane’s effort by allowing him access to its plantations for survey work.
“The oil’s production is infesting tropical lands and is really in the forefront of environmental activism,” he said. “The poster child is the orangutan that lives where oil is throughout the tropics. The palm-oil plantations are killing the orangutans [by reducing their natural habitat].”
Lane said that Conservation International, a nonprofit environmental organization headquartered in Arlington, Va., has developed a monitoring system called “rapid-bio assessment.”
“You collect specific organisms that tell a greater story about the local environment,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing—trying to collect primarily butterflies because they are very large indicators of biodiversity.”
Another veteran of the expeditions is Chico State professor Randy Senock, who’s gone twice, in 2009 and 2010. Senock teaches environmental science and applied ecology. He arrived in Chico in 2004 after teaching at the University of Hawaii, and met Lane through the university.
He said such projects are good for a number of reasons, including expanded opportunities for students to have international experiences. It reflects well on the local community and on philanthropists like Grossman, of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., a financial backer. When Lane returns from an expedition, he presents a slide show and verbal report at the Sierra Nevada Big Room.
Lane met Grossman at the suggestion of a Sierra Nevada employee who’d seen Lane on a National Geographic special wearing a Sierra Nevada baseball cap. Lane’s earliest trips were funded by local environmentalist Kelly Meagher.
In New Britain, Senock surveyed the forest to document the types of trees within. That information, he said, serves as the base study, which is followed by future surveys to get a growth rate over time.
“We do have a significant amount of data,” he said. “We have collected and reported plant species that have never been reported from that location before. And we’ve documented some of the fauna—in particular, salt-water crocodiles found in a freshwater lake. So all of a sudden, we have not only plants, but a variety of animals that inhabit the area as well.”
He did not, however, go on the 2011 expedition that created friction with the university.
“I sent in my place a student named Heidi Rogers,” he said. “She did a project on the trees that we are now working on publishing. She thought it was wonderful and wants to go back. She said she connected well with many of the women over there. Apparently, they all had a pretty good time.”
Senock said many of the villagers actually wanted Chico State involved.
“They had the impression that President Zingg was an actual president in the context of a government president, so they were actually looking forward to being officially connected with Chico State University,” he said.
The last time he was there, Senock said, the landowners asked for compensation to allow access to their land.
“They have a right to ask for compensation, which I believe is reasonable,” he said. “But sometimes the demands are bit unreasonable. And in this case, they said they were going to hold me hostage until President Zingg sent them money. I told them it was highly unlikely that President Zingg was going to send them any money for me, and that they were going to have to feed me three times a day for a long time. Then they realized it was best to let me go.”
Senock noted the environmental-preservation goal as his main interest in taking part in the trips. “It seems like a real good possibility to establish both a national and an internationally recognized conservation site,” he said.