The falling out

Chico State distances itself from John Lane’s adventures

Chico State biology professor Randy Senock says he’d like to see Chico State back on board with the expeditions to Papua New Guinea.

Chico State biology professor Randy Senock says he’d like to see Chico State back on board with the expeditions to Papua New Guinea.

PHOTO courtesy of john lane

Chico State distances itself from John Lane’s adventures

Up until two years ago, Chico State had partnered with John Lane and his exploratory expeditions to Papua New Guinea. Students and professors would go along for the ride and help conduct studies and document species to measure the rainforests’ relative health and environmental direction. But in 2011, all of that changed.

“Two days before we were to leave, the [Chico State] Risk Management office called me in for a meeting,” Lane recalled. “They told me it was no big deal, that we just needed these forms signed. The next evening they said, ‘Oh, the trip’s been canceled.’”

Two students who had paid for their flights but had not signed off on the required liability paperwork or gone through the orientation process were on their way to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. Since it was summer, Lane said, the students figured they were going on their own, but school officials did not agree.

“I went into [Chico State President Paul Zingg’s] office on the day I was leaving and basically told him those students were going to arrive in Port Moresby and I was going to be there to get them,” Lane said. “He told me that it was a high-risk country, but I think that there was some new rule process with international travel.

“Prior to that, all I had to do was get clearance from the dean of [the] College of Natural Sciences, who would just sign off. No big deal. This time, all of a sudden, the president has to sign off on it, and it becomes this big deal and Risk Management is involved.”

Chico State Risk Manager Mike Thorpe confirmed a new process was indeed underway.

“At the time, we were forming a new study-abroad advisory committee,” Thorpe said. “And this was very last-minute when we were made aware that two students were already on their way. We were trying to do what we could to make the program work.”

Thorpe said his office didn’t find out about the pending trip until two weeks before it was slated to launch.

A memorandum from the California State University system says that travel requests to high-hazard countries “must be reported as soon as practical, but no less than 30 days prior to the planned departure date.”

Lane said he initially went to get the students, who had landed in Port Moresby, and bring them home. But he decided along the way that he could not afford to purchase the new flight tickets necessary to alter the trip and come home early. So the expedition went forward as planned, but without the approval of the university.

On the lead-up to the trip in 2011, Lane said, the College of Natural Sciences was working with one of the palm-oil plantations and landowners on the island to develop a memo of understanding and set up a long-term relationship to continue studies monitoring the environment.

Chico State student Heidi Rogers and a local villager measure a tree trunk as part of a forest survey conducted in 2011.

PHOTO courtesy of john lane

“But what happened was pretty much the nail in the coffin on that project,” he said.

When asked about the matter, Zingg said the issue goes beyond Chico State.

“What I can tell you is that the California State University (not just Chico State) has strict guidelines prohibiting student travel to areas on the [U.S.] State Department’s travel watch and warning list,” Zingg wrote via email. “Papua New Guinea is on that list. I cannot approve student travel to such areas. John Lane knows that.”

However, neither the list issued by the State Department nor the one used by the CSU for the 2012-2013 school year currently includes Papua New Guinea.

Thorpe, the Chico State risk manager, said he is not sure, but Papua New Guinea may have been on the list two years ago. His office, he said, does not keep records of the list and is much more interested in what is current. He said the alarm in this case sounded when Risk Management learned of the two students who did not go through proper orientation procedures or sign up for foreign travel insurance.

Rebecca Skidmore, spokeswoman for the CSU Risk Management System, also doesn’t know if the country was on the 2011 list. “I don’t have any way of finding out. Our focus is what’s on the current list.”

The U.S State Department’s website, updated at the beginning of this year, includes the following concerning threats to safety and security in Papua New Guinea: “Tensions between communal or clan groups may lead to localized conflicts involving bush knives, machetes or firearms. Always consult with your tour operator, the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby, or with Papuan authorities for current information on areas where you intend to travel.”

A spokeswoman for the State Department referred to a link on the department’s website that offers messages to U.S. citizens, but the only one related to Papua New Guinea—from October 2011—warned travelers that Airlines PNG had suffered two airline crashes in the previous two years resulting in 41 deaths.

Lane says he will go forward with or without the university’s support, because his is a continuing body of work. He plans to return in 2015.

“As these collections get larger and larger, we discover connections about this unique environment,” he said. “The overriding purpose is for conservation.”

For his part, Chico State professor Randy Senock, who has taken part in two of the trips, hopes the university rejoins the effort. In 2011, he helped student Heidi Rogers go through the preparations and paperwork so she could go in his place.

“Her paperwork was signed off and approved. But there were other students involved who chose to go along more or less on a private venture. The students didn’t realize they were still considered [to be] representing the university. There was a lot of miscommunication, and even non-communication, initially.

“Projects like this are complicated, but can be worked through as long as the administration is willing to support them,” continued Senock. “That doesn’t mean that it’s always smooth sailing, especially when you travel to other countries. But for the most part, in all the projects that have been run overseas internationally by American universities, very few students have been injured or suffered fatalities.

“We have set up all the necessary precautions and safeguards. At this point, I’m not exactly sure why the project is not being encouraged to develop any further for both faculty and students.”