The Joys and Sorrows of Working Away From Home
I have always had an affinity for travel and exploration of the outdoors. It began when I was young with family camping trips and a fascination with the photos from my mom's childhood camping trips across the West. I branched out more when I got to college, initially taking spring break and summer camping and birding trips in places like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Great Smokey Mountains, and southern Florida. I spent two summers studying at Estación Biologica La Suerte in Costa Rica. I spent two years, after college, running the Landbird Monitoring Programme at Lamanai, Belize. It was here that I met H. Lee Jones, a Ph.D. biologist who was well-known as an established biological consultant in California while living significant portions of the year in Belize working on the Birds of Belize guide that would be published by UT Press in 2003.
I left Belize in 2000, subsequently returning to lead birding tours and take my own trips over the following years. In 2003, Dr. Jones suggested I come to California to work as a consultant for the summer prior to a planned graduate program. I rose through the ranks of the consulting firm quickly, met the woman who would become my wife quickly, and I never left. Over the years, my most rewarding, exciting, and memorable consulting projects were those outside of the typical "bubble" that consultants usually work in within a certain distance of their home base, such as large projects in New Mexico and southern Nevada.
It was with that in mind that I had a discussion with my wife in November 2016 about the goals of the newest chapter of my life working as an independent consultant. As someone who is married, with a nice home next to open space in the hills of Los Angeles, as well as beloved pets, I am sometimes torn between my love for travel and exploration and not wanting to be away from home for too long. In order to keep my work continually interesting, we agreed that I would pursue a handful of out-of-state contracts each year, preferably being away from home no more than two weeks (or maybe three) at a time. This is, indeed, what I have done since; with the freedom that I have as an independent to work long hours, my willingness to camp remotely, and my extensive background working on complex projects in a wide array of environments allowing me to selectively and competitively bid on work where most of my competition are companies that have a decided cost disadvantage. I can work long hours without concern for overtime rules. I can put in long field hours because of my training as an endurance athlete. I can hire subcontractors who agree to do the same. I can design and implement the field study, handle my own geospatial data and mapping, and write my own reports. I only pursue those projects that interest me; the ones that might seem as much fun as work.
It was in spring of 2017 that I won my first out of state contract. The work was with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) to produce a wildlife assessment for Smith Rock State Park. The final report, which was 104 pages and included many maps of resource data, prompted the OPRD representative to write that the report "exceeded our expectations and will integrate seamlessly into the park master plan". I was awarded a new and much larger project in 2018 to produce a much larger assessment for the Harris Beach Management Unit, a suite of parks and waysides along the southern Oregon Coast. The fieldwork was completed in May 2018, with the report due later this year or early next year, depending on some dependent data layers from OPRD.
I honestly hope to retain this work with OPRD for many years into the future. I have no doubt of my ability to produce work products they will be happy with, but as with any government agency, the existence of the work at all depends on agency priorities and funding. Having traveled now in quite a few areas of Oregon, both for work and for recreation, it is one of my favorite states to explore and I could easily see myself living there.
In Summer of 2017, I won a contract with the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to conduct transect surveys for Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) on 2,068 acres in Humboldt County, Nevada. The work was completed in October 2017. The project area was exceedingly remote, and we would go days without seeing another person. Weather conditions ranged from hot to cold with sporadic thunderstorms and snow squalls. I hired two subcontractors for the work, with the team camping for several nights at a time before returning to Winnemucca to resupply.
The BLM's project manager was happy with the result, noting that report "looks fantastic!" Implementing such a large and remote field project as an independent was probably one of the greatest challenges I've had in my career, but the completion of it was one of the most rewarding.
In June 2018, as an on-call senior biologist for Northgate Environmental Management in San Francisco, I completed fieldwork and writing for a biological assessment for a Section 7 consultation under the Federal Endangered Species Act for a water infrastructure project in Trinity County. In order to work within the available budget, I camped on US Forest Service lands near the project area.
I will not extensively summarize my work from 2018 until the end of the year. You can view the summary of my 2017 projects, including those noted above, here. It is difficult to say what opportunities will arise for me in the future (there is a fairly expansive west-wide RFP coming out soon that I am keeping an eye on), but I look forward to going after the right ones when they appear.