Environmental Engineering Technician Sarah Miller helps Island Conservation scientists complete their research. Photo © Palmyra Program / The Nature Conservancy

Volunteering in Paradise

The volunteer posting read: “Must have a willingness to get your hands dirty.” To some, this might sound like a weekend work day that involves trash removal or weeding invasive species. For Conservancy employees Chad Livingston and Alex Wegmann, it meant something far different.

Chad and Alex lead conservation and research efforts at Palmyra Atoll, a Conservancy preserve and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) National Wildlife Refuge 1,000 miles south of Hawai’i. The Conservancy bought Palmyra in 2000 and then sold more than half of the land area and all of the marine holdings to USFWS to aid the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge. Today, a team of four to six TNC staff operate the Palmyra Atoll Research Station where scientists from leading academic institutions, government agencies and the Conservancy conduct research that will inform conservation strategies for island ecosystems throughout the Pacific and around the world. But the very thing that makes Palmyra such an incredible opportunity—its isolation—presents unique challenges to those trying to live and work on the island while keeping the environmental footprint small.

“Maintaining a station of this complexity requires long, full days and in many cases advanced expertise in engineering,” Chad explained. “We maintain an airstrip and operate a solar electric and a water-wastewater utility, along with several other vital utilities—all 1,000 miles south of civilization.”

A blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus). Photo © Tim Calver for The Nature Conservancy

In addition to those operations, Alex added that “maintaining the preserve itself and working on invasive species control also demand more time and effort from the crew than can be achieved during a 12-hour work day.”

In short, the Palmyra Program needed more hands—and more hands with very specific knowledge. To solve this human resource gap, Chad and Alex required an on-site environmental or civil engineer, as well as renewable energy and conservation experts, so they put a call out for a volunteers who would be willing to dive into Palymra’s maintenance and conservation challenges.

“We needed a skilled volunteer who either by education or work experience had the understanding to help us better operate the station,” Chad explained. “We were looking for someone who could solve the initial problem, and then educate the rest of the crew on how to maintain it in the future.”

Fairy Tern (Sternula nereis). Photo © Tim Calver for The Nature Conservancy

While searching for someone with the requisite experience, Chad and Alex decided to seek out a small cadre of initial volunteers to test their concept. By the time the positions kicked off in June of 2016, they had their environmental engineer volunteer, as well as a renewable energy volunteer.

“When they arrived, they started troubleshooting our systems right away,” Chad said. “They used their expertise and experience to help us identify what we could do better and started making fixes. We’ve seen that, over time, each volunteer that has come in has built on the success of those before.”

The results have been significant. The environmental engineer volunteer created a repair plan for the treatment wetland, which was executed by another volunteer during the winter months. The renewable energy volunteer increased solar energy production by 10-20 percent.

The Palmyra Program also created a conservation science volunteer position to further the Conservancy’s conservation and science agendas and to facilitate research conducted by members of the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium. To date, three conservation science volunteers assisted the Conservancy and partners with various research and conservation projects

But the benefits go both ways, as volunteers get to spend several months in paradise during their appointment and explore possible career options. They also facilitate the program’s conservation objectives and help scientists complete their research projects.

“Each one seems to walk away a changed person,” Chad said. “A lot of our volunteers—I would say about 50 percent—have been in the early stages of their careers, so the experience whets their appetite for this type of work. I would say that each time we have won over a new advocate to the side of conservation. These volunteers will move on to the next phase of their life having smoothed station operations and having helped us conserve this unique environment.”

To learn about future volunteer opportunities with the Conservancy at Palmyra Atoll, or anywhere else we work, visit www.nature.org/careers.

Crow White swings out over the calm waters of the Cooper Island swimming hole at Palmyra Atoll. Photo © Tim Calver for The Nature Conservancy
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  1. What an amazing program all happening in paradise.

  2. Great story that gives us hope and promise for a future where science is put to the use of sustaining the oceans, and our entire planet. Hope to read follow-ups on how the work of the interns has made a positive impact on Palmyra!

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