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PORTRAITS

By Nature, He Loves to Collect

September 09, 1988|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer and

Walt Wright sat at a folding table at the Museum of Natural History and Science in Newport Beach, surrounded by fossil shells neatly packed in clear plastic shoe boxes.

The specimens were just part--a small part--of Wright's personal collection. To demonstrate the size of his full collection, Wright pointed to one of dozens of metal lockers on a wall in the museum's collection room.

"That's their collection of Pleistocene (fossils), that one cabinet there," Wright said. "I have probably enough to fill all of those cabinets with just Pleistocene."

Wright is a botanist by trade, but that doesn't get in the way of his passion for studying and collecting fossils. Or insects, minerals, shells, Indian artifacts and other items that cram his Brea home, all picked up in a lifetime of ramblings in the wild. "Wherever I happen to be," Wright explained with a shrug, "if I see something interesting, I pick it up."

In a time when "specialize" is the watchword of most professional biologists, Wright's wide-ranging interest in all aspects of the natural world, and his insistence on studying it firsthand, put him closer in spirit to the 19th-Century tradition of the naturalist.

"I took all the classes I was interested in," Wright explained. "I sort of drove some of my advisers up the wall. They kept saying, 'You've got to specialize,' and that didn't interest me at all."

The gangly, sandy-haired scientist has studied wild burros and horses at China Lake Naval Weapons Center, great blue herons at Point Lomas, fringe-toed sand lizards in the Coachella Valley and flat-tailed horned lizards near El Centro. He has surveyed rare plants in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and collected plant seeds in the Yucatan.

As a volunteer, he has led field trips to such places as the California coast near Mendocino and to giant cave paintings in Mexico's Sierra San Francisco mountains; he has led commercial tours to the Galapagos Islands and through the Amazon Basin.

"He's a unique man because of his level of knowledge," said Sherry Meddick, who often draws on Wright's expertise in her duties as head of the Rural Canyons Residents Assn., a homeowners' group in Silverado Canyon. "He knows an awful lot about a lot of different things.

"He's a kick to go out in the field with. He walks faster than most people drive, and he's mapping the whole time. He'll pick something up and say, 'Hmmm, look at this. This is a shell from the late Cretaceous period.' I'll come home with aluminum cans on one side and fossils on the other."

"I've had a number of people . . . introduce me as a naturalist," Wright said. He considers himself primarily a botanist and ecologist, although he figures that he has enough units for a degree in geology as well. He worked for 16 years as a botanist and agronomist with UC Riverside before striking out on his own 10 years ago as an independent consulting ecologist.

Although he travels widely, Wright does most of his consulting work in Orange County, and few can claim to know the county as well as he. "With all the development that's going on here," Wright said, "at one time or another I've mapped probably a third of the county."

When a local project is planned, Wright is often the one hired to survey the site's natural resources and write a statement for the required environmental impact report. He has worked on the planned Eastern and Foothill transportation corridors and dozens of housing projects in the county's foothill and coastal areas.

Ironically, that means Wright--one of the most outspoken environmental advocates in the county--depends on developers to make a living. Biological consultants are hired by planning companies, which in turn are hired by the developer.

"Some people ask me, 'How can you work for developers?' " Wright said. "Somebody's going to do the work . . . (and) I figure maybe I can make a few comments and change a few ideas, modify a project a little bit. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can't."

The job can be frustrating. "You've got to give the decision-maker the facts," Wright explained. "There are a lot of people, though, that seem to want to screw around with the facts. They would like to see nothing out there, as if it were just a barren landscape, and things aren't like that."

Wright has seen seven-page reports edited to a couple of paragraphs, or buried in a technical appendix. Once, a developer didn't like Wright's findings so he simply hired another consultant to do a new report. "There are a few companies that will take a report as is," Wright said. "I like working for those companies."

When Wright isn't working for developers, he is likely to be working against them. He estimates that he donates about 60% of his time free of charge, primarily as a consultant to environmental and homeowner groups as they fight development projects. "I've had developers call me and ask me to work on their projects and say, 'I'd rather have you working for me than against me,' " Wright said.

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