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Island Life

Cowboy-Turned-Biologist Spends 36 Years Offshore on Santa Cruz


SANTA CRUZ ISLAND — They say that no man is an island, but Lyndal Lee Laughrin comes close.

He lives and works on a 23-mile-long island off the Ventura County coast. To most people, Santa Cruz Island is a mist-shrouded mystery in the ocean, but to Laughrin, it is his home and his passion. He has been offshore for 36 years--longer than anyone else living there--and has no plans to leave.

Fifty-seven years is too young to ponder his end, but were he to be buried one day with the cattle hands and ranchers who once ran great herds across the island and now lie corralled in a small cemetery beside a red-brick chapel, that would suit Laughrin just fine.

Some folks visit a place and think they know it because they snapped a photo, ate a meal, spent the night. But Laughrin, a cowboy-turned-biologist has as intimate a relationship with rugged Santa Cruz as one could have, short of becoming a scrub jay or island fox.

His experienced eyes see nature's ways, how native buckwheat reclaimed hills mowed by more than a century of grazing, the way wild pigs spread fennel across canyons, and the ebb and flow of creeks. This land of the sea has no greater admirer, no more devoted steward and no more eager student.

Laughrin is director of the UC Santa Cruz Island Reserve, which is part sanctuary, part laboratory. It is one of 26 such reserves in California established so researchers can study the environment without fear that bulldozers will wipe out their work.

He never planned to be on the island this long, but then again he cannot recall a time that he wanted off for good. Scientists often don't have much truck with abstractions like providence, but looking back at his life, Laughrin may well have been destined to be here.

"It fits so well, I haven't left yet," Laughrin said.

The commute to Laughrin's office is like no other, a trick of planning that would give military commanders fits. Indeed, for years the Navy was the only reliable transportation to Santa Cruz, but nowadays aircraft and charter boats provide transport, sometimes.

On a light plane buzzing over the Santa Barbara Channel, the flight is low enough to spot dolphins and sea lions dunking in the waves below, before the aircraft shakes off wind gusts and zeros in on a steep airstrip that is a mere patch in the great valley on the island's east end. A quiet prayer, a generous bounce and the propellers throttle down upon arrival at Laughrin's island.

Laughrin arrives in his company car, a four-wheel Ford pickup with a shattered windshield and faded red paint.

"You guys ready?" he inquires, and begins loading gear. That's his style--direct, few words, straight to the task. His mannerisms and appearance are like nature itself: little fluff, maximum efficiency.

It is dry this time of year, and the single-lane road to Laughrin's office is dusty. The only traffic on the 62,000-acre island is an occasional jeep ferrying work crews to one project or another. He drives beneath towering eucalyptus groves planted long ago when Ed Stanton, and later his son, Carey, ran the Santa Cruz Island Company. The Nature Conservancy acquired 90% of the island as a nature preserve in 1988. The truck rumbles past the old sheep-shearing shed and the milking barn, that, like the chapel, are remnants of the late 19th century when cowboys lived here and raised sheep and cattle.

"When they started getting a lot of sheepherders out here, I guess they needed to build a church to keep them in line," Laughrin remarks, concentrating on the dirt road.

Laughrin wears a thin beard, neatly trimmed, that is more silver than the hair beneath his khaki bush hat. His frame is lean, built for walking, and his neck is dark as coffee and creviced from long days in the sun. When he talks, he gazes into the landscape, blue eyes fixed like apertures on distant objects.

About 1,000 researchers from all over the world come here annually, lured to the island much as Charles Darwin was drawn to the Galapagos, to marvel at the simplified but peculiarly diverse ecology. At Santa Cruz, isolation from the mainland has at one time or another produced runt-size mammoths, foxes no bigger than cats, and a forest of bishop pines, bonsai-like conifers common to California's North Coast but left behind here after glaciers retreated.

Scientists come to study the living and the nonliving, including ants, Indian middens, golden eagles, marine mammals, rocks, nine endemic plants, most anything they can get their hands on.

The hub for all this inquiry is Laughrin's study center in the great valley, which was formed by an earthquake fault that split the island like an ax blow. It's a modest place, with bunkhouses and a kitchen and showers. There are fossils in the lobby, photos of jeeps stuck in ravines on the bulletin board and a copy of "Wings: Essays on Invertebrate Conservation" in the men's room.

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