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WILD WEST CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Snaking into greener pastures

Environmental studies grads are everywhere, slowly but surely ratcheting up the stakes in nature's favor.

November 25, 2003|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Santa Cruz — One AFTERNOON, ABOUT 10 DAYS AGO, I FOUND A WILD snake probing and squeezing my fist like a 30-inch living noose.

It gripped my hand with enough force to mark any management trainee for promotion, and it briefly tied up my pen and notebook as well, thus threatening freedom of the press in the greater Monterey Bay region.

"Thamnophis ... ," said my friend Kim, discoverer of the serpent, as its crimson tongue flickered near my wrist.

"Couchi," said Kim's boyfriend, Kevin, completing the Latin label.

We were mountain biking in Wilder Ranch State Park, just north of Santa Cruz. After a morning of rain, the clouds had parted and at least one frog was heard murmuring in the grass along the Ohlone Bluff Trail. Amid the rocks 50 feet below, sloppy waves exploded. Four of us had been meandering north, drinking it all in, until Kim, leading the pack and celebrating her 41st birthday, spotted a familiar shape in the mud, and a yellow dorsal stripe.

So Kim hollered, veered, skidded and stopped, causing the rest of us to veer, skid and stop behind her, missing the snake by inches. And by the time we'd all dismounted and gathered around, Kim and Kevin, also 41, had begun doing what comes naturally among certain UC alumni and backwoods preachers.

It was a Santa Cruz garter snake, a local variation of the Western aquatic garter snake, harmless and common, likely to bite fish and frogs but not people, due to begin hibernating any day. Like a flute player finding a tricky note, our birthday girl fingered the anal glands to block any stress-induced discharges.

"Yes," she said to the snake as it coiled agreeably. "I'm warm."

We took turns holding it -- even Greg, the fourth in our foursome, who has been herpetologically challenged since a childhood snakebite -- then set it free, well off the trail.

Kim and Kevin carry such animal expertise in part because 33 years ago -- about the time the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act were hatching in Washington and Sacramento -- UC Santa Cruz started offering a bachelor's degree in a newfangled, multidisciplinary specialty called environmental studies.

By the time Santa Cruz did this, about a dozen other colleges already had similar offerings in place. Since then, close to 1,000 campuses have followed nationwide, and their graduates step into a job market broader than anybody guessed in 1970.

In addition to the many government jobs created by new laws -- laws that, by the way, have required conversion of countless trees into tall towers of paperwork -- nonprofits have added thousands more. Since 1982, says John Esson, director of the Environmental Career Center in Hampton, Va., his group's newsletter has jumped from 50 job postings per month to 500.

Kevin and Kim arrived at Santa Cruz as undergrads in 1986 and by 1990, both were in the field with freshly minted bachelor's degrees. Since then, among dozens of projects, Kim has spied on owls' nests in Sequoia National Forest and shielded Swainson's Hawks from the effects of pipeline construction in the Sacramento Valley. Kevin has lobbied on behalf of sea turtles for the National Audubon Society and wrangled tortoises while utility crews laid a gas line near Barstow.

As consultants, they earn about what teachers do, sometimes with benefits, sometimes without, and they go where the gigs are. Kevin guesses he's had 20 residences in the last 15 years; Kim, about eight. At the moment, she lives in Santa Cruz, he lives in San Luis Obispo.

And for a weekend every fall they convene here with a gaggle of old undergrad pals, including my wife and her sister. This means that as the keg dwindles, I get a seat at the table for their long-running colloquium on what it means to carve a career out of birds, bees, reptiles, mammals and the California Environmental Quality Act.

Some days, they worry about colleagues who lose their contrarian impulses and wind up as mere developers' hirelings -- biostitutes is the term in the trade. Other days, they fret about projects like the one Kevin worked on in the Bay Area last year. It must have cost half a million dollars and its only tangible result, as nearly as he could tell, was the rescue of a single frog from a trench. And still other days, they just worry about getting bitten or slimed.

"Chasing bats in the dark is pretty strenuous, actually," Kim said recently, as if I might have imagined otherwise.

Up on campus, meanwhile, the Santa Cruz environmental studies program hums along with about 350 undergrads. When it's time to find jobs, said professor Daniel Press, "they go everywhere."

In fact, despite all that has been heard from Washington in the last year about rollbacks in environmental protections, Press suspects that the sheer volume of all these eco-alumni in government and industry is bound to gradually nudge those institutions in greener directions.

Kevin and Kim, operating closer to the business end of the frogs-and-bats trade, like the idea of that. But they sound less sure.

"It's hard to measure your success," he said.

"Some people get lost in their compromises," she said.

Nearly two weeks later, I'm just beginning to understand why that ride on the bluffs left us all so happy. For me, it was enough to find something wild, learn something new and pedal home unpunctured. For them, it was also the joy of encountering a critter with no professional complications attached.

Isn't it great, as Sigmund Freud should have said, when a snake is just a snake?

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds, read his previous Wild West columns or watch a short video he's narrated, go to www.latimes.com/chrisreynolds.

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