John Lane: A Modern-Day Explorer
Whether climbing down into dank, dark caves or helping to conserve some of the world’s remote islands, professor and alum John Lane goes places many of us only dream of
By Stephen Metzger
Gunung Ngalau Seribu, the Mountain of 1,000 Caves, lies deep in the old-growth tropical rainforests of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Its biological diversity second only to the South American rainforests, the area is home to tigers, tapirs, gibbons, elephants, and rhinoceroses, as well as orchids, rafflesia (its bright flowers up to 100 centimeters across), carnivorous pitcher plants, and trees that tower 200 feet above the jungle floor. There are also accounts of orang pendek, a legendary bipedal ape, whose existence remains undocumented by science.
If orang pendek were ever to be documented, though, one of the scientists first in line to do so is CSU, Chico professor John Lane, who has led research expeditions not only to Gunung Ngalau Seribu but to remote areas of Papua New Guinea and Borneo. His teams, which have included many CSU, Chico students and faculty, have identified hundreds of previously unknown species, including insects, snakes, and frogs, in caves and jungles where no one else has ever set foot.
“It’s a great feeling knowing you’re the only one who’s ever been there,” says Lane. On the other hand, sometimes he’s not the only who’s been there. In primitive villages, he has been met by painted tribal warriors wielding spears and shields, villagers with whom he has camped, fished, and laughed—and whose threatened lands Lane is working desperately to save.
A good fit
Lane (BS, Physical Science, ’92; MS, Geosciences, ’00) came to Chico in late summer 1988 from Calaveras County, where he’d worked as a ski patrolman at Bear Valley and as a guide at Moaning Cavern State Park, the largest single-chamber public cave in California. “Within a week I was completely sold on Chico,” says Lane. “It was a paradise of outdoor adventure. Caving, climbing, swimming in Upper Park.” That fall, Lane enrolled as a biology major at CSU, Chico, soon changing his major to physical science.
Today, Lane is principal scientist of his own firm, Chico Environmental Science and Planning, and an adjunct professor at CSU, Chico in the College of Natural Sciences, the two positions allowing him to combine his passions for adventure, exploration, and conservation. While Chico Environmental keeps him busy with dozens of local projects, including monitoring water quality in Big Chico Creek and working on reclamation projects on the Feather River, his research sends him to the far corners of the earth, particularly the South Pacific, where his important scientific discoveries have led to environmental awareness and protection of the regions, including the establishment of national park status for a remote and environmentally sensitive series of caves in Borneo.
Lane has also explored caves in Belize and Guatemala and has been the subject of a National Geographic feature story and an Outdoor Life Network television special.
Lane’s recent expeditions have taken him several times to New Britain, an island of Papua New Guinea, whose old-growth forests, like those throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia, are rapidly being depleted by logging companies and replaced by palm-oil plantations. Palm oil, which is used in food products such as crackers, bread, and cereal, as well as in cosmetics and as a bio-fuel, is currently the world’s No. 1 fruit-crop product. Its plantations are astonishingly prolific—a single hectare can yield up to 7,000 liters of oil.
Lane’s teams, which include entomologists, botanists, archaeologists, ichthyologists, and many other scientists, are studying the areas in hopes of making a case that the short-term profits from palm oil are not worth the cost of the permanent loss of biodiversity and natural habitat.
In summer 2009, Lane’s research team to the island’s Lake Hargy Volcanic Caldera included CSU, Chico professors Don Miller (Biological Sciences) and Randy Senock (Geological and Environmental Sciences), as well as CSU, Chico senior Hanna Seidler. The team explored the island’s most eco-sensitive areas, particularly those threatened by the sprawling palm-oil plantations.
The group worked with indigenous inhabitants—who are in fact stakeholders in the plantations and have a consensus form of government—educating them about the potential demise of their homeland and in finding sustainable ways and areas to plant. Additionally, thanks in part to the group’s work and subsequent reports, plantations are now abiding by standards set by the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which dictates that at least 40 percent of a plantation’s oil must be from sustainable plants. The trip also resulted in Rotary International contacting Lane about plans to establish a dental clinic on the island.
Preserving a special place
In 1995, Lane co-led an expedition to the Sarawak region of Borneo, deep into the bowels of the 3,161-foot Gunung Buda (White Mountain), home to some of the deepest, largest caves in the world, including the 40-acre Sarawak Chamber, its ceiling 260 feet above the cave floor. In their eight weeks exploring inside the mountain, Lane’s team discovered 14 new caves and identified some 500 new species, including snakes and insects.
Lane returned to Gunung Buda one-and-a-half years later, co-leading a 24-member expedition with former college roommate Todd Burks (BA, English, ’92). Their goal, according to a September 1998 National Geographic article: to save Gunung Buda from “the chainsaw and jackhammer ... and logging and mining concerns ... which have stripped much of Malaysia’s old-growth forests.” Among the group was reptile, amphibian, and fish expert Ralph Cutter (grandson of the inventor of Cutter mosquito repellent). Cutter not only collected insects inside the caves but also identified for the group which of the many snakes they encountered were poisonous, including the “spitter,” a cobra that spits venom at its victims’ eyes—accurately, from up to five feet away.
By trip’s end, the crew had not only mapped out five miles of new passages inside the mountain and collected hundreds of species of insects, but had enough data to convince the Borneo government to set aside Gunung Buda as a national park.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to these people and places,” says Lane. “You find a special place, you can’t just walk away. And I want to see it through, to help preserve these big, beautiful parts of the world for a long time.”
An early adventurer
The fifth of eight children, Lane spent most of his childhood in Los Gatos. When put to bed at night, his mother, Evelyn, says, “he was able to devise clever ways to get out of his crib and open the door. I would secure the door, come downstairs, and there he’d be, grinning because he’d outsmarted me.”
When Lane was 6, his father, who worked for General Electric, took a two-year assignment in Tokyo. The family went along, stopping briefly in Honolulu, where, in a shopping mall, Lane got separated from the family. “We were frantic,” recalls Evelyn, but “the police found him. He had walked two miles back to the hotel by himself.” His family nickname, “Flash,” was a “result of his habit of disappearing anytime there was work to be done or school to go to,” adds his father, Bill.
After high school Lane moved to Stateline, Nevada, where he worked as a lift operator at Heavenly Valley, then to Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz mountains. Three years later, he moved to Alaska, where he lived in a dirt-floor shack with his Alaskan malamute, Bear, and survived almost entirely on the halibut and salmon he caught.
In 1990, Lane met Anna Kahn (BS, Recreation Administration, ’92; Credential, ’97) in Chico. They were married in 1991, honeymooned in Honduras, and over the next several years moved about the West as Lane took a number of different jobs related to his degree, including at U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, southwest of Salt Lake City. Lane’s work there consisted of testing for chemical agents, including mustard gas and other biochemical and biological warfare agents.
The Lanes returned to Chico in 1996, Anna to pursue a teaching credential, John to apply his Borneo work to a master’s degree. His thesis for his 2000 master’s degree in geosciences/hydrology: “Hydrochemical Characteristics of the Gunung Buda Region and Sarawak, Malaysia.”
Environmental crime fighter
On a warm morning in late August, Lane climbs into his pickup and heads west from Chico on Highway 32, turns into the Pine Creek Unit of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge, unlocks a series of gates, and drives up onto a levee.
He walks up to the edge of the riverbank and looks down at a pile of busted concrete tumbled onto the bank into the water. “We got most of it,” he says, “but there’s still a lot down there.”
He’s talking about debris from two CSU, Chico warehouses, including the old mailroom, demolished in 2006 to make way for the new Wildcat Recreation Center. The subcontractor hired to recycle the 3,200 tons of concrete, asphalt, and steel had another idea: to simply dump it into the river in his backyard, resulting in $100,000 in fines and 11 misdemeanor and felony charges—Lane testified against him in court.
Chico Environmental Science and Planning was hired to clean up the mess, and while they were hampered by legal issues, the rubble was completely hauled away by mid-September.
Lane heads back down the road, turns up through an orchard, and parks again by the riverside. “Look,” he says, pointing down through a tangle of dusty blackberry vines at the rusted tops of two cars, apparently vintage late ’40s, early ’50s, their bodies buried beneath cottonwood roots and sediment. Fairly common around the country in the early through mid-20th century, old cars (and, in some places, railroad cars) were dropped over riverbanks for erosion control. Lane points down through the shadows to an old steering column a foot or so under water.
“Unbelievable. Usually they didn’t even drain the oil out of the crank cases.” He shakes his head. “These are environmental crimes.”
So far, Lane has removed 10 cars and plans to pull five more off the riverbank. “It’s tricky, though,” he says. “Sometimes you can do more damage by taking them out, and as bad as it sounds, it’s better to leave them there.”
A school in the jungle
On Lane’s first trip to Papua New Guinea, in February 2006, he heard stories from villagers about a wrecked American airplane somewhere deep in the jungle, and while several told him they knew where it was, no one could find it. Just before leaving the island, Lane gave them a disposable camera with instructions to take a picture of it if they ever did. Several months later, Lane received an e-mail from the manager of the Hargy palm-oil plantation. He had a photo. The villagers had found the plane.
It was a P-38 Lightning, shot down over Papua New Guinea on June 5, 1943, and piloted by Fred Hargesheimer, who lives today, at 93, in Grass Valley, California. Hargesheimer had ejected, patched his gouged head with a piece of parachute, then hidden for a month from the Japanese, surviving on the two chocolate bars from his knapsack and snails he fished out of streambeds. On the 31st day, he was approached by indigenous peoples in an outrigger canoe who took him to their village, nursed him back to health, and harbored him from the Japanese for seven months before arranging his offshore rescue, by a Japanese-stalked submarine under Australian command.
In 1963, Hargeshiemer returned to Papua New Guinea and to “repay his debt” built Airmen’s Memorial School for local children. He and his wife taught at the school for four years. In July of 2006, Lane escorted Hargesheimer back to Papua New Guinea to the remains of his plane, sprawled in parts on a hillside and in a streambed. To thank Hargesheimer for the school, the villagers hosted a “sing-sing,” a ceremony of traditional music, dance, and tribal ritual that typically lasts for days. In 2009, Hargesheimer named Lane vice president of the Airmen’s Memorial School Foundation.
Lane will return in January 2010 to Papua New Guinea with Todd Burks, who in 2007 was on the first American team to climb 20,400-foot Trango Tower in northern Pakistan. Lane and Burks will buy an aluminum boat, helicopter it in to Lake Hargy (named for Hargesheimer), and do “side-scan sonar” of the lake bed looking for other lost WWII planes, including the San Antonio Rose, the B-17 last seen in January of 1943 and believed to have been shot down by the Japanese over Papua New Guinea. On board was Brigadier General Kenneth Walker, head of the 5th Bomber Command and still listed as missing in action.
Lane also plans to build stilt structures on the lake for future eco-tours; he’s already contacted outfitters interested in guiding people to the lake. “Once we get the word out, it’s like a chain reaction,” Lane says, “leading directly to preservation” as it “helps prevent resource extraction and prevents the growth of palm-oil plantations.”
Lane’s trips aren’t cheap, despite the primitive “lodging”—they camp, or stay with villagers, or sometimes on the palm-oil plantations—and he’s grateful for any funding he gets. One consistent supporter has been Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Ken Grossman, who first provided financial support for Lane’s 1999 expedition to Sumatra.
“We have been a supporter of John Lane and his pioneering work for several years,” says Grossman. “His efforts to help discover and preserve remote habitats in endangered areas by working in cooperation with local people and scientists fits well with our core values to help sustain our planet.”
Lane also gets funding from the International Foundation, as well as from a small handful of Chicoans who have learned about his research, and occasionally accepts sponsorships from companies such as Princeton Tec and Patagonia.
A balancing act
Today John and Anna live in the orchards in west Chico with their two children. Molly is 9, Dylan 6. “It can be quite stressful in our household” as a trip approaches, says Anna, a library media coordinator with Glenn County Office of Education.
“However,” she says, “I wanted our children to have a father who thinks outside the box, embracing life and living it in a meaningful way. I continue to be proud of the work he does and cherish his adventurous spirit. Our children learn so much from him and have inherited his sense of curiosity about the world.” Molly especially, she says, has a strong desire to see the world and join John on his expeditions.
Maybe she’ll discover orang pendek.
Note: John Lane will present a slideshow from his Papua New Guinea expeditions on Feb. 26 at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Big Room (for information call 530-898-4466). Donations to help support Lane’s work may be made to Natural Sciences Research Expeditions at the CSU, Chico University Foundation (www.csuchico.edu/advancement/make_a_gift.php)
About the author
Stephen Metzger teaches writing in the English department at CSU, Chico. He recently co-led a two-person expedition to Bear Hole, deep in Upper Bidwell Park.
The Butterfly Effect
“Papua New Guinea is like a candy store for entomologists,” says Professor Don Miller. “And I had it easy. The locals didn’t eat my specimens.”
Miller, Biological Sciences, accompanied John Lane on his 2007 and 2009 trips to Papua New Guinea, where he studied and collected butterflies. “The locals eat everything,” he says. “Bats, frogs, fish. But not butterflies. What’s the point? There’s no food value.” However, he adds, butterflies are hugely important in identifying an ecosystem’s health and stability.
Among Miller’s duties on his Papua New Guinea expeditions was collecting butterflies both deep in the jungle and on the palm-oil plantations to evaluate the plantations’ environmental impact. It’s a difficult and very sensitive issue, Miller stresses. “How do you reconcile the islanders’ incredible potential wealth” from the palm-oil profits with the fact that you’re advising them to plant elsewhere to conserve the forests?
“Thankfully,” Miller says, “the plantations are becoming more sustainable,” and landowners are beginning to understand that if they’re going to be able to continue profiting from their crop, they need to make sure they don’t destroy the environment in which it grows.
Miller is also interested in the languages of the people of Papua New Guinea—there are some 750 mutually unintelligible languages on the island, roughly the size of California. He’s particularly intrigued that the natives don’t have a developed lexicon for describing his passion, butterflies. “But then why would they?” he says. “Butterflies are of no practical use to them. But you’d better believe they know their birds and trees and mammals.”
But even that might be changing, as the Papua New Guineans seem to enjoy helping him collect specimens. ”They’re natural hunters,” he says. “They want to catch stuff. If they’re not wielding spears or slingshots, they’re running through the jungle with my butterfly nets.”
For the Trees
Professor Randy Senock (Geological and Environmental Sciences) joined Lane on his summer 2009 trip to Papua New Guinea. Having worked extensively in the West African Sahel and remote tropical forests of Hawaii, Senock, as the team’s forest manager and ecologist, studied the conservation potential for the Lake Hargy Volcanic Mountain Caldera. In addition to reporting his findings in a range of publications and to conservation organizations, Senock made recommendations to palm-oil plantations on management practices to best serve the interests of both the companies and the local populations.
The projects are “win-win situations for all stakeholders,” says Senock, “combining community development, science, and adventure.” The benefits, he says, range from contributing positively to the local communities and conserving global biodiversity to contributing to the Chico community’s already strong environmental awareness.
Senock is especially impressed by the support of the wide range of people who work “to achieve not only their individual goals and objectives but to contribute to a larger common goal, which is simply to make a positive difference.”
On the other hand, Senock admits to the work’s taxing nature—physical, psychological, and emotional. “Acquiring, packing and securing the equipment for transport is an art,” he says, “and the lack of or damaged equipment can terminate an expedition. You typically are carrying all the equipment you might need since it’s unlikely to be found locally and is often delicate, heavy, and bulky to move through airport customs.”
Additionally, for teaching faculty, the trips have to be scheduled around the academic calendar, while planning the work—sampling, specimen collecting, etc.—has to be done months in advance.
In the end, though, the benefits trump the hurdles. Every time that CSU, Chico is mentioned, says Senock, in conversations with international government officials, with private corporate management, and with locals encountered on a trip, “the awareness of CSU, Chico is elevated.”