Kin to the Earth: Gary Falxa

Gayle Garman and Dave Imper

Gary Falxa. Submitted photo.

Gary Falxa, a dedicated NEC board member, reluctantly retired recently after five years representing the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. His contribution adds to what is essentially a lifetime of effort on behalf of environmental education and species conservation. Gary has played an important role in conserving a wide range of endangered species in California, including high profile species such as the California condor and marbled murrelet, as well as the Oregon silverspot butterfly and the Lassics lupine, to name just a a few.

(Gayle Garman):  I met Gary when we were both PhD students at UC-Davis. In November of 1986 this vintage Silver Streak trailer appeared in the backyard of the house where I rented a room.  My housemates introduced me to the occupant—a Zoology graduate student who was studying ecology of Black Oystercatchers along the Sonoma County coast.  It has been 33 years and we still share interests in ecology and natural history, environmental protection, hiking, canoeing, music, and travel.

Gary Falxa in a typical pose with binoculars, field notes, and butterfly net. Courtesy of Gary Falxa.
Gary Falxa in a typical pose with binoculars, field notes, and butterfly net. Courtesy of Gary Falxa.

Over time I found that Gary is most at home in the outdoors either in the U.S., Mexico, or any other place where people still live with a solid connection to nature. Like others on the crusade to secure protection for wild areas and wild species, Gary draws inspiration and energy for this work by witnessing first-hand what is at stake. Domestic road trips and travel to other countries to experience the natural beauty and documenting animal and plant communities observed in his field journals will always be a key component to what makes Gary tick.

Gary began his natural history education early with family camping trips up the east side of the Sierras, back when the road over the high Tioga Pass was a single gravel lane.  Gary set about learning all he could about a wide range of animals and habitats. His formal studies began with undergraduate work in Animal Ecology at Evergreen State College in Washington.  After graduation, Gary held a series of jobs implementing studies of birds and mammals in Mexico, Texas, the Florida Everglades, and forests of Malaysia and Guatemala.  He also spent two years studying nesting success of the remaining wild California condors just prior to the birds being brought into captivity.

During his graduate studies at UC-Davis, Gary’s travel experience landed him a job that provided the opportunity to hone his communication skills. The part-time job to support his graduate studies ended up being a six-year stint of leading Natural History tours in the U.S. and in Latin America. From this work Gary developed a knack for sharing ecology and conservation information to non-biologists, a vital tool for naturalists advocating
for the environment.

Gary began his career with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento. His duties included assessment of the effects of federal flood control projects such as levees and impacts to riparian areas. Gary maintained a toehold in fieldwork by conducting yellow-billed cuckoo surveys in Sacramento River riparian habitat. Upon transferring to the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Arcata, Gary worked with local consulting biologists to establish yellow-billed cuckoo surveys in potential habitat along Humboldt County rivers, producing some of the first documented observations of cuckoos in the county.

(Dave Imper): I’ve always envied good generalists in field biology. Gary is one of those special folks, a “renaissance” field biologist really. He’s a bird guy, but also has a good working knowledge of butterflies, mammals, plants, mushrooms, and many other groups.  He has the innate curiosity and patience, not to mention volumes of field manuals, and importantly, cumulative knowledge to identify damn near any species we encounter in the wild.

Gary’s a mover, and works hard.  I began working closely with him at the Arcata U.S. Fish and Wildlife office soon after 9/11, and for 11 years we spent long days working together, primarily on recovery of the endangered Lassics lupine and Oregon silverspot butterfly.  Endangered species work can be exhausting, and demoralizing. His no-nonsense scientific approach, attention to detail, and especially his comradery were most appreciated. In 2017, the USFWS made him a “Recovery Champion,” recognizing  21 years of effort to save endangered species, and for leading the marbled murrelet monitoring effort. He continues to be involved with endangered species, and recently implemented research on tidal fluctuations at Stone Lagoon.

Gary plays hard too, with an increased emphasis since he retired from the USFWS.  Maintaining old relationships and commitments are important to him, like his annual romp to SE Oregon with old friends from his days at Evergreen State College. He continues to volunteer annually at the Sagehen Creek Field Station, north of Lake Tahoe, helping monitor long term impacts of innovative fire management on wildlife resources.  He and Gayle sponsor annual picnics for fellow biologists, old friends and new, facilitating comradery and good communication among local professionals. He loves getting up in the local mountains, and of course a good fishing or rafting trip is never too far in the future for him.

Gary Falxa is the consummate environmental steward, and without question, a “Kin to the Earth.”