More Than Luck – Vicki Ozaki, Kin to the Earth

by Dan Sealy


Although there may have been some serendipity involved in the arrival of Vicki Ozaki from Sunnyvale, California to Humboldt State University in 1979, her journey as a Japanese American woman geologist is a tribute to knowledge, training and dedication. 

Vicki Ozaki surveying in Redwood Creek Estuary

Growing up in Sunnyvale, California, Vicki volunteered at a ranch and environmental camp for “city kids to explore the outdoors, learn about the natural environment, and make connections to where food in the grocery store comes from.”  Her interest in conservation grew when she came to Humboldt State University (HSU) to study natural resource planning and interpretation. That interest blossomed into a passion when she was hooked on geology. “Wherever you go you can explore geology and it forms the base of the ecosystem.” Vicki participated in a six-week geology field camp led by noted geologist Dr. Gary Carver (retired) where she applied everything she had learned. “Direct application of scientific knowledge in this wonderful outdoors is a strength of the HSU natural resource and science programs.”  Vicki signed up for the new geology graduate program at HSU and was able to complete while simultaneously working at Redwood National and State Parks (RNP).  Vicki was hired to study the natural and human-induced sources of sediments to Redwood Creek. Clear-cut logging on steep, geologically unstable slopes of Redwood Creek, coupled with large floods that resulted in massive amounts of gravel, rock and debris that buried the channel, altered the course of the creek cutting into the alluvial flats of some of the tallest redwood groves. The sediment also damaged fish habitat and impacted generations of salmonids. Vicki spent decades hiking, wading and studying the channel response and ecosystems as a member of a dedicated team of geologists, led by the late Terry Hofstra. Vicki also worked closely with Dr. Mary Ann Madej of the U.S. Geological Survey for over 30 years.

Vicki has authored or co-authored over 20 papers covering what the team was learning from long-term monitoring studies as they applied that knowledge to the restoration and protection of Redwood Creek. “Most people are not aware of the long history of changes in Redwood Creek.  The restoration of Redwood Creek is all about preventing sediment from roads from reaching streams. The creek is always changing. In some places upriver of Tall Trees Grove tall the stream has cut down fifteen to twenty feet, providing more, and deeper, pools for fish.” That restoration is a great example of Adaptive Management: the flexible planning that alters the implementation of the work based on new knowledge gained from studies and observations in the field. Thanks to that planning and applied science, failing logging roads have been removed on parklands to protect streams .

Vicki says she enjoys working on streams with staff. While collecting data on Prairie Creek, visitors typically stop to ask what the team is doing and it provides an opportunity to explain about science in the national parks and why it is important. The protected old growth redwood portion of the watershed of Prairie Creek provides the baseline for measuring success in other streams like Lost Man Creek where roads have been removed.  She is currently working with the Yurok tribe on a large wood loading project in Prairie Creek. 

Vicki Ozaki in action on Redwood Creek.

She is quick to acknowledge her work is a collaboration with many capable and outstanding scientists and conservationists in the NPS. Beside Mr. Hofstra, Vicki points to her long-term collaborator, Dr. Madej, a retired geologist formerly of USGS who has partnered with RNP on geomorphic and watershed studies in Redwood Creek. Dr. Madej has compiled the studies and reports that have been conducted regarding Redwood Creek. It has been peer reviewed and recently published as Redwood Creek Watershed Studies: Summary of Geomorphic Research at Redwood National Park

Vicki openly shares her in-depth knowledge through publications, seminars, and work with new generations of geology students at HSU. 

Vicki and her family are active members of the broader Humboldt Community. Her husband, Duncan McNeil, works with an organic soil producer; her son, Quinn, works at Los Bagels and her daughter, Alex works for the Flower Co. and is active in social justice organizations. 

Being part of the local community means more than protecting the natural ecosystems, however. She also brings a personal perspective of her Japanese cultural heritage. Vicki’s father and grandparents were among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were forced from their homes and incarcerated in detention centers known variously as “relocation centers, “internment camps” or “concentration camps.”  Vicki’s family was forced to “relocate” from San Francisco to Heart Mountain Concentration Camp on the banks of the Shoshone River.  Heart Mountain was open from 1942 – 1945 and is now administered as a historic site by the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation to: “Preserve and memorialize the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese American Confinement Site and the stories that symbolize the fragility of democracy.” Her father wrote about his experience in 2013, saying, “…more than a half century has passed since the ‘Evacuation’, the danger still remains that something similar could happen again. All it takes is ignorance which leads to fear, which in turn can be whipped up into national hysteria and paranoia.”

Vicki and several amazing Asian American women are members of Taiko Swing Humboldt (now called Humboldt Asians and Pacific Islanders),. They developed an exhibit titled “Pieces of Our Lives” last spring. The exhibit, which was erected at the Clarke Museum in Eureka and the HSU library, included  family objects and the stories of those from the Humboldt County Japanese American community whose families were imprisoned in U.S. concentration camps during WWII. Taiko Swing sponsored Swingposium, a performance by San Jose Taiko, Epic Immersive and the HSU Jazz Orchestra which was a lively recreation of the Big Band sounds that originated in the Japanese American Concentration Camps and focused on the life in camp as seen from the eyes of imprisoned young Japanese Americans. Vicki says, “While there isn’t a lot of diversity in Humboldt County, organizing the Swingposium events brought together the local Asian American community.” 

Vicki’s impacts on her Humboldt County home are much more than a stroke of luck, they are the result of her love of science, her hard work, her dedication and enlightened engagement to the community.