Parks Bids Farewell to One of the Best

By Senior Environmental Scientist Jim Dice

Paul D. Jorgensen, a 19-year resident of Borrego Springs, highly-accomplished State Park ecologist, expert ornithologist and talented woodworker, passed away at his Borrego Springs residence surrounded by his family June 8, concluding an eight-year battle with prostate cancer.

He was born June 18, 1946, in San Diego, was raised in Fletcher Hills and graduated from Grossmont High School. He attended Grossmont Junior College before entering the U.S. Coast Guard in 1966; he was drafted out of the Coast Guard by the U.S. Army the same year. He served as a specialist 4/electrician on construction details at Ft. Ord, California, and Ft. Richardson, Alaska, with a brief stay at Fort Lewis, Washington. He was discharged in 1968 and enrolled at San Diego State University (SDSU). In 1973 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in zoology with a keen interest in birds as a result of an ornithology course.

Paul was hired by ABDSP Superintendent Bud Getty to study recreational impacts on endangered desert bighorn sheep’s use of water at Middle Willows in Coyote Canyon. Paul spent most of June, 1973, in an observational blind observing bighorn movements and reactions to use of the area by humans and vehicles.

Paul’s study, presented at the 1974 meeting of the Desert Bighorn Council in Moab, Utah, and published in the 1974 Transactions of the Desert Bighorn Council, revealed that use of the watering hole by bighorn sheep was down by 50 percent or more during days when there were motor vehicles in the vicinity. Paul’s study was the science behind the initial seasonal closure of Coyote Canyon in the summer of 1975.

Paul entered graduate school at SDSU the following fall, working on the conservation of the endangered Light-footed Clapper Rail at the Tijuana Slough under SDSU Ecologist Dr. Joy Zedler. He spent many hours with colleagues mapping the Slough’s vegetation and observing Clapper Rail behavior. Paul received a master’s degree in biology in 1975. His thesis was entitled Habitat Preference of the Light-footed Clapper Rail in Tijuana Marsh, California.

During and after his work on his thesis, he held a number of seasonal biological jobs including working on bighorn sheep conservation in the southern Sierra Nevada for the California Department of Fish and Game, and conservation of the endangered Least Tern.

In 1978, Paul became a civilian wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Navy at North Island Naval Air Station. During his five years there, Paul worked on habitat protection and restoration, and conservation of endangered species on federal lands at North Island, the Border Field/Tijuana Slough area and San Clemente Island, among other federal lands along the southern California coast. He initiated annual monitoring of the Light-footed Clapper Rail at the Tijuana Slough, worked on habitat protection measures for the federally-listed endangered species, Salt Marsh Bird’s Beak (a small plant of the coastal salt marshes), and the Least Tern. He and his colleagues were credited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their efforts and input into the Federal Recovery Plan for the Endangered and Threatened Species of the California Channel Islands, published in 1984.

During this period, Paul and Navy Wildlife Biologist Howard Ferguson co-authored The Birds of San Clemente Island, also published in 1984 in the journal Western Birds. Paul also was involved in the Navy’s efforts to remove non-native feral goats from San Clemente Island as part of the endangered species recovery plan. This effort was strongly opposed by Cleveland Amory and the Fund for Animals who waged their own war against the removal of the goats and restoration of the island. Eventually the goats were removed.

Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Paul continued to work on the preservation of the Clapper Rail at the Slough. Local conservation activists Dr. Mike and Patricia McCoy had enlisted the help and support of Dr. Zedler, Paul and others in the fight against a proposed marina that would have developed and destroyed much of the rich estuarine habitat and extirpated the population of clapper rails. Amid much controversy and anger, the marina project was finally abandoned and in 1980 the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge was established. In 1982 the area became part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve system. Because the area was a compilation of federal and state-owned lands, the State Park System and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were designated as the managing agencies for the new Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve (TRNERR). State Parks selected Paul to be the first reserve manager in July, 1983.

During the decade that he served, Paul oversaw many improvements including the development of the visitor center and garage buildings and the establishment of the native plant garden. He continued annual monitoring of the Clapper Rail, initiated habitat restoration efforts and fought a continual battle against those who wished to destroy the estuarine habitat. During major floods along the Tijuana River, some residents of the river valley blamed the estuary (and Paul) for the flooding, ignoring the fact that they had bought land and built in a flood plain.

Paul engaged in a standoff with then-mayor of Imperial Beach Brian Bilbray, who brought a bulldozer to the estuary and hopped on to drive around for photos during the controversy. A group of landowners had a billboard erected at one end of the valley that named and depicted Paul Jorgensen within a rifle sight.

Paul worked tirelessly during his time at the estuary for the greater good of the area and the wildlife, often without much support, financial or otherwise, from the managing agencies. In 2007, Paul was honored at the Reserve’s 25th anniversary, with the McCoys and Dr. Zedler, with a plaque and photograph on the TRNERR Visitor Center’s Wall of Fame. Paul was a member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Western Clapper Rail Federal Recovery team from 1985 to 1993.

In 1993, Paul transferred to State Parks’ newly-formed Colorado Desert District. He was the District’s first full-time resource ecologist and served for 12 years, before retiring in 2005. Even then, he continued to serve as a retired annuitant environmental scientist and worked on many special projects, right up until his final days.

Paul was selected by District Superintendent Dave Van Cleve to head up the team to prepare a Coyote Canyon Public Use Plan. The plan was meant to balance recreational usage with protection of the unique riparian habitat, the habitat of endangered desert bighorn sheep and endangered least Bell’s vireo, as well as abundant archeological sites. Paul, with his colleague at State Parks’ Southern Service Center, Ronie Clark, and other District and Service Center teams developed the plan, prepared the California Environmental Quality Act documentation, conducted public meetings and answered hundreds of letters, phone calls and comments (some that were highly acrimonious). Paul worked closely with the state Attorney General’s office on defending the plan against lawsuits attempting to block its implementation, with the Service Center staff in the development and implementation of the five-year required monitoring plan and with a contractor hired by the State to conduct a bypass alternative feasibility study requested by State Assemblyman Bill Morrow.

In the end, the plan permanently restricted motorized vehicles from a 3.1-mile stretch of the Canyon at Middle Willows and lengthened the seasonal closure to protect bighorn and least Bell’s vireo by one month. The plan was signed by Director Donald Murphy in 1996. Despite several attempted lawsuits from motorized vehicle recreation groups, these protective measures are in place 16 years later.

Among Paul’s many accomplishments during his time at the District were heading up the six-year tamarisk removal and restoration effort at ABDSP’s newly-acquired Sentenac Cienega; working with Dr. Walter Boyce of the University of California at Davis Wildlife Health Center (WHC) and the California Department of Fish and Game in assisting and providing oversight of the study on mountain lion use of ABDSP and CRSP; providing oversight and direction to staff and outside contractors in the control and eradication of tamarisk from Coyote Canyon; completing CRSP’s vegetation management plan; restoring riparian habitat along the Colorado River at PSRA; controlling the non-native nest parasites, the brown-headed cowbird and starlings, at ABDSP and PMSP; conducting and overseeing 19 years of annual monitoring of least Bell’s vireo populations in ABDSP; monitoring of southern spotted owl populations in CRSP and PMSP, and carrying out the District’s tree hazard monitoring program for more than a dozen years.

Paul was a major contributor to the San Diego County Bird Atlas published by the San Diego Natural History Museum, coordinating efforts for counts in ABDSP and helping to provide funding for efforts in ABDSP, CRSP and PMSP. He was a member of the Museum’s San Diego County Bird Atlas Advisory Team from 1997-2002. Paul is co-author (with Bob Theriault) of the Birds of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: A Birder’s Checklist published in 2007 He wrote the chapter on Carrizo Marsh as well as assisting with field work for the chapter on Lower Willows in Barbara Massey’s 1998 Guide to Birds of the Anza-Borrego Desert. He also wrote the text for the chapter on SSSRA and assisted with field work for chapters on Finney Lake, Ramer Lake and Red Hill County Park in Massey & Zembal’s 2002 Guide to Birds of the Salton Sea. Paul published more than a dozen papers and articles on topics in ornithology, wildlife biology and conservation biology.

In March 2003, Paul and Hal Cohen, who recently had moved to Borrego, coincidentally encountered one another while investigating several large groups of Swainson’s hawks that had been observed over the Borrego Valley. Their investigations and discussions led to the Borrego Valley Hawkwatch, which has discovered and documented the annual migration of thousands of hawks through the eastern half ABDSP each fall and spring on their way to or from California’s Central Valley to Argentina.

In his final months, Paul traveled with his brother Mark, wife Kathy, sister Sandy and other family on a birding trip to Ecuador and Uruguay. Paul spent 25 days in South America, acquiring 225 new birds for his life list. His brother Mark said, “For many days, he no longer had cancer—he was totally enthralled with birding. The trip was a gift of life, joy, nature, comradery and family.”

Paul grew up surfing at Sunset Cliffs and La Jolla and maintained a life-long interest in the sport, which he passed along to his sons Evan and Damon and older brother Steve. He was a long-time woodworker and well-known for his excellent carvings of birds, wooden kitchen utensils and hand-crafted furniture. Though a back injury had cut short his surfing career, in retirement Paul combined his interests and began making specialty surfboards.

Never having made a surfboard, Paul sought advice from fellow surfers, researched the topic in books and online resources, then sought advice from the late Terry Martin, regarded as the most accomplished wooden board shaper on the west coast. Martin worked at Hobie Surfboards in Dana Point and Paul called him to discuss his project. Martin not only talked with Paul over the phone, but invited him to Dana Point to watch him shape balsa wood boards. Paul’s good friend and colleague, Mike Wells, likened this to cold-calling Tiger Woods to discuss the finer points of putting and being invited to come play a few rounds. Paul’s first project was a chambered balsa board that was lighter and performed better than the foam and fiberglass longboard he used as a model.

To the astonishment of his surfing colleagues and Terry Martin, Paul produced a professional quality board out of difficult materials on his first try. It takes most surfboard shapers a dozen boards or more before they can produce one that is fit to sell. Paul’s other boards included a modern three-fin short board made entirely of wood from the stalks of century plants and a wooden replica of a three-fin big wave board made for Mike Wells that contained woods of seven species of trees found in San Diego County’s forests. Paul’s surfboards, including a collection of his miniature display boards, were featured in a popular April, 2012, exhibit at the Borrego Art Institute.

Paul had many friends around the world and will be missed by them and by the conservation community as a whole. He was bright, witty, patient, fun-loving and incredibly knowledgeable about many, many things. He remained calm in the face of fire (literally and figuratively), jumped in wherever help was needed and was a trusted colleague to all at State Parks. One of his colleagues expressed her admiration for Paul in the tremendous effort he put forth, in the face of physical ailments, to be able to do all the things he needed to do both for his job and his own personal enjoyment. Others noted that when you gave Paul a project, you knew that it was going to get done. News of Paul’s passing brought notes of condolences and many, many remembrances from fellow biologists and former colleagues all over the country, including California, Washington, Oregon and Wisconsin as well as from as far away as Uruguay and Israel.

Paul is survived by his wife of more than 15 years, Kathleen, his sons Evan (32) and Damon (29), and the most beautiful and intelligent granddaughter in the world, Kaylee Jorgensen (4). The family plans a memorial service in the fall.