Laney geography professor and avian expert embraces nature, teaches students about the environment

by Pam Rudd, Staff Writer

Swans take flight at sunset off Woodbridge Rd. in Lodi, Calif., on Nov. 23, 2012. (Photo/Mark Rauzon)

Laney professor Mark Rauzon sits comfortably in his small cramped office surrounded by books, file cabinets, maps, flags, and journals. He has bushy eyebrows, a warm smile, and wears a shirt the color of a yellow warbler. As he talks, it is easy to see he loves to teach and is passionate about his work. He is a wildlife biologist, geographer, expert in island restoration, a world-renowned bird expert, author, photographer and, most importantly, teacher.

As the geography department chair and an instructor at Laney College since 2005, Rauzon has made it his life’s mission to teach the community about nature. He spends his time teaching geography and geology. This February, he was given the District 4 Local Hero Award for restoring the Sausal Creek watershed in Oakland.

Geography professor Mark Rauzon assists students during class at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., on Feb, 25, 2020. (The Citizen Photo/Ryan B.)

One of his best-known projects is the restoration of a group of American tropical islands in the Pacific. These islands were ravaged by humans with whaling, guano mining and military operations.  This, along with the non native plants and animals they brought with them, decimated the native seabirds. It was Rauzon’s job to bring them back.

By eradicating non-native species, he helped restore the seabird population and made the island as it had been in 1750.

“The sad part is that the island is only 15 feet above sea level and can possibly be swamped” as sea levels continue to rise with global warming, Rauzon said with a tone of resignation. “That will really take things back to the year 800 when the sea levels were much higher.” Rauzon is indeed familiar with environmental cycles.

More locally, Professor Rauzon studied the double-crested cormorants that nested under the Bay Bridge.  He designed expensive “bird condos” to replace the nests lost to the new construction but worried the birds would not adopt their new homes.  To his relief, after the last bit of steel and concrete was removed, two birds –affectionately named “Adam and Eve”– showed up on the bridge and now are successfully nesting. His prototype will be used again to secure housing for the birds at the Berkeley Marina.

Double-crested Cormorant, April 10, 2013. (Photo/Mark Rauzon)

The project he is most proud of is the restoration of the Sausal Creek watershed in Oakland. Together with a group of like-minded environmentalists Rauzon day-lighted the creek, meaning they broke open the culverts to expose parts of the creek which had previously been underground. They also cleared the invasive species and planted natives on this 2,656 acre watershed in an urban corridor. Now Oakland’s diverse human population can mingle with a diverse community of plants and animals, including dogwood trees, Wilson’s warblers, and damselflies. Sausal Creek is now a thriving ecosystem for students to learn habitat restoration, fire management, water quality and the study of nature’s wildlife according to the Friends of Sausal Creek website.

In this process, Professor Rauzon engaged thousands of volunteers to join in this habitat restoration and made a community committed to preserving the environmental integrity of this area. They call themselves “The Friends of Sausal Creek.”

Snowy Egret (Photo/Mark Rauzon)

After years of travel, Rauzon clearly has found his permanent roost at Laney. As a teacher of geography, he is an optimistic activist, grateful for the opportunity to educate the next generation, encourage their curiosity and critical thinking, and help them bear witness to the environmental changes so they might do something about it.

Rauzon said he is happy to report that there is a younger generation who has the capacity and the expertise to go forward with his work. He said he can’t save the planet, but perhaps he has educated and inspired someone who can.

It doesn’t need to be a project as big as Sausal Creek or as remote as a Pacific Island to be important. It all can happen locally. He encourages the community to start small: “You could start in your garden–in a potted plant, putting a flower out so that a bee has a new flower to find,” he said.

 

Rashee Taneja contributed to this report.