Today at Berkeley Lab

Energy Technologies’ Ellen Thomas and Allison Huey Pave Own Way as Nature Guides

By Theresa Duque

As full-time administrators in the Building Technology & Urban Systems Division within the Energy Technologies Area, Ellen Thomas (right) and Allison Huey are logistics experts who can make complicated schedules and conference coordination seem effortless and smooth. But on the weekends, when they aren’t busy helping researchers within their division plan a workshop in D.C. or a visit from a dignitary, they volunteer as Nature Guides for Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Martin Griffin Preserve (MGP), a wildlife sanctuary that overlooks Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County.

“Nature Guides are the ones who facilitate the public season. We’re trained to share our love for nature with people of all ages,” Thomas said. But before they can interact with the public, Nature Guides must complete an eight-day training on Saturdays before the public season begins in May. “You get immersed in a very broad range of natural history. We learn about plant communities on the Preserve, birds, aquatic life, stream ecology, and observe salamanders and newts while hiking from canyon to canyon,” she said.

Huey, far right, and Thomas, 2nd from left.

This breadth of knowledge equips them to draw relationships between the natural world and the environment. “When we find millipedes and newts during a nature walk, we often discuss how something so small can fit into the big picture of humanity’s overall relationship with nature in regards to climate change,” added Huey.

Thomas had known about MGP for many years but didn’t realize she could become a Nature Guide until 2012, when she saw a flyer at her local library in San Rafael. “I had been looking for something where I could invest my passion for nature and the outdoors, so I signed up for training and loved it,” she said.

When Huey joined the Lab as a new staffer in 2015, Thomas saw a kindred spirit. “I knew she was a fellow nature lover,” she said. So when MGP started to train new guides in January 2016, she persuaded Huey to sign up. It didn’t take long to convince her.

Huey, far right.

“It was serendipitous,” said Huey. “My work with the Golden Gate Cetacean Research nonprofit had just ended, and I was looking for something else. When Ellen told me that Audubon Canyon Ranch was a great way to be involved in science, conserving nature, and protecting the environment, I knew it was right up my alley.”

Although their interactions with the public fall within just three months a year – the thousand-acre preserve is only open to the public on Saturdays from May to July – Thomas and Huey are no less dedicated to the Preserve during the off-season. As the Nature Guide Council President (Thomas) and Vice President (Huey), they help the resident biologist, director of education, and education program coordinator develop training curriculum for novice guides, set up the schedule of talks and guided tours for the season, and act as the main points of contact for the volunteers.

Martin Griffin Preserve kicked off its 2017 season in May with talks led by local conservationists specializing in mountain lions and marine mammals, and continues with a variety of nature talks and guided walks covering such topics as butterflies, pond exploration, insects, and the Gulf of the Farallones. On June 10, Huey led a Nature Journaling Day, where she taught adults and children how to draw what they observe in nature. More such sketch activities are being planned for July, she said.

And on June 17, Thomas will lead an interpretive talk about saving the Martin Griffin Preserve and the California coast from pollution and overdevelopment. “I’m so devoted to helping people understand how our lives are interconnected with the beauty and intricacy of nature. I want to share that passion with people who might not realize that they too can learn how to appreciate the outdoors,” she said.

While volunteering at the Preserve has helped Thomas and Huey balance out the demands of a full-time career with their love for nature, it has also helped them to become closer as colleagues and friends, and to feel connected to a broader community of outdoor enthusiasts. “Ellen has been a huge inspiration for me,” said Huey. “She is this really wonderful outgoing and strong woman. I thought that if Ellen can be a Nature Guide, then I can do it too.”