'There's one rock I don't have to worry about, and it's right out here'

'There's one rock I don't have to worry about, and it's right out here'
Photo courtesy Flickr user merelymel.

CANNON BEACH, Ore. (AP) — Here's the quiz for the day: What's 25 years old, involves 80 hearty volunteers who exclaim over nudibranchs and puffins, and recently won an award for habitat protection?

There's another clue:

At the center of its attention is a 235-foot-tall rock, along with a couple of needles.

Give up? It's the Haystack Rock Awareness Program, of course.

Officially recognized as a program operated by the city of Cannon Beach in 1985, HRAP has spawned marine biologists who gazed at their first intertidal creatures in the tidepools at the base of Haystack Rock and conservationists who spotted their first nesting birds on the rock through telescopes placed on the beach.

Many who discovered their love for nature over those 25 years gathered together last Saturday night to celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of a program that was pieced together by accident.

Local conservationist Neal Maine, who, with his late wife, Karen, started HRAP, talked about the "merger of nature, art and the human condition," which, he said, was the "ultimate experience" for Karen.

Durrell Kapan, who volunteered for HRAP as a youngster and coordinated the program in 1989, thanked the rock.

"This is kind of a lodestone," said Kapan, who lives in Hawaii, where he is an assistant professor at the Pacific Sciences Bioresearch Center. "This is an area of high energy where we can go along with the puffins and the guillemots. And we can take a deep breath and take a break from the hectic life that we lead and commune with nature."

Former Cannon Beach Mayor Laurel Hood, who also coordinated the program and still acts as an adviser, said the experience affected her for life.

"Thank you to Neal Maine," Hood said. "Because of him, the way I look at this program and the way I look at the world was totally changed. Hopefully, because of the way my life was changed, I can pay that forward and change the way other people look at the world."

Throughout the evening, as people spoke about their experiences, they used variations of the word "amazing" repeatedly, sometimes in the same sentence.

"Amazingly, here in Cannon Beach, there have been millions of visitors over the years of this program, and, amazingly, we have kept this going," Kapan said.

In essence, the Haystack Rock Awareness Program answers the question, "What's that?" asked by visitors who peer into the tidepools or study the birds on the rock from March through September.

This year, trained volunteers stationed on the beach during low tides talked to at least 75,000 visitors. Those are just the people who have been listed on daily logs kept by the volunteers. Estimates are that 200,000 people pass by the rock annually.

In addition to educating visitors, the interpreters protect the rock from visitors who walk in environmentally sensitive areas, something that isn't always easy to do when people become angry at the prohibitions. Haystack Rock is protected under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a seabird nesting colony and under the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a Marine Garden.

HRAP is run by a full-time coordinator and a part-time intern; Nala Cardillo is the program's current coordinator. The program receives funds from the city, from the Friends of Haystack Rock and from donations.

HRAP also receives support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Land Conservancy and Development, Oregon State Parks and the Seaside Aquarium.

To the 100 people attending last Saturday's reception, Maine told the story about how HRAP started. It was an "uneventful" day in 1981 when Maine was trying out a homemade aquarium he had built.

"It was great for photography because I could put it up against whatever background I wanted," Maine said. "I could put a critter in there, put my camera on it and get all these great action shots of animals."

So he and his wife headed to Haystack Rock, and, while Maine attempted to take photos, people surrounded him, asking questions. His wife tried to distract them by telling them about the tidepools and the rock.

Trouble was, Maine said, "she had the beauty because she was an artist, so she was able to inspire them about the beauty of it all, but she said she felt a little inadequate about (knowing) what the things were in the tank."

Later, she suggested that Maine bring fish tanks to the rock, leave the camera at home and "do this on purpose."

It caught on.

Cannon Beach resident and biology teacher Ed Johnson joined them, along with anatomy professor Bob Bacon, who had a home in Gearhart, former Cannon Beach Mayor Lucille Houston and dozens of volunteers through the years.

"In a way, how could you miss?" Maine asked. "Beautiful creatures in those tanks; people who were already inspired when they got there because of the beautiful ocean; and Haystack Rock. So it was a captive audience.

"From that day on we said, 'This needs to get a life.'"

HRAP did take on a life of its own, with "amazing volunteers" who stayed committed to working their shifts on the beach, even in bad weather, said Linda Newberry, who coordinated HRAP in 1991-1992. "You well know how cold and miserable it is out there," she told the audience, which included many past volunteers. "But it's also magical; there is no more magical a place."

HRAP mitigated the effects that thousands of visitors were having on the rock, Newberry said. Fewer people were taking sea stars back to their motel rooms, and fewer puffins were being chased off the rock.

"People would come walking down the beach, sleepy, with their cup of coffee, and lo and behold! Here was this really cool stuff and they had no idea what it was. And they got to learn it through really enthusiastic, well-trained volunteers."

HRAP also served as a training ground for other projects, she said.

"We were volunteering at Haystack Rock, but we were also starting the North Coast Land Conservancy, we were volunteering for the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to monitor wetlands up the coast, we were doing the marine mammal stranding network and all sorts of other projects.

"We had learned that basic idea of enthusiasm, excitement and science and combining them all together," Newberry said.

Her experience working with Maine and HRAP also gave her a new direction.

"It certainly set me off on my life of working in natural resource programs in a way that is unimaginable," she said.

HRAP has not gone unnoticed by state and federal agencies. The program received two awards Saturday night.

Roy Lowe, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Complex on the Oregon Coast, presented a partnership award for stewardship of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Haystack Rock.

The refuge stretches from Tillamook to the Oregon-California border, noted Lowe. "There are 1,854 rocks, reefs and islands," Lowe said. "But there's one rock I don't have to worry about, and it's right out here."

Bob Bailey, manager of the Oregon Coastal Management Program, praised city officials and HRAP volunteers for their support. He presented them with the Oregon Coastal Award for Habitat Protection, from the state Department of Land Conservation and Development.

"These are positive, proactive people working out of the love of their hearts and the love of the place where they live and sharing it with others," Bailey said. "It's a win all the way around."


Information from: The Daily Astorian, http://www.dailyastorian.com

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.