Jonathan Sprague ’93 landed on French Frigate Shoals, a 35-acre atoll in the Hawaiian island chain, in 2002. While there were only five people on the island, it was teeming with life. Albatrosses, terns, and various sea and shore birds covered every nook and cranny. Green sea turtles nested on the shores, and Hawaiian monk seals, humpback whales, and tropical fish called the surrounding reefs and waters home. Jon spent four months on the island gathering data for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on phenology, reproductive success, and the presence and absence of species. “I was in an environment that was so remote and beautiful,” he recalls, “that the fieldwork just stuck.”
Jon had no particular interest in science growing up. At Fay, alongside brothers James ’94 and Nathanael ’96, he directed his energy towards athletics and musical theater. After Fay, he graduated from Saint James School in Maryland and then Bowdoin College with a degree in modern European history and minors in religion and sociology. After spending two years working in the Alumni Relations Office at Bowdoin, Jon was ready for a change. “I had always loved being outdoors,” he recalls, and the yen to get away from a desk, travel, and get out into nature was powerful. He sat down with his girlfriend Rachel, who had just returned from a year with AmeriCorps. Was there somewhere they could go?
Four months at French Frigate Shoals led to four months at Kīlauea Point, a refuge on the north shore of Kauai, and then another four months back out into “the remotes” on Pearl and Hermes Reef with just two other people. Jon lived in a tent without running water and only intermittent communication with the outside world. His work included assisting monk seal and green sea turtle strandings, managing invasive species, and monitoring endangered species populations. He fell in love with the work and the lifestyle. Over the next few years, Jon took more fieldwork assignments, studying ant biodiversity and phorid flies in Texas, and diving to depths of 130 feet to study nudibranch physiology in Antarctica. “I would tell my friends that if I wrote an autobiography, it would be titled Mercenary Biotech because I would work for anyone that would send me out into the field.”
In 2007, Jon sustained a severe back injury in the field. “Now, I had to figure out how to continue in this career with remote fieldwork not being the foundation of it.” He was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Montana, where he received a master’s degree in
organismal biology. He eventually followed his now-wife Rachel to Hawaii, where they settled on Lānai, the sixth-largest Hawaiian island.
Lanai is unique among the Hawaiian islands because of its history of private ownership. Since 2012, 98% of the island has been owned by Larry Ellison, co-founder and former CEO of Oracle. Before that, it was owned by Dole Foods, who created the world’s largest pineapple plantation on the island. After two years of working as an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jon joined his wife at Pūlama Lānai, the land and resource management company that governs conservation and sustainability efforts on the island. As Director of Conservation, Jon sees tremendous opportunity in the island’s single-owner status. “We have the opportunity to move a bit more quickly in restoring areas, putting fences in the ground, and making conservation efforts like weeding and planting.”
While Lānai’s remote and beautiful landscapes benefit from a responsive conservation team, it can still be a challenge to get all the stakeholders to support a single effort. “One of the dangers in the conservation field is that you start to view people as the problem,” says Jon, “but they are only the problem if you don’t engage them in the right way.” Jon and Rachel are both proponents of the conservation conflict transformation process, which recognizes that conflicts between stakeholders with a conservation concern are based on the human need to be listened to and respected. “We try to engage the community and the people who rely on the natural resources first, on that human level.”
Life on Lānai has a distinctly small-town feel. Jon and Rachel live in Lānai City, where the community is friendly, the neighbors all know each other, and house keys are rarely used. While Jon is no longer out in the backcountry doing fieldwork, he has found a role where he can have an impact on the land in tangible and lasting ways. “The opportunity to run a team of twenty-four conservation specialists and work through these issues on your own Hawaiian island–there are very few chances to have that kind of an impact.”