Volunteer At Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area Wins National Honor

A long-time volunteer at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area who devised a wildflower identification database for the NRA is being honored as the National Park Service's national "Outstanding Volunteer."

Tony Valois, who worked on the database for the past six years, is being honored with the George B. Hartzog Jr. award Saturday at Santa Monica Mountains, and will later travel to Washington, D.C., to be formally honored by the Park Service leadership.

Mr. Valois's database is accessible for free on the Internet, and allows the public to easily identify wildflowers in the Santa Monica Mountains based on just a few simple characteristics such as color and size.

“I found that even though visitors had field guides, it was hard for them to find the flowers quickly and easily,” Mr. Valois said when asked the motivation behind his work to develop the identification system.

Mr. Valois, who lives in the Santa Monica Mountains at Circle X Ranch as a volunteer campground host, began volunteering for the National Park Service in 2002 and soon began taking pictures of the most common wildflowers found around Circle X Ranch and Sandstone Peak. When hikers would stop by the visitor contact station at Circle X Ranch with wildflower questions, Mr. Valois would show them digital pictures of the most common flowers to help with the identification.

As the number of wildflower pictures grew, he realized that posting them to the Internet would allow more people access and offer amateur botanists a way to make their own plant identification. What began in 2004 as 50 flower pictures on a website has grown to more than 700, along with scientific names and close up shots of wildflowers that are otherwise difficult to tell apart.

“I wanted to create a search engine that was built on characteristics that people remember, like size, color, and shape,' he said.

The database search function is designed to empower even the novice wildflower enthusiast to make independent identifications. Mr. Valois is now working on an iPhone app that will allow hikers to bring the database along with them on the trail.

Prior to joining the National Park Service as a volunteer, Mr. Valois earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, was a professor at the University of Minnesota, attended seminary school, taught in Malaysia, and even worked as a church choir director. In addition to working as a campground host and serving the park as a botanist and high-tech wizard, he continues to spend the majority of his weekends talking with the public at Circle X Ranch and Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains.