The Colgate Scene
September 2002

People on the go

Haldre Rogers '00 handles a "honker," as brown tree snakes more than five feet long are nicknamed. [Photo by Scott Radway]
Snake stalker

A slithery invader has been stalking the island of Guam since the 1940s, and it's Haldre Rogers' job to keep it from overrunning other Pacific islands.

The invader is the brown tree snake, known to scientists as Boiga irregularis, whose accidental introduction to Guam became one of the world's worst biological catastrophes wrought by an invasive species. Rogers, who graduated from Colgate with a degree in biology in 2000, has been the Brown Tree Snake Rapid Response Team Coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey's Biological Research Division on Guam since March 2002. It's a job that requires getting up close and personal with the surreptitious serpent.

"This whole snake catching procedure sounds simple, but I have to admit, it's a little scary," Rogers said. "My first time catching one of these buggers, I stepped on the tail and it reared its head up. I yelped and jumped back even though I was trying to be all tough."

Since the brown tree snake, which can grow to as much as 10 feet in length, can lift two-thirds of its weight off the ground, Rogers' initial reaction is understandable.

"I'm much better at catching them now, although in the beginning, I tended to do this funny dance," Rogers laughed. "I grabbed the tail out of the tree then swung the snake around in circles for a little while until its head was in the right spot for me to step on while I grasped the neck. Still, the worst part of it is that while I'm holding the snake, it wraps its body around my hand and sends its tail up my sleeve, tickling my arm. Being chomped on by their numerous and sharp teeth isn't too much fun, either. However, as much as I have grown to respect these animals, one of our mandates is to kill the snakes we find in order to stop them from establishing a population on snake-free islands."

In the half century since they arrived on Guam, most likely as stowaways on U.S. military ships during World War II, the brown tree snake has wiped out nine of Guam's 12 native bird species. A 209-square-mile volcanic island located about 1,500 miles southwest of Japan, Guam's isolation, the absence of natural predators and an abundant food supply made the U.S. territory a perfect place for the serpent to flourish.

And flourish it did, with the brown tree snake population reaching a high of 30,000 snakes per square mile in some areas by the 1980s. Because the snake has exhausted much of its food supply, its numbers have leveled off to the current 12,000 snakes per square mile in certain forested areas.

Keeping the voracious serpent (Boiga irregularis will eat anything it can wrap its mouth around) from spreading to other islands is a top priority for a variety of government agencies. The Rapid Response Team that Rogers heads is an interagency pool of specially trained and certified brown tree snake researchers. The team must be prepared to travel by the fastest available means to the location of a sighting at the request of local authorities, within an area encompassing the island groups of Micronesia, Palau and the Northern Marianas.

When the team is called into the field, they begin by searching a one-hectare area around the sighting location, explained Rogers. The snake is nocturnal, so the team members don headlamps to assist them in spotting their prey in the dark.

"The snakes are well camouflaged, so you have to look for something that shines a little differently from the leaves," Rogers said.

Mildly venomous, the brown tree snake is not considered lethal to humans, but its sheer numbers and appetite have made for some hair-raising encounters with people. Brown tree snakes have been reported coming out of toilets and shower drains and have even been found in babies' cribs. The serpents have triggered massive electrical outages because they climb power poles searching for birds and their eggs.

Any reported sighting is taken quite seriously because of the potential damage a population of these snakes would cause. The Rapid Response Team recently spent three nights investigating a sighting that was "probably" false, but Rogers believes that time wasn't wasted.

"It was an excellent experience for all of us as a trial run," she said.

When her snake hunting days are over, Rogers hopes to attend graduate school, possibly to study the impact of invasive species. In the meantime, she is enjoying her time on Guam.

"This is a job I feel lucky to have at my age. I want to be sure I do it well," Rogers said. "Success means birds, bats and lizards on other islands are safe from the threat of extinction by the brown tree snake -- as has happened on Guam. A failure means the death of many animals and possibly the loss of numerous species." GEF

"At this point in time when the American public is outraged by corporate behavior patterns, the CEOs of companies should be held accountable not only for their accounting practices but also their environmental practices."
Adirondack advocate

Brian Houseal '72 became director of the Adirondack Council in July. [Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Council]
"I'm here to make a difference for the Adirondacks," said Brian Houseal '72, who became executive director of the Adirondack Council in July.

The council is a nonprofit conservation organization with approximately 18,000 members "dedicated to protecting and enhancing the natural and human communities of the Adirondack Park," Houseal explained. "We do that through research, education and advocacy work."

"My wife Katherine and I have been visitors to the Adirondacks for more than 30 years now," he said. "While at Colgate I spent many weekends up here, camping, hiking, boating and skiing."

In graduate school at Syracuse University, where he got a masters degree in regional planning, Houseal wrote his thesis on that region, gaining "a good grasp of the biological, ecological, social and economic concerns that [the park] faced," he said.

Houseal got a second masters, in landscape architecture, at SUNY's College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and then chose to focus his environmental efforts abroad. He and his wife served as Peace Corps volunteers in Torres del Paine, a large, remote wilderness complex in southern Chile, and he then worked for a variety of international agencies such as UNESCO, USAID and private sector organizations.

For the past 15 years, Houseal has been with the Nature Conservancy, where he designed and managed Parks in Peril, the largest protected areas program in Latin America and the Caribbean. Under his watch, the program gained more than $40 million in public funding and leveraged an estimated $300 million worth of support from other organizations, along the way safeguarding nearly 65 million acres.

"During the time I was abroad, I used the Adirondacks as a model due to its very dynamic blend of public and private land uses," said Houseal, "as well as the numerous local communities and environmental organizations that are concerned about the balance between the preservation and protection of resources as well as compatible economic use of those resources."

The Adirondack Council's conservation team, which works out of its headquarters in Elizabethtown, N.Y., is currently focusing on a state forest management plan, as well as the creation of the Bob Marshall Great Wilderness area, one of the largest remaining wetland complexes in the east. The council also maintains a legislative and PR office in Albany.

Houseal's return to New York State for this new role will also allow him to address numerous threats to the park's well-being. Foremost among them, he said, is acid rain, which is killing forests and lakes, as well as fish and other aquatic species -- native brook trout, for example, have disappeared from one-quarter of the 2,800 Adirondack lakes. "And now we find out that a study was recently done on loons, the very symbol of wilderness," he noted. "About 17 percent of the loon population is dying from mercury poisoning, which comes via acid rain."

The second major threat, Houseal said, is forest fragmentation, which undercuts the ecologic foundation that large animals such as moose and timber wolves need to survive. The largest remaining block of northern deciduous forest in the world is contained in the Adiron-dacks, he explained, "and as the timber industry finds that holding large tracts of land is not economically feasible any more, they're selling off large chunks, to second home development and to life insurance companies who view it as a long-term investment."

Additionally, "people tend to view these protected areas as islands," Houseal said, pointing out that in reality, the problem of acid rain, for example, is coming from beyond the park's borders, from Midwestern power companies who pollute the air of the northeast.

"The solution for acid rain is not liming the lakes inside the park, which is extremely costly," he said. "It's got to be confronted in boardrooms in the Midwest. At this point in time when the American public is outraged by corporate behavior patterns, the CEOs of companies should be held accountable not only for their accounting practices but also their environmental practices. And as a leader of an advocacy group here, I think they need to do what's right environmentally."

The lesson he's learned, both internationally and in the Adirondacks, said Houseal, is that "even though some very foresighted leaders in New York drew a line around this 6-million-acre area in the early 1890s, the work's not over yet, more than 100 years later. That's why conservation and preservation is not a daily press release that somebody puts out. It's going to be a generational effort." Brian Houseal is doing his part. RAC

Kathleen Harrington '72, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for public affairs (right), with Elaine L. Chao, U.S. secretary of labor [Photo by Mark Abraham]
An independent thinker

Even after experiencing more than two decades of political battles in the nation's capital, Kathleen M. Harrington '72 remains steadfast in her idealism, although in the early evening of a typical 12- to 13-hour work day she will admit to being a somewhat tired idealist.

"I love politics, because I think when politics is at its best there is an intersection between policy and the political process that can help make a difference and make things better for people," said Harrington from her office at the U.S. Department of Labor, where she serves as assistant secretary for public affairs. "Some might say that's not the sexiest part of government service. I say it's the most rewarding."

As assistant secretary for public affairs, Harrington is the chief spokesperson for the federal government's principal regulatory and human resources development department. It's a role that meshes the political responsibilities inherent to Washington, D.C. with the Department of Labor's overriding mission of public service. It's also a role where Harrington works side by side with a woman considered to be a political and social pioneer, Elaine L. Chao, the first Asian American woman appointed to a Cabinet post.

"It's great being able to help her tell her story because it's so inspiring," Harrington said.

It's hardly the first time the former mathematics and science teacher has worked for women seeking to smash the glass ceilings of American political life. Harrington was chief of staff for seven years to U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Connecticut), and worked for Elizabeth Dole as assistant secretary of labor for congressional and intergovernmental affairs when Dole headed the department. Harrington also worked for Dole when she was secretary of transportation, during her husband Robert Dole's 1988 presidential campaign, as well as the former Cabinet secretary's own presidential bid in 2000.

"That was a great opportunity," Harrington said of the 2000 Dole campaign. "She [Dole] ran thinking that maybe she could make a difference in how Americans elect people for high office. How we could elect someone who looks different, is different, and get more women involved in the political process."

The former Democrat believes that diversity is "essential" to the formulation of public policy.

"I think that having more women and people of color at the policy-making table is just better for the Republic," Harrington said. "I don't mean diversity for the sake of diversity, but I think you get better policies in the end if you have people with different life experiences involved."

"It's been interesting being a Republican feminist. Many people think it's an oxymoron," Harrington added. "I say, don't put me in any box. I was taught to be an independent thinker and that's the beauty of the revolution we lived through. We can make our own choices."

While she gives most credit to her parents for encouraging her independence, Harrington believes strongly that her experiences as one of Colgate's first women students was also a major factor.

"When you're going through something like that, you don't think `Ooh, this is revolutionary,' but later on you realize it was revolutionary," Harrington said.

Harrington entered Colgate as a junior, having transferred from Elmira College, which at that time was a women's college. Elmira, she said, offered a very nurturing environment. Colgate, on the other hand, was "radically different."

"There was a very different way of developing one's intellect at Colgate. It was very challenging and a shock to my system at first," said Harrington. "I'm grateful for having experienced it."

Harrington's view of public service was also molded by her experiences in the private sector, particularly as vice president of federal government relations at Aetna and as senior vice president of public affairs for the Health Insurance Association of America.

"I enjoyed working in the insurance industry. It's very misunderstood and under-appreciated for what it does," she said.

After a decade working for Aetna, Harrington thought her stay at the HIAA would be a lengthy one, but the election of a Republican to the presidency changed that and before long she was asked to come back to the Department of Labor to work for Chao. Whether she's talking about the skills gap, work-family issues, the stability of the private retirement system, job training or the economic dislocation in the Northeast in the aftermath of last September 11, Harrington's enthusiasm for her work never wanes.

"I'm not all starry eyed, because politics is often hand-to-hand combat in a time when the margin of power is so small," she said. "I think historians will have a field day studying this time, where one party has a six-vote majority in the House and the other has a one-vote majority in the Senate. It causes a lot of rancor because everything has such high stakes." GEF

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