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Wake Island Project: Zach Johnson

While many CSU students were taking a few days to unwind after finals or moving out of their apartments, recent graduates of the Horticulture and Landscape Architecture Department were traveling halfway around the world to complete a project they had been working on as students since December 2016.  Scott Curry, (B.S., Environmental Horticulture with a concentration in Landscape Design and Contracting, ’14 and M.L.A. ‘17) and Michael Schleining, (B.S., Environmental Horticulture with a concentration in Nursery and Landscape Management, ‘17) along with Professor Zach Johnson were traveling to Wake Island, a remote strategic military refueling stop administered by the United States Air Force.  Located over 2000 miles west of Hawaii and nearly the same distance east of Tokyo, Wake Island is truly in the middle of nowhere.

As a collaboration with CSU’s Center for the Environmental Management of Military Lands, the HLA team was responsible for the design and implementation of a native plant nursery to be used for a revegetation project on the island.  Their work included preparing construction documents, specifying and procuring materials, building the nursery, and propagating plants while on Wake Island.

Because of the remoteness of Wake Island and the restricted access, exhaustive planning was necessary to ensure a successful project.  Initial design work began in late 2016, which included developing plans for the structure and irrigation and pump systems.  Complicating the project design were limitations in excavation due to the possibility of remaining unexploded ordinance from World War II.  Upon approval of the design in February, material procurement began.  All materials and tools for the project were shipped to Wake Island by contractor barge or aircraft from Honolulu; there were no means to secure an overlooked piece or part once on the island.  Supplies included everything from structural steel, electrical wire, controllers, valves, and a pump, to rooting hormone and potting soil as well as every screw, nut and bolt that would be needed.  All necessary tools also had to be identified and shipped to the island: drills, saws, grinders, safety gear, shovels and even finger nail clippers for use when propagating plants.  By late April all the materials had been staged in Honolulu. The supplies began their trip to Wake Island on a barge, along with tons of other supplies required on an island responsible for 100 military contractors to support the needs of the refueling station.

In late May, the HLA team boarded a military contractor flight from Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu for the five-hour flight to Wake Island for a two-week stay until the next scheduled rotator flight arrived for their return to Honolulu.

Upon a smooth, yet hot and humid construction phase of the nursery, plant propagation was next.  The team was responsible for locating and verifying approximately seven native species of plants on the island.  Collection required off-road driving, hiking and even sea kayaking to reach a small neighboring island.  As some of these species had never been propagated in a nursery setting, numerous techniques were attempted including adjusting soil type, irrigation methods and exposure to full and partial sun conditions.  Within several days, it was apparent which combination would be best suited for each species.  Prior to our departure, the team was glad to see root growth and vigor of most propagated species.  Establishment of the nursery and the initial propagation of native plant material will allow subsequent teams to install these and future plants which will aid in erosion control and allow Wake Island to continue to meet its critical mission.

Recent graduate Mike Schleining stated that, “The Wake Island native plant nursery project was an exceptional opportunity to apply the knowledge I gained in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture as well as to challenge me to learn new things, both horticulturally and logistically. The exposure to tropical plants, marine logistics, and working with real companies to achieve a goal was the perfect way to start my career in the green industry. This experience was truly one of a lifetime, as not many people get to say they have traveled to Wake Island. I am honored that I had the chance to represent Colorado State University and the department in an effort to revegetate land that was devastated in the past.”

group photo at the wake island project
from the left, Scott Curry, unnamed US Military personnel x 2, Michael Schleining, Zach Johnson
Mike Schleining preparing rooting trays
Mike Schleining preparing rooting trays
Photo of successful rooting
Successful rooting!
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