When it comes to dealing with contractors, “I can swear with the best of them,” says Onsite Biological Monitor Vince Semonsen. “They think environmentalists are ‘skipping through the flowers’ type of people,” he tells me with a big smile on his face. As a consulting Wildlife Biologist, he works with local environmental groups, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, and the South Coast Habitat Restoration along with other organizations and of course developers. His job is guarding the safety of sensitive species and of the environment wherever construction takes place in our region.
I’m a big fan of Vince Semonsen. Most weekdays we do yoga together, and I’m honored that I get to spend that time with this honorable man.
Vince grew up on ‘a gentleman’s ranch’ in East Bay, CA in a family that ate a lot of the things they grew. Since his dad was a doctor, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in order to be in premed, but when he got there, he didn’t feel motivated. He saw an ad seeking guides for whitewater rafting trips and dropped out of school.
“Moving water is a spectacular thing,” he shares with great excitement. “Camping and exposing people to this was thrilling.” He realized that he’d been trying to figure out what to do with his life, and through white water guiding, he had found his passion. From there, he signed up for Humboldt State University’s Department of Wildlife. “I wanted to do something good for the world,” he explains. “And I loved being outdoors spending time with the ‘critters.’”
Vince got a job right out of school studying black footed ferrets in Wyoming, and was then hired by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to study the clapper rail — an endangered species of bird that lives around the Colorado River. Based on the reputation he earned with US Fish and Wildlife, Vince came to the attention of a fellow biologist who invited him to visit Santa Barbara and then offered him a job as a Biological Monitor. His first project here turned out to be the Chevron Oil and Gas pipeline that came from off-shore along Hollister Ranch and ended in Gaviota. The pipeline came on shore at Point Conception, and Vince was one of two scientists on site monitoring the project. He worked for the county of Santa Barbara on this for one and a half years. “This was the late 80s, and biological monitoring was pretty new,” remembers Vince. “County officials were responsible for some of the original biological monitoring protocol.”
Nineteen years ago, he met his wife Susan Rakov while dancing at SOhO, and they have a boy and a girl. In 2009, they were named “Local Heroes” by the Indy for their work at Harding School. She took charge of the PTA and he ran the Environmental Committee at the school. “We tried to make it a better place,” he says, “a better learning environment.” He tells me he’s “amazingly happy” and in love with his wife.
Vince answers the Proust questionnaire.
What is your motto?
Probably “Be here now.” For me that means slow down, look for birds, turn over a log, catch a lizard, smell the sage and maybe go off trail and see where it takes you.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I guess it would be some of the work Susan and I did over at Harding School. Also some of my ongoing efforts to preserve this world for the many generations to come.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Building community — gathering people up for a shared adventure.
What do you like most about your job?
Connecting with nature and connecting other people to nature and the need for environmental protection. The last job I was on we caught and relocated thirty big adult California red-legged frogs — now that was fun.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Floating down a river with family and friends, singing and camping under the stars. For a brief time leaving the rest of the world behind.
What is your greatest fear?
Who do you most admire?
My wife Susan Rakov for her commitment to making this world a better place, her integrity, her honesty and for putting up with me. I also truly admire the people who’ve put their lives on the line for what they believe in, like Malcolm X and Dr. King.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Camping gear, organic food and yoga classes
What is your current state of mind?
Pretty mixed after the election. I feel very blessed about my work and my beautiful family but it sure feels like our world is on shaky ground.
What is the quality you most like in people? Hope and optimism
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Lying and not following up on commitments.
What do you most value in friends?
Being able to connect on a deeper level and knowing that I’m accepted for who I am, warts and all.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Can’t think of any.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to be able to play a mean lead guitar riff
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Less ego and less caring about what other people think.
Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara has been home for 30+ years and it’s a great place to live. But if I could step out my door somewhere in the mountains and walk down to a river, that would be my ideal.
What is your most treasured possession?
Well I’m not much of a possessions guy but maybe my guitar. It came from my brother, it’s not too fancy, sounds great and it’s probably been with me longer than anything else I have. My wedding ring is also a pretty treasured possession.
Who makes you laugh the most?
Susan and I have a group of friends who we camp with and play lots of music. Late at night in those jams when we are all getting tired and punchy the silliness sets in. We start making up songs, we sing entire songs clucking like chickens, and we laugh, we laugh a lot.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
It would have to be people like Dave Foreman, David Brower, Ed Abbey, and John Muir – the enviro activist types. Now I haven’t done anything like those men, but I admire them and identify with them.
On what occasion do you lie?
Probably when I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.