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Southern California man wins National Park Service volunteer of the year award

May 14, 2010 | 12:42 pm

Tony Valois pauses while photographing wildflowers.

The National Park Service recently announced that a Southern California volunteer has won the national George B. Hartzog Jr. award for outstanding volunteer service by an individual.

Tony Valois, who lives at Circle X Ranch as a volunteer campground host, won the award for his dedicated service to Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. His most notable accomplishment is an innovative wildflower identification database. The Internet database allows for easy identification of wildflowers in the Santa Monica Mountains based on just a few simple characteristics, such as color and size.

The project, which Valois, 53, has been working on for the last six years, simply grew out of demand. "I found that even though visitors had field guides, it was hard for them to find the flowers quickly and easily," Valois  said. He started taking photos of the most common wildflowers found around Circle X Ranch and Sandstone Peak. When hikers would stop by the visitor station with wildflower questions, Valois would show them digital images of the most common flowers to help with identification. 

As the number of images grew, Valois realized that posting them to the Internet would allow more people access and empower even the novice wildflower enthusiast to make independent identifications. "I wanted to create a search engine that was built on characteristics that people remember, like size, color and shape,"  Valois said.

The collection has grown to more than 700 pictures and includes scientific and common names plus close-up shots of wildflowers that otherwise might be difficult to tell apart. Valois is now working on an iPhone application which will allow hikers to bring the database along with them on the trail.

Before joining the National Park Service as a volunteer in 2002, Valois earned a PhD in electrical engineering, was a professor at the University of Minnesota, attended seminary school taught in Malaysia, and worked as a church choir director.

-- Kelly Burgess

Photo: Tony Valois pauses while photographing wildflowers. Credit: National Park Service

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