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Local Volunteer Creates Massive Wildflower Database, Wins National Award

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Take a hike with Tony Valois in the Santa Monica Mountains and you're likely to see things much differently than the average hiker. For Valois, a volunteer with the National Park Service, the mountains are a living, breathing and ever-changing landscape of beauty, wonder and excitement. What's this flower? He has the answer. How about this grass? Yeah, he knows it. What can be said about this tree? Nothing gets beyond him and if he doesn't know, he'll be quick to figure it out.

Valois, who has lived at Circle X Ranch (home to the tallest point in the mountain range, Sandstone Peak) as a volunteer campground host since 2002, would often field wildflower questions by hikers. His first solution was to show them digital photos to help in identification. Soon the photo collection grew and he decided there needed to be a solution. So in 2004, he took his passion for photography and flowers and website know-how to make an online Flower Finder for ones found within the Santa Monica National Recreation Area.

"At that point it was just some lists of names," Valois explained. "At first I figured, 'oh, i'll do 40, 50 60 of the really common ones -- everyone wants to look at a rose, right? Everyone wants to look at a lily.' And so that was initially my plan, to just put some of our most attractive flowers on the website." But by the end of 2004, his list had grown to some 300 species accompanied by photos.

And those first 300 were the easy part, says Valois. "Those are the things everyone sees all the time on all the trails. Every year it gets progressively harder. I now spend a day or two hunting down a single flower."

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In 2008, when the list was still growing, Valois had to make a change. "It was just getting out of control in terms of not only usability for the visitor, but also my management of the mass of flowers and data and pictures." He looked into a handful of pre-packaged programs and they didn't do what he wanted. "I finally was at that place where something has to be done, so I ended up writing my own content management system."

Luckily, he has a background in engineering (he has a Ph.D in electrical engineering and once was a professor at the University of Minnesota), which made programming a non-issue. "I love flowers, photographer, the computer aspect I enjoy," he noted. "In fact, without that combination of things the flower project would have never become what it is. Any one of those pieces missing would have halted the project, or changed the way it turned out."

Today, the website is a searchable database that helps users identify flowers by answering a series of questions about what they saw (color, size, shape, etc). It now holds 700 flowering plants, which is about 500 short of the 1200 estimated plants thought to exist in the Santa Monicas.

Valois' savvy and dedication to the project has now earned him a top National Park Service volunteer award. And its this recognition that could change nature learning throughout the country -- his programming could be used a as template in identification of plants for other National Parks. Most recently, he programmed it for use on mobile phones.

One of Valois' favorite places in the Santa Monica Mountais is Triunfo Creek Park in the Westlake-Agoura Hills area. "It's a floristically fascinating area," he said. On a desolate-looking rocky hillside area, he hiked up and pointed out various small, yet beautifully delicate species. What usually goes unnoticed to a casual hiker is a goldmine for him -- he estimated that about hundred species lived right there.

Walking further up the trail, Valois got even more excited as he came upon a field of owl's clover. "Wow, I've never seen anything like this," he exclaimed as he got out his camera. "This has to go on the internet." The flower, which is not uncommon, typically doesn't grow so densely. "I've never seen anything like this before. I'm not saying I've seen everything there is to see, but this is a big deal. This is a treat."