Mohammed Shaikh and Newton Wong
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Caltrans biologists Mohammed Shaikh and Newton Wong are from two different worlds, but in the world of biology, they are equals. They both hold master’s degrees in environmental sciences and both see that Caltrans remains in compliance with federal and state environmental laws and regulations during all maintenance projects. Shaikh and Wong are environmental planners in the biological services section for maintenance in the Environmental Planning Division.
Shaikh is a native of Botswana in southern Africa and graduated from the University of Botswana, Gaborone. He enjoys a good soccer or cricket match. Wong is a native of Los Angeles, born and raised in downtown’s Chinatown neighborhood, and is a graduate of California State University, Los Angeles. Wong is an avid paintball player.
Both love nature and watching Discovery Network’s ‘Animal Planet.’ Shaikh is a fisherman and Wong is a hiker. These outdoor hobbies become necessary skills that are put to good use in their field trip work that entails climbing rugged hillsides, hiking forests, walking deserts and trekking through creeks. District 7 has various extreme and diverse terrains and weather conditions and for safety reasons, environmental planners often team up for field trips in rugged conditions. Their diversity makes them a good team.
Before even meeting at District 7, both held the same job but at different times with the County of Los Angeles Agricultural Commissioner, Weights and Measures. Somehow, they were destined to meet and to work together.
Caltrans must remain in compliance with environmental laws and regulations in its project planning, development, permitting, construction and maintenance phases. Shaikh and Wong work to ensure that District 7 is in good standing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and other laws specifically during maintenance and emergency projects. Other environmental planners in the department oversee compliance during other project phases such as in planning and construction, for example.
In their role as stewards of the state’s natural resources, Shaikh and Wong have recently worked together on clearing the rock slide on Pacific Coast Highway (SR-1, PCH) in Malibu and restoration efforts on State Route 2 in the Angeles National Forest. Shaikh led a project to restore erosion and the drainage systems at a coastal parking lot on PCH and he oversaw the replanting of 11 Joshua Trees on SR-138 in Palmdale for a roundabout project. Wong worked on a watershed project at Matilija Creek in Ojai to construct a slide to help direct fish into the creek.
“We try to lessen the impact for every tree, bush, rock and creature on the path of being cleared during the construction process, said Wong. “We ask the construction engineers, ‘why does that have to be removed; can you work around this tree? Even noise can scare a parent bird causing it abandon its nest and flee forever. Their young would be left to die. It comes down to those kinds of specifics.”
Nearly one and a half years after the Station Fire that traversed State Route 2 in the Angeles National Forest, Shaikh and Wong have conducted weekly field work to re-establish vegetation that burned and wildlife that perished within the state’s right of way. The fire burned over 160,000 acres and destroyed almost 200 structures in the forest. It also ravaged two District 7 highways: 40 miles of Angeles Crest Highway (SR-2) and seven miles of San Gabriel Canyon Road (SR-39). Since then, the biologists have begun to see the natural habitat and wildlife returning to the most heavily damaged 10-mile area on State Route 2. They vigilantly monitor the clearing of debris basins and culverts and set up structures and barriers to ensure that water remains clear.
“We use sandbags, sediment fencing and even bales of hay work to filter mud and catch sediment from entering a creek,” says Shaikh.
Hydroseeding is highly recommended for erosion control on barren hillsides or right of way and they make recommendations to Caltrans engineers on a construction or maintenance project on ways to avoid, restore or replenish environmental impacts that the department’s work may have on plant life and wildlife.
“It will take years to return the forest to what it was and it will take a team of people and agencies to help it along,” said Eduardo Aguilar, senior environmental planner, maintenance branch, Division of Environmental Planning. “Newton and Mohammed are doing an excellent job overseeing Caltrans compliance with environmental laws and balancing the interests of many federal, state and local regulatory agencies. This is no easy task. Everyone has a stake in, and an opinion about, the Angeles National Forest's natural resources.”
Aguilar oversees eight environmental planners with various responsibilities in the maintenance services branch. Much of their work requires a coordinated effort to acquire permits with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and State Water Resources Board, and local cities.
“Our job is to minimize impacts to the environment and help bring animals, plants and natural habitats back to its original condition – or even better - before a roadway project took place,” said Newton Wong, biologist and environmental planner. “After a natural disaster like a fire or rainstorm, the challenge is even bigger because the damage can penetrate underground to impede re-germination.”
Aguilar teams up his unit to have a diverse experience in District 7’s variety of biological environments on the coast, desert, mountains and in urban Los Angeles. He describes their work “environmental triage,” because very often his team and the Maintenance Division’s supervisors are the first responders on the scene to assess damage following a fire, mudslide or rockslide.
Environmental planners look to restore the quality of the plant life, protect the watershed, replace the landscaping and help to bring back the natural habitat for the animals in state-owned right of way that may have been disturbed.