Career Change

Wildlife biologist shares life stories

By Jessica Laskey
July 2024

Roger Jones has a thicket of trees named for him. It’s called Rawge’s Grove, situated in the Bufferlands natural habitat refuge on the outskirts of the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in Elk Grove.

Rawge’s Grove—a nod to Jones’ nickname—is part of the 2,150-acre Bufferlands. The grove honors the man who helped create the barrier between the treatment facility and surrounding neighborhoods.

In 1990, when Jones was a young wildlife biologist from UC Davis, he was hired to oversee the area’s habitat restoration.

“It was just me and one engineer on this 3,000-acre refuge,” recalls Jones, who grew up on a farm in the San Joaquin Valley. “The engineer, Roy Nelson, would say, ‘What could we do here? What do you want?’

“So I took the reins. I would suggest things and Roy knew how to make them happen with the county. In 30 years, we turned it into the incredible Bufferlands.”

Bufferlands is home to restored wildlife habitats, including Upper Beach Lake Wildlife Area and Laguna Wetlands Complex. There’s the Trail of Trees with 6,500 native trees and shrubs. There’s the historic 1940s Nicolaus Dairy restored in 2016 to host hands-on educational experiences.

Thanks to Jones and Nelson, Bufferlands welcomes thousands of visitors for tours and events.

“It’s only about 2,500 acres—the farm I grew up on was about the same size—but it’s 2,500 acres of magic,” Jones says. “We have 250 species of birds. Yosemite is 50,000 acres and they only have about 20 birds more than us.

“There may not be any other place in California that has this amount of diversity of mammals, fish, insects and plants.”

While Jones has talent for working with the land, it was not his intended career. He started in the oil fields in his 20s, but oil prices tanked. Soon unemployed, he took a creative writing class at Coalinga College. Staff convinced him to become a full-time student majoring in journalism.

A chance encounter with a wildlife biologist made him change tack. He transferred to UC Davis to study natural resource science.

“In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to write,” he says. “I figured, if I got a job as a wildlife biologist, I could write any time. But it actually took me 30 years.”

Jones returned to his first love when it looked like he was running out of time. In April 2020, COVID-19 landed him on a hospital ventilator for more than a month. He was told he would likely die.

The prognosis got him thinking about the book he meant to write. He started composing on his phone in his hospital bed and “finished two years later on a chaise-longue in a hut in Panama over the water, looking down at the beautiful fish. Things change in your life and your troubles can change also,” he says.

The resulting memoir, “And There I Was… Just Minding My Own Business,” is a compendium of 50 chapters of true stories spanning 60 years of life.

“Every bit of it is true, but I think every single story isn’t just about me, it’s more general,” Jones says. “People can read it and think, ‘That’s me,’ or ‘I’ve never thought about that.’ I hope it reverberates bigger.”

Jones retired in March after 34 years at Bufferlands. He set off on a two-month book signing tour and trip to Mexico with his wife, “my muse and my support” Rhonda. Of his first six days back, two were at Bufferlands.

“They still seek my counsel and I’m so thankful they still reach out to me. I love these people,” Jones says. “We’re all friends. We’ve been in each other’s weddings. The six of us are very close, which is as good as you could ever hope for in your lifetime.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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