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Paula Olson, outreach director for Laguna Canyon Foundation: Educator, explorer and environmentalist


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Paula Olson, outreach director of the nonprofit Laguna Canyon Foundation (LCF), was unfazed when a second grader asked recently whether the group would see “bears and giraffes” when they headed out on the trails as part of an educational outing.

“So many of the kids on these field trips have had virtually no exposure to anything other than an urban landscape,” Paula says. “A question like that is a great opportunity to tell them about the animals that do call our wilderness parks home. 

“We can’t guarantee that we’ll see deer or bobcat or coyotes, so we tell them that the next best thing is to look for evidence of wildlife. This of course includes scat, which we call poo to begin with, which makes them giggle. Then they turn serious about tracking. They often tell me this was their best day ever.”

Paula the Educator

The kids’ program is Paula’s favorite among the many outreach and volunteer programs under her direction. During the course of a year, approximately 4,000 second to fifth grade students explore the park during field trips, learning about flora and fauna and the importance of preserving their natural surroundings. 

paula olson dogs

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Paula, with her dogs Miro and Reggae, points out that some trails allow dogs, and some don’t – look for the dog icon – Meadows trail is a no, Aswut is a yes

Prior to her LCF job, Paula was Vice President of Marketing for Western Growers. One of her responsibilities was managing Western Growers Foundation, created by the organization’s members with the goal of putting “an edible garden in every willing school.” She played a major role in starting approximately 1,000 edible school gardens in California and Arizona. 

“The makeup of those schools mirrored in many ways the makeup of the schools and students we work with at LCF. Many immigrants; many ESL learners,” Paula notes. “As the grandchild of immigrants, I am invested in ensuring those kids, like I did, have opportunity: nutritious food, a hike in a wilderness park. We want the children in our LCF education program to know they belong in the wilderness parks too…that they can come on a hike with their families any time, and it’s their land to protect.”

Paula loves the fact that the adult volunteer count for Laguna Canyon Foundation stands at exactly 133, just like the state route. “The perfect number,” she says, “though of course we’d welcome volunteer number 134.

“Our volunteers are a delight – curious, friendly, happy, and dedicated,” she adds. “I love being with them.”

Those are qualities that she herself exhibits every day at work and in life, according to her colleagues at LCF – not to mention that Paula is also creative and accomplished. 

Paula the Explorer

Paula recalls her passion for exploring when she was a child. Unfettered by the restrictions placed on kids these days, she loved to roam the cliffs of San Pedro and find her way down to the ocean, preferably by herself.

“Part of the fascination for me has always been imagining the early history of Southern California, how Native Americans lived off this land 200, 300 years ago,” she adds.

paula olson portrait

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Paula is happiest outdoors, whether on the land or the ocean

Serendipity, she says, led to her hiring by LCF. She’d lived in Laguna Beach for twelve years when she attended a presentation on fuel modification at Moulton Meadows. That’s where she met Hallie Jones, executive director, and Alan Kaufmann, restoration program director. Later she joined them to do trail maintenance. The three of them got along swimmingly. 

Hallie, Paula found out later, was interested from the moment they met to hire her in some capacity, though it took months for the time to be right.

“I am so impressed with Hallie,” Paula says. “She’s done so much to build this organization. I’m grateful for the team she’s built around her.”

The admiration is mutual. “One of the real joys of working in a nonprofit, mission-based organization is that we get to work with people who are passionate about the very things we believe in,” Hallie says. “Paula embodies that. Her work at LCF is more than just a job – it’s a calling. She brings that enthusiasm and joy to everything she does.”

Interestingly, for such a passionate lover of nature, Paula is not a fan of camping. She struggles to find a good reason – discomfort and lack of indoor plumbing don’t bother her, so it’s not that. As we hike the steep Valido Trail (I’m puffing, she’s leaping up the trail like a mountain goat), we hit upon the solution: not only are there just “too many people at campsites,” but camping is too static an activity. Like a shark, Paula needs to keep moving. 

And keep moving she does. It’s the explorer in her.

“When Hallie hired me, she told me she wanted me out on the trails at least 50 percent of the time, checking on conditions, overseeing volunteer activity, working with OC Parks staff, interacting with hikers and bikers. That sold me. The last thing I wanted at this stage of my life was a nine to five office job,” says the former marketing executive. 

Paula the Environmentalist

Paula’s favorite trail is Mentally Sensitive, and not just because of the great name, which was created when someone removed letters from a sign noting that this was an “environmentally sensitive” area.

“Going down the canyon, there are beautiful views,” she says. “I’ve seen birds at eye level. It’s challenging but fun.” 

paula olson sign

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The wilderness parks primarily protect the habitat, and secondarily provide opportunities for recreation

Paula is as much at home in the ocean as on the land. “The best gift I ever received came from my husband, Brian – a set of scuba diving lessons,” Paula notes. 

Their first dog together, Eiffel – which Brian was training as a seeing eye dog – was in their wedding in Dana Point.

She and Brian also play tennis, hike, ski, snowboard, and ride bikes. For their 25th anniversary, they visited Barcelona, which they loved.

They also share a passion for dogs, particularly their own, naturally: Miro, a German Shepherd mix named after Spanish artist Joan Miro, and Reggae, a black lab reflecting Brian’s and Paula’s love of that music.

“Paula and I immediately bonded over our love of dogs, but more specifically German Shepherds,” Cameron Davis, LCF’s outreach manager, says. “We have so much more in common than just being crazy dog moms. Turns out we are both wildly passionate about the wilderness. Paula is a true steward of the land. I mean in addition to the woman who does regular trail work, she recently took up mountain biking and volunteers for Crystal Cove also. She’s basically a superhero.” 

I asked Paula the greatest misconception people have about the wilderness parks. 

paula olson trails

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As Outreach Director, Paula spends 50 percent of her time on the trails

“Some people think the parks are for recreation first, and wilderness second, but it’s the other way around. Our goal is preservation of the habitat,” she says. “That’s why we don’t allow dogs on most trails – because their presence disrupts the wildlife. It can also be dangerous out there for the dogs, given the heat, rattlesnakes, and coyotes.”

Coyotes happen to be Paula’s favorite animal, which may surprise some residents. “They’re durable, smart, adaptable, and family-oriented, raising pups together,” she says. “They’re also misunderstood.”

Above all, Paula is an educator who wants visitors to understand the natural glories that surround them and the reasons why it is so important to preserve our wilderness parks – and she’s an explorer who can’t get enough of the wilderness during its changing seasons. 

“To quote our volunteers,” Paula says, “I keep hiking so I can keep hiking.” 

So it’s just as well for Laguna Canyon Foundation that there are more than 22,000 acres locally to keep her interested and on the move, as she works with the LCF team to preserve a wilderness where indigenous plants and animals can thrive while at the same time provide pleasure for nature-loving visitors, hikers, and bikers.

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