Leading With Heart And Humility
Reflections on 26 Years of Service

Managing species recovery can be challenging and daunting. In the Pacific Islands, research is conducted to assess threats and impacts on Endangered Species Act listed species and data is collected and analyzed—to understand the health and status of species populations within a single island or across multiple islands. The work that occurs in the field among U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners is just one part of how the Service manages the recovery of threatened and endangered species. 

Another part of that work happens behind a computer screen, making sense of volumes of various data sets to convey accurate information through reports, maps, and other visual products. Fortunately, this is a speciality of Susan Machida, cartographer of the Pacific Islands Fish and Wildlife Service Office (PIFWO) in Honolulu. As part of the Strategic Habitat Conservation Program, Susan uses geographic information system (GIS) and mapping tools, develops and manages data systems, and leverages graphic design skills. Through her work she makes data accessible and provides context, so it informs conservation planning, decisions, and actions. 

Susan was born and raised in Hawaiʻi. Studying at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa (UH), Susan earned an undergraduate degree in economics and graduate degree in urban and regional planning. She supported planning at UH for a few years, then pursued work at a multi-disciplinary consulting firm where she was introduced to GIS by a sub-contractor for one of her projects. While she took geography and cartography courses at UH, maps were still primarily hand drawn by most government agencies.

“At the time GIS was a new tool; universities were just beginning to offer courses and only a few had degree programs”, said Susan.

Receiving hands on GIS training and application in the private sector, she joined the Service in 1998 where she was reunited with her GIS instructor, Rod Low, who was expanding PIFWO’s GIS capabilities. 

Geospatial science, data, and technologies are vital components needed to meet the mission of the Service. GIS is one of the tools, used to store, analyze, and display information geographically. While a presentation map may be the end product, the most vital component is having data, a critical requirement.

Susan’s early years with the Service were primarily focused on critical habitat packages. Work that involves accessing existing layers as well as collecting new data from published sources and partners; overlaying resource and management layers to assist in delineating units; processing data to identify overlaps and generate various acreage breakdowns; and designing maps for presentations, public meetings and federal register publications. This advances recovery of species and helps federal agencies fulfill their conservation responsibilities. It also empowers the public and the Service’s conservation partners with useful information on where these designated areas are geographically. 

Susan possesses a unique combination of skill, curiosity, and creativity—its imbuded in the work that she does. There is a care and thoughtfulness in the way that she approaches her projects and dedication to really listen and directly support her colleagues. 

“My work is often solitary,” said, Susan. “One of the most satisfying parts of my job, is having information available at my fingertips and being able to share that information to make someone’s work a little easier.”

Currently, 24 threatened and 561 endangered species call Hawaiʻi, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands home. A majority or  46 % of the nation’s ESA listed plant species are found in Hawaiʻi, followed by 19 % in California, and 7 % in Florida. 

Many in the Service and the public are familar with the Environmental Conservation Online System (ECOS), a data base that provides reports and additional information related to ESA species. 

Environmental Conservation Online System (ECOS) serves a variety of reports related to FWS Threatened and Endangered Species.

Learn more about ECOS
is an invaluable tool at the species,
state, and regional levels, the Pacific Islands pose a unique situation because of its geographic makeup. The need to summarize and consolidate information by island or sub-regions (Hawaiʻi, Maui Nui, Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Guam, CNMI), as well as account for multi-island versus island endemic species, pose unique questions not easily answered by a national database.

In an effort to organize, quantify, and track species within the Pacific Islands, Susan has worked with PIFWO colleagues to design and maintain a database that enable staff to track data received from various partners. An area of significant collaboration occurs with Lauren Weisenberger, PIFWO plant recovery coordinator focused on assembling status information for the Pacific Islands’ 441 listed plants. 

For the Service, the plant recovery coordinator is a focal point in reviewing and a conduit receiving annual updates from all Hawaii Plant Extinction Prevention Program offices and the Oʻahu Army Natural Resources Program. This partner data when coupled with PIFWO data, enables the Service to improve its ability to track plant status and assist Weisenberger with a range of activities, including recovery plans, five-year reviews, and species assessments. To ensure that the database continues to provide relevant information for plant recovery, Susan and Weisenberger will be adding controlled prorogation and outplanting data. Building levels of detail and sophistication of the database benefit from this collaboration and will inform the Service’s efforts as it develops similar partnerships with other relevant data holders like the National Park Service.  

Much of her work is self-guided, though it does help to consult with members of her team, like Fred Amidon. She credits Amidon’s background as an ecologist, equipping him with tensive knowledge of available scientific studies and data, as well as the scientific modeling he conducts to help visualize possible future scenarios based on historic and current data. This collaboration is inspiring and there is genuine satisfaction in their search for answers. For those that may be data averse or quickly overwhelmed by such large sums of information, there is relief and appreciation for their tenacity to answer queries or get as close to an answer as available data allows. 

So what goes into designing and managing a useful data base? 

We know some of the questions consistently asked by staff, managers, regional office and headquarters, and congressional offices,” revealed, Susan. “Fred and I view GIS and the database as tools to collect, summarize and report the data to answer these questions accurately, consistently, and easily. The database is also designed to be versatile and accommodate unanticipated questions—it just might take a little longer to pull the data and design the queries.”

Susan is often sought out for adding graphical elements to convey significant or complex information. Her touch is subtle though discerning and deliberate. Providing focal points and summaries that supports the Service’s recovery coordinators and leadership to wrap their arms around what’s been accomplished. Capturing moments in time to savor the successes of local partnerships. Though also providing hope on long-term projects, where progress may be incremental in light of challenges that lie ahead.

Susan demonstrates that good design is intentional. Her name isn’t embossed on her work products, though Susan finds joy in seeing the products she creates being used by others.  

Her contributions of unique and intentional designs, compel viewers to read partner and Service presentations and annual reports. Susan’s collaborative efforts make her colleagues feel seen and appreciated for the work they do. As she beautifully lays out and tells a story with images for the public to connect with—the species, places where they’re found, and the communities behind their recovery and conservation.  

Susan has a way of seeing confusing or complex things with clarity. She helps bring information into focus, so that others can experience information in a concise and straightforward manner too. 

Being of service to her colleagues is both a motivation and inspiration for Susan. She is very humble about her work and sees her contributions as part of the whole.  

In serving others, Susan also found mentorship and friendship among one colleague in particular, Greg Koob. Koob was the former assistant field supervisor for programmatic operations for PIFWO and a close friend to Susan.

Greg and I started around the same time,” she, shares. “He actually was the one that encouraged me to take on the database and graphic design projects with our partners.” 

Over the years a mutual respect for one another professionally, blossomed into a lifelong friendship, including a healthy bit of competition and gamesmanship.

“We always talked about learning lauhala weaving,” remarked, Susan. “Something we’d do together, even if it was in retirement.”

It was fortuitous that at the 2022 Kawaihaʻo Church’s Annual Holiday Craft Fair that Susan met members of a club and signed them both up for their next pāpale weaving class. 

“I was so excited because some members knew Greg as the “plant guy” from Lyon Arboretum plant sales and the May Day lei competition and were eager to meet him,” said Susan. “I couldn’t wait to tell Greg, in person and see the look on his face and experience his reaction.”

Susan didn’t get the opportunity to share the news with Koob, as he unexpectedly passed away that same weekend. 

“It was hard to do it alone—I thought of withdrawing my name from the class,” she, shared. 

Though Susan continued on with her ulana, weaving classes and accomplished an amazing feat in completing her first lauhala pāpale, pandanus hat. Koob is never far from her thoughts when she is weaving. Just this past November, Susan weaved lauhala ornaments and placed it on his ʻōhiʻa memorial tree at Lyon Arboretum.  

“It’s something I’m not very good at, but continue to learn and struggle through,” chuckled, Susan. “And I know Greg would get a kick out of the opportunity to show me up. Senior ladies loved Greg and I know he would’ve been a STAR in the club.”

On the walls of her office are striking photos of Pacific Island flora, including a hīnano blossom, the male flower of the lauhala tree. These are photographs taken by Greg, marked with his distinct artistry and precision. Works that capture the beauty and essence of each species.

“Over the course of Greg’s career, he has taken thousands of photos,” proclaimed, Susan. “It’s important for people to continue to see his work.” 

Susan continues the legacy of her friend by maintaining and sharing Greg’s photography collection. The Service continues to use images credited to Greg that engage the public to experience his talent and make their own connections with the species that Greg cared for and worked to conserve. 

When Susan is not map making or collaborating with partners, she can be found traversing the globe with her family. Her travels within the Pacific include China and Japan, though extend to Brazil and Peru, as well as multiple destinations in Europe. And if that collection of passport stamps was not already impressive enough, shell be collecting another from Norway to view the aurora borealis in 2025.

Susan’s career reminds us that there are many paths to the Service. And that to meet our mission, diversity must be resident in our workforce. This diversity is forged among different backgrounds of our public servants. Not only in different scientific disciplines, though among different cultures and lived experiences. 

Susan is quick to point out that she lacks photos of herself in the field with extremly rare plants or other wildlife, like her co-workers. Despite that, she has made direct and significant contributions over the last 26 years (and counting) with the Service, advancing recovery of the regions ESA species. Leaving an indelible legacy, in supporting her colleagues and engaging the communities she serves to more easily connect with and care about the plants and wildlife that the Service is responsible for stewarding.  

Susan leads with heart and humility. Ever ready to lend a helping hand and confront even the most intimidating of tasks. Through collaborations she helps carry and lighten workloads. Contributing her talents to make the work of conservation a little less difficult and providing great company and perspective along the way.  

Story Tags

Endangered and/or Threatened species
Resource management
Strategic habitat conservation