Fitting a part into the whole: Learning the broader implications of my fieldwork

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a training: Interpreting Indicators of Rangeland Health (IIRH.) which helped situate the fieldwork I had been doing for months into a much larger context.

The purpose of this class is to learn how to assess the status of a given site relative to its potential. What this means is comparing a site to an ecological site assessment (ESA), or rather what that site at optimum potential looks like. For instance, before visiting a site, the ESA states that when operating at maximum potential the area that would have a variety of desert shrubs and be dominated by cool season grasses. Instead, when you go to assess the site, you note few mixed shrubs and an abundance of thriving invasives. Moreover, the area has become dominated by warm season grasses like Galleta grass when, in far healthier years, there was a majority of cool season grasses like Indian Rice. Besides this initial large species shift or “functional group change”, the site is also assessed along 16 other indicators which fall into three main categories: Soil and Site Stability, Hydrologic Function and Biotic Integrity. These factors are then given ratings and subsequently tallied to provide a numerical picture as to the overall health of the land.

These cumulative totals are used to help determine the amount of deviation from the sites potential. This conclusion then helps outline management guidelines. First, can the site be rehabilitated? Unfortunately, in some cases due to extreme mixes of outside factors such as drought or overgrazing- the top layer of soil or the A horizon is gone and thus the site can no longer be restored to previous speciation and potential. If, on the other hand, the answer is that the site can be rehabilitated then the current biological data will be considered in conjunction with management objectives and the original ESA. By using this multi-layered approach to understanding the optimal versus actual state of the land, Field Offices are able to build a more thorough and accurate long term management plan. Due to current extreme weather changing patterns, new understandings regarding management and increasingly imperative long term goals as soil health these long term plans are integral to continuing to ensure land health.

Personally, I found the IIRH training fundamental in situating my current work- a land intensification study using Assessment,Inventorying and Monitoring- in the larger picture of management. As a plant- oriented person, I often tend to focus on land health specifics as applicable to various species and the smaller zones in which they grow. While, that type of “spot treatment” is important– it is questionable if it is always applicable in the long term. An optimally functioning ecosystem is a complex web of interdependent factors where the health of one species is directly linked to the success of other organisms. By situating these ideas in a more, all encompassing approach to land management- it pushes field offices to work collaboratively as one must consider the impact of hydrology, rangeland management, soils and botany to fully and effectively the management of the land.

Farewell

With only two weeks left of my internship and winter looming upon us, things have been slowing down in Rawlins. My co-intern and I have made twenty-one of our twenty-five collections, and now we are just waiting for our sagebrush species to go to seed. However, these last four collections might be tougher than we thought – I came back from a weekend trip of summiting Mt. Elbert to more snow in Rawlins! Since we’re only at 6,500 feet, I wasn’t expecting this much snow until later in the month…but I guess Wyoming wanted to make up for the fact that I’ve spent three snow-less winters in New Mexico and wanted to send me off with a white farewell.

Fog, and soon snow, settling on the mountains near the state line between Wyoming and Colorado

While we’ve been waiting for our sages to seed, we’ve been helping some departments around the office with projects – weed location with a specialist, raptor nest outreach with one of the wildlife biologists, and NEPA/ESA consultation with our mentors. Although this paperwork hasn’t been the most exciting aspect of our internship, I think it’s a really unique skill to be able to use later in life, because so few recent graduates have this experience and government positions value it highly. We’ve been going through permits and referencing maps for sensitive, threatened, and endangered species to allow, not allow, or allow with stipulations, activities that would occur on public land. We’ve also been accompanying some wildlife biologists on raptor nest projects, including searching for nests around wind projects, implementing new artificial nests, and visiting the elementary school to teach kids about nearby raptor nests and other wildlife.

Since we’d been doing a lot of tasks with the wildlife department, it was nice to get back into plants to help out the weed specialists. We went to two BLM campgrounds that are along a river to search for leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula), musk thistle (Leucanthemum vulgare), spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), and oxeye daisy (Carduus nutans). These species, within the past ~10 years, had been routinely sprayed and we were out there to see if the spraying had proved effective. We walked areas that historically had one or more areas of the weeds to see if they were present or gone, and if they looked as if they were dying back from the treatment.

After my final weeks are up, I will be moving to Texas to work in horticulture at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. I am grateful for the experiences and lessons this internship and this town taught me, and will carry them with me on my next adventure.

Signing off,

Chloe

BLM RFO

The Ecology of a Production Field

One thing that I have yet to mention, that is kind of a large part of my job, is the tending of a milkweed production garden. I don’t have a picture of the whole thing, but it’s massive! It hosts I believe 3 different kinds of milkweed, and has around 50 plants. It was planted last year in an effort to get more milkweeds out into the Ouachitas for obvious monarch reasons. But….we have a bug infestation! I hate using that word because in the picture below you will find the milkweed bug. This bug along with aphids, assassin bugs, and of course the pollinators are all insects that belong in the ecosystem of the milkweed. Infestation implies something negative, and in this case I guess it is, too many milkweed bugs=no seeds, but I wish there was a better way to talk about it.

Not sure why the file was corrupted, but I quite like the outcome

This production garden is basically a mono culture: the bugs can easily find it, aren’t tempted by other nearby plants, and have unlimited resources to sustain them. Only in these kind of ecosystems do bugs really start to become a “problem”. This situation reminds me of an article I read in my tropical ecology class by Dr. Altieri. He says that if you start considering pests a problem, you aren’t viewing agriculture as an ecosystem, which is what it is. This has got me thinking about why this garden was designed the way that it was. It would have been beneficial to everyone if other native plants were grown at the same time. Not all my pods would be destroyed like they seem they may be soon if I don’t do something about it.

I wrote this a couple weeks back and in the meantime I’ve: gotten all the pods I can out of the production garden, the milkweed is starting to ‘die’ for the season, and I’ve started planting some other plants in the garden! I weeded the garden at the beginning of the season and all the weeds are back. I wish I could have kept up with it the whole summer but summer highs of 95, and sometimes above, made that a little difficult. I hope that next year someone who goes out to the seed orchard every other day will be able to check on the milkweed that way no pods will be lost to the wind. Because my office is 45 minutes away from the production garden it just made it difficult to effectively tend to the garden, especially because often there wasn’t anything else for me to do out there. This meant that going to check on the pods was a 2 hour endeavor that often ended up empty handed. At the beginning of the season there were plenty of seeds of other plants to collect in between the pine trees at the orchard but the mowers got a little excited and mowed down a lot of my flowers…Hopefully by the end of the season there will be some more seeds to collect out there.

Kind of off topic but about farming

I’ve always been a gardener but I’ve never owned my own. All through college I would volunteer at urban farms in New Orleans but I always felt that I wasn’t in a permanent place enough to start my own. I realize now that was silly because I planted some plants in pots up here in Arkansas. I guess I was inspired by the milkweed garden…

I’ve been reading the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. In this book one whole section is about rice cultivation. He talks about how rice is super finicky and could never be grown in the super industrialized way that corn and soy beans are. He stresses the importance of time and strenuous labor involved in the trade. With rice, the more time you put in, the more money you make. This isn’t true with something like corn where you can substitute time with chemicals. I really liked this section of the book because it goes to show that you can’t innovate your way out of every problem. This is why gardening has always appealed to me. The work that you put in leaves you with a tangible product. And this is why tending to the milkweed garden has been difficult! The way it was designed doesn’t leave me hopeful about the product. I just hope that next year the seeds I’ve planted come up and lead to a garden that is modeled after an ecosystem.

Of course the dilemma of the gardener is that you want ALL the product and don’t want any to go to the insects but sometimes the sacrifice is necessary! As a gardener, you are the one who is disrupting the normal system, you can’t expect nature to not give you some bit of a hard time. 

Ok, one more tangent. Before I started working for the Forest Service I didn’t realize that our nations forests are basically large pine tree (and other tree) production fields. Most of the work that people do in the office has to do with managing this land to make sure the production of pine trees is maximized. Hence why the forest service is part of the Department of Agriculture. It’s crazy though how differently the forests are managed as opposed to crop fields. It seems to come easily to foresters that the maintenance of the natural ecosystem of a forest is important but when you move to growing corn, that mentality is lost? I understand why. Pine trees were there to begin with, the foresters are just managing them. But where the corn is, there also used to be an ecosystem. Maybe short term it wouldn’t be as productive to try and keep some of the aspects of that original ecosystem. But long term, it would be really beneficial! Especially because letting the land lay fallow to regenerate wouldn’t take as much time, but much of the original plants would already be around! Anyways, just a tangent about how farmers need to be more like foresters (who are also just farmers). 

I have 4 more weeks here in Arkansas! So the next blog post will be the last one.

Altieri, “Agroecology: principles and strategies for designing sustainable farming systems.” http://www.agroeco.org/doc/new_docs/Agroeco_principles.pdf

Rachel

Ouachita National Forest

Autumn Encroaches Upon the Forest

The end of my CLM Internship is quickly approaching. With only three weeks left, all summer projects are drawing to a close. It’s incredible to see how much my confidence and knowledge has grown over the past four months in the field of forestry.

As I write this blogpost, I’m participating in my Alternative Training Opportunity. Due to fieldwork requirements in Casper, I was unable to attend the training put on by the Chicago Botanical Gardens. Fortunately, the Society of American Foresters has their annual meeting in the fall. As fieldwork slows down, I was able to spend a week and travel to Portland to meet with foresters and leaders in the industry from around the country.

This opportunity has giving me a wonderful pathway to network with a vast variety of individuals. I’ve been able to chat with fellow foresters, well established in the private sector, federal agency, or state department where they work. I’ve met timber consultants, small timber forest owners, policy makers, and professors conducting research related to forestry and forest ecology. It has been an incredible tool to begin to think about my next step following the CLM internship.

Additionally, I’ve had the chance to attend countless science and technology lectures, as well as discussion panels on a variety of forestry topics. I’ve heard about the complexities of conveying academic research to the forest industry as well as the general public, panels on how to manage the forests before the costly wildfires devastate the land, and a quantified analysis of the damage black bears do to privately owned timber stands. Quite the diverse range of topics in a short period of time, and I’ve still got two more days of the convention!

It’s sad to see my time as a CLM Intern drawing to a close. Fortunately, it is merely the start of a new phase in my life. I’ve been very lucky to gain the strong foundation and on the ground experiences I have as an intern. I am excited at the prospects of what is to come, and will always cherish my experience as an intern.

A Seed Without Roots

It’s that time of year again: change is everywhere. From the weather to the flora and fauna to the people, everyone and everything is gearing up for the sun to change positions on the horizon. After 15+ years of school, I’m used to fall being hectic; this time of year always means starting a new chapter with a schedule that has you buzzing around like a bee. However, working seasonally adds a whole new level of chaotic uncertainty. My days aren’t done when I’m off the clock; my evenings are filled with job hunting, resume writing, apartment hunting, packing all my stuff up (again), cleaning. I have to remind myself that this is the reality of freedom. I wanted to work seasonally so I could live and work in a multitude of places while I figure out which ecosystems I’d like to study in the future, and with that freedom comes the drag of job hunting and moving everything I own multiple times a year. When I look at it like that, I can’t be anything but thankful for my situation. I’m so lucky to be able to explore the country doing work I love, and I know I’ll look back on this time with gratitude that I let myself float around like a seed blowing in the wind before I put my roots down.

Frozen Toes, Nose, and Fingers

Hi everyone,

It has now been a little over two months since I have started my internship, and I have had so many opportunities that I had not expected. One amazing experience was a conference I was able to attend the first weekend of September with the Native Plant Society of New Mexico (NPSNM).

Sitting near the base of the Gila National Forest is the quaint town of Silver City. This is where Lucy (the other SOS intern) and I got to spend our three-day weekend presenting posters for the conference. The relaxed nature of the NPSNM made it easy to talk about something I am very passionate about: conservation. My poster outlined the different effects of the oil and gas industry, which has been booming in our resource area. Although all land use changes can cause numerous negative side effects on the surrounding landscape, it is easy to see that the presence of “pumpjack forests” has begun serious degradation to the habitats around them. Aside from the obvious destruction to the land, these oil fields can also cause wildlife poisoning, air pollution, and even change the hydrology of an area. This is why environmental education for this industry, and many others, is so important.

Poster for the Native Plant Society of New Mexico conference.

An amazing double rainbow in the Gila National Forest.

One of the three field trips taken during the conference. This trip was to look at the restoration efforts of an old ranch in the Gila National Forest.

Who doesn’t love a baby Horned Lizard!

Me (left) and Lucy (right)

In other news, the monsoon season is still in full swing here in the Chihuahuan desert. Many new plant faces are starting to appear, which means we will be very busy for the next few months! I still continue to be astonished by the concept of rain in the desert… Especially when the temperature can drop from the normal 80°-100°F range to a chilly 50°-60°F range due to this rain. Needless to say, I spent this last week with frozen toes, nose, and fingers while traipsing around collecting our precious seeds.

An example of storms in the desert. (No worries, I was not driving in this picture)

(Again, I was not driving)

Look close! The desert can hold the tiniest of little treasures.

Just another tiny treasure.

Best,

Caitie

Carlsbad Field Office, Bureau of Land Management

What’s in a weed?

What with seed collection being pretty much done, we have been doing a hodge podge list of things around the Rawlins Field Office with various departments. One of my favorite projects has been our work with the noxious weeds department. We were sent to Bennett Peak to check on areas where people have long since sprayed for weeds. After reviewing the state noxious plant list and going over the map, Chloe and I set out for Bennett peak with a list of GPS coordinates and a camera in hand.

We searched for populations of Musk Thistle and Leafy Spurge– sometimes we found a flourishing population of invasive weeds and sometimes we did not (which hopefully means that, because were sprayed long ago, the population is under control). We photographed all of the sites as evidence. We drove, hiked and climbed around this riverside area full of fishermen and campers to get to these sites. They all recognized us as noxious weeds people just from out packets of maps and coordinates.

Leafy Spurge taking over
PC: Chloe Battista

I thought a lot that day about the concept of weeds. Gardeners will call anything undesirable in their plot a weed. This could be a native plant that is just considered “useless” or “ugly”. Meanwhile, I would use the word weed to describe an invasive plant taking over an environment. These are undesirable because of the harm they do to the ecosystem– either by taking up space and nutrients from once biodiverse areas, replacing them with monocultures, or making the area otherwise uninhabitable by native organisms. They could be pleasant in appearance, like Leafy Spurge or Oxeye Daisy, but that does not particularly matter. BLM sprays for them in hopes of fighting back against them. If they are able to keep up with it regularly, it just might work. It is interesting how we apply undesirability and desirability to nature depending on our goal.

Some invasives can be pretty, but this thistle still needs to be destroyed.
PC: Chloe Battista

“Tell me what your internship was about again?”

Today – my last day of work – is one of the rare days that I am sitting inside at a desk.  I sat down to write a fitting conclusion to the last five months, which is every bit as difficult as it sounds.  I decided to start by making a graph.  To anyone who knows me well, this would come as no surprise – my background is in quantitative biology, and I am a big nerd about data visualization.  As silly as it sounds, I wanted to answer the question: what exactly have I been doing for five months?

In short, I have been treating weeds and collecting seeds.  I have learned this summer that the hard work of creating and managing healthy ecosystems requires dedicated people on the ground doing work that – if I am being honest – can often by repetitive and tedious.  However, I have gained some valuable skills during this process: plant identification, navigating and recording data with a handheld GPS, and herbicide application, to name a few.  I even got to help mark trees for a timber sale (in case you were wondering what went under that “other” category).  In addition, I got to spend my days in some truly beautiful places.

While collecting seed from Physocarpus capitatum, or Pacific ninebark, we came across this wonderful, quiet section of the North Umpqua River.

Another beautiful vista while on the hunt for some native seed.

It may be burned, but in the year since the Horse Prairie fire this forest has regained a lot of life and beauty.

Spending all of my time outdoors gave me a greater appreciation for the conservation work that I am doing alongside so many other interns, volunteers, and professionals past and present.  As often as I found myself in tedium, I also found myself reflective and immensely satisfied to be a part of something much bigger than my small efforts.  That kind of perspective helped me stay patient with some of my more unexciting tasks, like pulling out false brome or driving all day to search for native plant populations.

I moved out to Oregon after graduating from college with two goals in mind: I wanted to refine my research interests before I committed to a graduate program and gain experience working with a federal agency.  I have really enjoyed working with such dedicated and good-natured people here in the Roseburg office, and I will be sad to leave the BLM – for the time being, anyway.  I would certainly like to work with a federal agency again after my experience here.  As for my research interests, I have a much better idea of what I want to study going forward, and I am currently in the process of talking to potential advisors and applying to graduate schools.  Working on BLM land has gotten me interested in the ways that changes in landscapes – particularly human driven land use changes – drive community composition and overall ecosystem stability, and I want to apply ecological data analysis and modelling tools to explore this.  I hope that I will soon be pursuing my Master’s and doing research along those lines.

I am grateful for the opportunities I had to explore Oregon and contribute to conservation efforts out here.  Although I am ready to move on and get back to school, I certainly will not forget the valuable experiences and new skills that I have gained.  Now, before it starts raining again, it is time for me to leave the Pacific Northwest.  Until next time!

Our Botany team at the Roseburg District BLM.

Wrapping up

There were a lot of new experiences for me during this internship with a few common themes from previous jobs that I have worked. Some of the new experiences include learning new flora of the Pacific Northwest, using keys to identify plants, and conducting rare plant surveys. One theme that was again present for me this year is that the battle against invasive species is always an uphill battle. It can be hard to see the difference you are making especially when you will not be able to see the effect of your hard work the next year. Depending on the level of infestation, it can be really difficult for one or two people to treat an area, even with using herbicide. It is important when doing this type of work to make small goals for yourself and to treat areas where you can get the most bang for your buck. This way you can make a bigger impact and also feel good about the work that you are doing. I have been working on lots of weed treatment projects the past month from pulling/spraying false brome, spraying blackberry, lopping one-seeded hawthorne, and spraying Canada thistle. It would be an understatement to say that this month has flown by.

A patch of blackberry that I sprayed one week prior. It is already started to die back a little bit which made me feel good.

A patch of milk thistle that I sprayed one week prior as well. As you can see it is mostly dead and I wanted to do a follow up to make sure it all dies before it seeds next year.

Cat’s face spider

While I was cutting some hawthorne down with handsaws this week, I felt something crawling on my neck. Not thinking anything of it I brushed it away with my hand. A few seconds later I felt something crawling on my neck again and I swatted it off me this time. This spider flew off and landing on this leaf. I was paranoid the rest of the day. It was kind of a cool looking spider but I just did not want it crawling on me. I think it may be a cat’s face spider or some other type of orb weaver.

Overall, I would say the internship was a success for me and I really enjoyed my time working here in Oregon. I learned a lot of new things and invasive species in Oregon have certainly piqued my interest. Although I am moving back home for now, I am not crossing Oregon off the list of places I would want to live and work again.

Botany Staff at Roseburg District BLM

Signing off now.

-Will Farhat (Botany Intern at Roseburg District BLM)