Home Sweet Carlsbad

The Jolly Green Giant

My work uniform on Halloween at BLM Carlsbad.

Sitting at a plastic table in an airplane hangar and eating my plate of barbecue, I looked around and thought about my place at the BLM. All around me were firefighters, ranchers, contractors, pilots, politicians, movers, shakers, and BLMers from all levels of the agency. BLM New Mexico was celebrating the two millionth acre treated under the Restore New Mexico program, and it was a perfect closing for my internship in Carlsbad. I was a grunt-level contributor, spraying weeds and observing aerial treatments. As such, I didn’t appreciate the scale of our project until then. Over an area bigger than Delaware, the grasslands were producing grass again.
If I had worked anywhere but Carlsbad, this would not be my closing memory. Many factors made two million acres possible, not least of which was collaboration with partners from beyond the BLM. Popping in through the CLM program, I guess I’m one such partner, a small one. But a coalition of small partners galvanized by big personalities can do big things.
I end this internship oozing with institutional pride. I hear Carlsbad praised over and over again for its efficiency, thanks to its use of technology and to its extra-agency relationships. When managing multiple uses goes smoothly, it frees the BLM here to play a proactive role. The Restore New Mexico program and the promise of being “a steward of the land” is what fuel my plans to return to the BLM.
I felt at home with the BLM in Carlsbad. Any time I needed help, or information, or guidance, or a vehicle it felt natural to go to the right person and ask. I could expect them to listen and help me out. Despite their different outlooks and responsibilities everyone was my teammate. On Halloween, our team’s uniform included an outfit for the office costume contest. I cemented my sense of belonging when I stepped up as the Jolly Green Giant to receive the winning prize. I am so, so thankful for the CLM program, without which I would never have made it to this part of the world, never cruised through the sand with the windows down, never learned my desert grasses, never painted oil pads with blue with herbicide, and never worn green face paint to work.

The Hunt for Rue: October

As my CLM time here in Carlsbad winds down and I finish other tasks, one project still looms large. This deadly search for African rue, a noxious weed, is the story of this month. Inevitably I call it the Hunt for Rue: October.
Along with Malta star-thistle, African rue is the most hated weed in the Carlsbad Field Office. Even its scientific name, Peganum harmala, contains within it both “harm” and “mala,” Spanish for “bad.” Around Carlsbad, rue is found on oil pads, brought in as seeds stuck in truck tires. Though rue is toxic to people and livestock, the containment strategy is based mostly on concerns over rangeland health. Should this plant escape the oil pads and invade the open range, little could stop it. Rue’s massive, branching roots can reach 20 feet in depth, and the plant makes allelopathic chemicals to suppress competitors.
“WANTED-Dead, not Alive” flyers around the office advise staffers to report this weed, which I did as soon as I saw it. The herbicide period for rue runs for just a few weeks in the spring and the fall, so spraying had to wait. In the meantime, I returned and discovered rue on other pads in the neighborhood. I recorded them until I’d checked every pad on my aerial photo, returning over the next few weeks until eventually I had checked over 600 pads spread across over 100 square miles. I created a layer in GIS showing the pads I had checked and estimates of the rue present. There always seems to be even more rue lurking just over the edge of the map.
Finally, I’ve had a chance to strike back. This week was the start of open season on African rue, when several groups of BLM staffers and contractors drove out into the oilfields toting two ton tank trailers full of blue herbicide cocktail. I was among them.
A schism exists between two camps favoring two different delivery methods. One camp favors the wand, basically a giant manual squirt gun connected by a hose to the tank, and the other favors the booms, remote herbicide blasters appended on the back of the tank trailer controlled from the cab. The wand camp charges that the boomers waste expensive herbicide by shooting a band of spray twenty feet wide to hit one plant, in the process potentially killing other plants in the area, and that boomers waste hours returning to town so they can reload. The boom camp claims the wand folks waste hours by trying to cover acres – one plant at a time. Coverage from booms is spotty due to wind, say the wand folks. Well coverage from wands is spotty due to the users’ eyesight, say the boomers. It can get heated, reflecting two different worldviews more than anything. Neither may be superior, the best method varying from pad to pad depending on weed number and density, other plants, weather, labor, funding and many other factors. In the end, everybody agrees we want African rue dead, not alive.

PFC 101

Last Tuesday, I and three dozen of my Department of Interior coworkers from across New Mexico found ourselves back in the classroom. It could have been college. Except this was the office conference room, and our instructors were part of a cadre of retired BLMers and Forest Service folks sent to Carlsbad to give us a lesson in PFC. Proper Functioning Condition (PFC) is a tool for quickly assessing lentic and lotic, i.e. water-based, systems. While a lot of thought must go into completing the PFC, it’s actually a fairly straightforward list of 17 or 18 yes or no questions. What allows this simplicity is the team approach PFC takes. Each group must have at minimum a hydrologist, a vegetation expert, and a soils scientist. Discussion of each question is a must.

Wednesday continued the retro theme—field trip! Our interagency caravan went to apply our training at two sites along the Black and Delaware Rivers. My first thought was “goodness, I’m glad we have specialists with us.” Whether “floodplain above bankfull is inundated in ‘relatively frequent’ events” was beyond me. Our embedded instructor set the tone for a thorough discussion of each point, and though it was all I could do to follow the discussion at first, by the end of the second site I could advocate an opinion. And though I’m still no soil expert or hydrologist, I do have a feel for PFCs, a sense for the group dynamic and the considerations to bring to each question.

Since PFCs are conducted in the growing season and I have less than two months left in my internship, these assessments will not be the biggest takeaway from my CLM experience. Still, this training may prove valuable in the future. Riparian systems are a critical part of the landscape, and this assessment is not just BLM specific, but common to many resource management agencies. And as a final piece of good news, despite dire warnings about chiggers I came away from the training bite-free.

Monsoons: Not Just for India

In spite of a drought, the weather in Carlsbad, New Mexico has lumbered along its yearly cycle and reluctantly settled into the monsoon season. Rain is now a force to consider in daily life. Gone are the days of leaving the bicycle in the backyard without thought for rust or a soggy backside. At any time summer showers can drench bikes and gardens alike. Big storms create the Canal Street Lake, a traffic impediment that survives the dry spells between storms on the lips of townsfolk grumbling about the municipal drainage system. But mostly, the rain in Carlsbad is insubstantial. Sometimes, withered by the hot, dry air, rain drops evaporate down to nothing before they reach the ground, a phenomenon known as virga. The gray sheets hang limply in the air, teasing the thirsty plants and animals below. A good rain, though, can make the desert bloom. For some persistent grasses, like Sporobolus, a few inches are all it takes for green growth endure for another year. Helianthus (sunflowers) on the other hand, perk up right after a rain but wilt again within weeks without a repeat performance.
At the office, griping about the rain varies by department. For range, responsible to ranchers and their grass-hungry cattle, whatever rain has fallen is never enough, and even if it were, it didn’t fall in the thirstiest places. Their hope is for the next storm. The cavers, meanwhile, are disappointed. The same rainwater that creates the whimsical features in our limestone and gypsum caves also transforms these passages into turgid, one-way tickets to the underworld. This of course precludes caving. But others are also concerned about safety. To look at a storm and see past the water, talk to a firefighter. For them, storms are carriers of the “money lights,” lighting strikes that magnify both their compensation and the dangers they face when combating a blaze in remote areas whose main groundcover is tinder.

Herbicide Plane

The view below the plane dropping spike pellets

While most rain brings life, for about a month I’ve helped supervise a rain of death. As part of the Restore New Mexico program, the Carlsbad Field Office has been spraying Tebuthiuron herbicide on thousands of acres to suppress overabundant creosote and whitethorn acacia, thereby promoting grasses. My duty in this treatment? I follow on the ground to make sure the herbicide pellets fall where they’re supposed to, avoid where they’re supposed to, and that the pilot returns safely. The Tebuthiuron, or “spike,” is water activated, so the pellets sit on the ground until the next rain releases the poison, which quickly kills the brush. Controlled burns years later remove the remnants and the final result is beautiful grassland. At least, it as long as we get some rain.

Learning in Carlsbad

Though I graduated more than a month ago, any notions of leaving education behind me have been swept away by my first few weeks on the job here at the BLM office in Carlsbad, New Mexico. This post’s word is LEARNING.

Just last week I joined sixty of my peers, summoned from the far corners of America’s public lands, for a training workshop at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I  wondered what training there could be that would apply equally to me as to counterparts, say, on the Oregon coast, but the CBG delivered. I was grateful for a crash course in plant family ID, which formalized smidgens I have picked up in the field. It was also great to hear the history of the CLM program, but even better to hear why we matter. For me the week led up to the story of Sand Mountain, a BLM site east of Carson City where CLM interns’ grunt work was the foundation for an agreement to safeguard the Sand Mountain blue butterfly.

My Sand Mountain is the deep sand country east of Carlsbad, where the focus of my internship is an AIM study at 24 sites. My part in the Assessment, Inventory and Monitoring is a series of vegetation transects coupled with species richness surveys and soil stability tests. Transects are fun, especially the challenge of plant ID. It has been tough wrapping my brain around the conversion between the environments of western North Carolina and southeastern New Mexico. A smattering of what I’ve had to learn:

Oaks are: (NC) majestic giants reaching several stories above you. (NM) groundcover.

Grasses are: (NC) demure and wispy. (NM) some of the biggest, meanest, toughest plants around.

Don’t touch the plants, because: (NC) you could hurt them! (NM) they could hurt you!

Sandspurs are a painful problem: (NC) at the beach. (NM) everywhere.

Rain is: (NC) a refreshing end to a warm summer day. (NM) a rumor, nothing more.

Herpetologists study: (NC) huge salamanders. (NM) hugely controversial lizards.

Cows walking in the middle of the road are (NC) unheard of. (NM) typical field work day traffic.

Dead plant matter will (NC) promptly decompose into compost. (NM) sit there forever awaiting a fire.

Besides the AIM studies I’m being sent to lots of other range and wildlife projects around the office, wherever help is needed. We’ll see how it all goes and I’ll share in future posts.