Leaving Sagebrush Country

See ya!

Sagebrush Country

First, let’s go back to the beginning and I will describe why it was such a big adjustment for me to move to the desert and Carson City, NV. I grew up a block from Lake Michigan in a small town surrounded by woods, crop fields and dairies. My predominant memories of this time are of the expansive lake, snowy winters, morel mushroom hunting in spring, the smell of fresh cut grass in humid summers, and apple picking in the fall. For the last five years I’ve been in the Pacific Northwest where it rains for nine months straight, resulting in varying shades of green so thoroughly covering the outdoors that sometimes you forget there are other colors. So, based on color spectrum alone, Carson City and the Great Basin in general are very different than what I’m used to. There are many more purples and browns here, and my eyes took time to adjust to the lack of green. The air is drier, the smells are more aromatic (sagebrush!), and the city itself, well, people are big on guns, gambling and pawn shops. For the first few months I daydreamed about summer in Wisconsin, fresh peaches and moss/lichen-covered bigleaf maples in the PNW. Eventually, I adjusted and even came to love some of what was around me, but I can’t truthfully say it ever felt like home.

My botany internship at the Bureau of Land Management began ten months ago in the office, team members trickling in over the following weeks from different states. Actually, I think my first day was a field day picking saltgrass, but overall the first few weeks were office-training-protocol-centric. It was pretty tedious, but helpful to set a knowledgeable foundation for the rest of the internship. The field season slid slowly in with small projects here and there. I clearly remember what felt like our first big field day scouting for post-fire mountain mahogany planting sites. We trekked up and up until, heart pounding and lungs burning, we reached the top of a slope in the southern Pine Nut Mountains. The view of the surrounding mountains was awe-inspiring, and as the sun set, the day was imprinted in my mind. So this is Nevada – mountainous with wide valleys and a great view of the Sierra Nevada and beyond. The deep hues in the sky blended seamlessly with those on the landscape. A bright, full moon rose in the east and I thought, “This is a pretty cool job.” Then volunteered to drive the long road home, because even after the long day, I couldn’t have felt more awake.

View from the southern Pine Nut Mountains

THIS is Nevada (and CA in the distance…)

For training I saw Boise, ID and Yosemite National Park in CA and all the road and scenery in between here and there. We drove far to collect plants and seeds in the White Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. I visited places with names like Turtle Mountain, Hardscrabble Creek, Sand Mountain (where we drove past The End of the World, and kept going), the Petersens, Dixie Valley, Pah Rah, Silver Springs, Virginia City, Winnemuca, Washoe and Inyo. I sat, stood, hiked, trained, drove (and drove and drove), navigated, monitored post-fire vegetation, taught kids, talked to the public, planted, collected data, entered data, wrote reports, annihilated weeds, plotted maps, learned GIS, attended many meetings, and especially, I identified many, many plants and collected a lot of seeds for SOS. In 10 months I worked in freezing temperatures to 100º+ heat and everything in between; there were seemingly unending hours of scorching sun and occasional snowstorms, thunderstorms, windstorms, rain and hail. I’ve gotten to momentarily see places I wished I could explore for weeks, and explored for weeks places I had wanted to only momentarily see (if that).

In the end, it’s the places and things I wanted to spend the least time on that taught me the most. In the hours of tedium, frustration and utter discouragement, vital drops of wisdom were squeezed out of my perseverance. As the great Bill Watterson wrote in my favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic, “Go do something you hate! Being miserable builds character!” Calvin is mocking his dad when he says that, but the truth rings clear, and it always makes me feel better. Now, leaving sagebrush country, I find that the jagged edges of frustration and disagreement slowly weather into learning experiences, and moments like the one in the Pine Nut Mountains stand out enough to make me think, “Yeah, despite the hardships, that was a pretty cool job.”

A big thank you to everyone at CLM, BLM and UNR for their hard work that helped make this internship what it was.

Best SOS moment

Balsamorhiza sagittata covering a hillside in the Petersen Mountains

Thank you,


Carson City, NV BLM

View from the office on a frosty morning

View from the office parking lot on a frosty morning.

The White Mountain Collections

Once there were interns who drove far for seed collection

It was there some bad ones escaped loupe detection

Upon their return

This they did learn

And then painstakingly recounted to avoid seed rejection

Microscopy at work

Sometimes you can only see bad seeds back at the lab, under a microscope.


Ivesia lycopodioides. Sadly, despite our over collecting, there were not enough viable seeds to send in.

Seed viability

Lepidospartum latisquamum. Bottom seed looks good, top seed never developed.

Atriplex polycarpa

Atriplex polycarpa. This was such a hardy collection that even at 60% viability we still had more than enough.

Pictures for nearly every White Mountains collection were taken through a microscope (good vs bad seed). These will hopefully assist future teams in better assessing what a good seed truly looks like.


Carson City BLM

The End of Fire Monitoring

With a sigh of relief, post-fire monitoring for our crew finally came to an end when I finished and closed the final report. The field monitoring portion had ended a couple of weeks before, and since then we had been trudging through data entry and report compiling. For me at least, “trudging” is putting it lightly. I seek out jobs with strong field components for a reason, and working 10 hours a day on a computer is really not my thing. I know data reports are crucial components to the whole process, and I am grateful to be a part of it: learning, contributing, chiseling away at my character building, etc… but future cubicle mates be warned, grumpiness may ensue (keep snacks handy).

Let us reminisce:

long poles!

Hauling gear back from a site early in the season

For our last fire monitoring field day, our dwindling crew set out to tackle the Spring fire. It was a cool and very windy day. As you can see in the photo, I was a little chilled.IMG_20150915_122631672

It was an easy plot to monitor, and an uncomfortable hike in. This was due to the overwhelming amount of cheatgrass. Unfortunately, our monitoring job is easier when there is less plant diversity, and the cheatgrass gets in my socks and drives me crazy (see Ode to Cheatgrass).

Fortunately, we had the Halloween tree to protect us from the cheatgrass…


And loving, charred trees…













On to other projects!


Carson City, BLM



A few more words on cheatgrass

One of the many projects we have going (while we wait for fall seeds to mature) is to find an adequate site to apply soil microbes for the biocontrol of cheatgrass. Did you know there is a microbial control of cheatgrass and other winter annual grasses? It’s pretty neat. Research scientists from Washington State University and USDA-ARS have painstakingly isolated the bacteria Pseudomonas from the roots of yellowing winter wheat. This bacteria produces a toxin that targeted the winter cultivar, which they then (through a long process) applied to a few of the invasive winter annuals that plague the arid west. The cost per acre is equivalent to the lower price end of herbicides, and can be delivered by spraying or coated on (wanted) perennial seeds. They are working with many agencies to put this method into widespread practice.

But in the meantime…

Cheatgrass. It’s everywhere! Why not use it to our advantage? I’ve noticed its natural tendency for its seeds to work their way into everything, so I thought, “Heck, just go with it.”

To make all-natural, (somewhat) organically grown socks:

1) Go to work. Preferably fire monitoring at the ol’ Spring fire, which was not seeded.

2) Let it in. Roll your pant ends up once or twice, just enough to expose your ankles. If your pants are a little on the short side, like mine, you can skip this step.

3) Walk. And walk and walk and walk. It’s that easy! You can just walk to your site, and continue your daily work routine. If you want to go the extra mile though, then do so (probably on your lunch break). Don’t worry about taking off your shoes to get the cheatgrass seeds all the way to the toe of the socks. They’ll get there, trust me.

4) Admire the tenacity of cheatgrass. It really is everywhere, isn’t it?

5) Launder. You might think this would remove the seeds, but it actually helps them weave deeper into the fibers. Make sure to turn your socks inside out! Wash and dry. Cheatgrass likes high heat, and your fancy wool socks don’t, so do that.

6) Re-evaluate. Stop for a second and think about what you really want.

6a) If you’re still thinking “WOAH, cheatgrass socks! What a great concept!”, then repeat steps 1-5. Eventually, your sock fibers will be entirely replaced by cheatgrass seeds, and you will have killer calluses covering your feet.

 6b) If you’re starting to miss your old, soft socks that didn’t constantly poke your poor feet, you might want to think about reversing the process. This will take 1-3 hours and must be done by hand with excellent lighting. Good luck!



Carson City BLM

Ode to Cheat Grass


Cheat Grass,

Downy Brome,

Bromus tectorum,

Wretched Fiend.

You have many names,

and have taken many lands.


When a band of horses turns the earth,

when a herd of cattle lingers at water,

when a fire sweeps through the sagebrush,

in the bare earth

you spring up

first and foremost,

claiming every inch of space,

cutting in line,

and unwilling to share.


You are the earliest bird

who gets the worm,

steals the land.

Establishing a blockade,

the natives can not grow,

and you are free to thrive.


You weave yourself

into my socks,

and poke my ankles

when I’m trying to work.

Fire monitoring drags on

when I cannot see

stunted perennials

through your shadow.



in the evening light,

you glow

and sway in the breeze,

and I forget

you are so terrible,

so pervasive,

and for this short moment

I enjoy your presence.


What a treacherous cheat!

You are a formidable foe.



Carson City BLM

Sand Mountain and the Double Rainbow

Back in the scorching days of summer, when the afternoons reached 105 degrees (instead of the current, cool, low 90’s), our team ventured out on an overnight trip to Sand Mountain. We made several seed and voucher collections to the west of this “mountain”, then drove across winding, sandy roads around to the northeast. By this time it was noon, and after pulling my lunch from the cooler of rapidly melting ice, I pulled open the truck door and scrunched myself into the small shadow it cast. I fondly recalled winters in Wisconsin.

We continued our trajectory on foot, the road being too laden with deep sand for safe driving. Dousing ourselves in water to stay cool, we set out, and ten minutes later we were completely dry. Our team of four split up to cover more ground, and soon radioed back to each other with promising sights of seed-laden plants.

By quitting time we had a dozen bags of seeds, labeled and safely tucked away. Though by this time it was well into the evening hours, the sun was still glaring at us from above the mountains, and the heat did not seem to lessen. We drove back along the road, found a simple but flat camping spot, and set up our tents. Well, two of us set up our tents, and this we soon regretted. Those dark clouds moving in from the southeast (that we had hoped and hoped would cover the sun while we’d been working) were brought by a strong, strong wind storm. And windy it did get. So windy that one tent was soon flattened like a crepe (flatter than a pancake, you see), and the other survived only by a desperate and constant support from the inside.

The next 30 minutes passed slowly…

All of a sudden the wind died down, and, crawling out from our shelters, we saw the clouds turn bright salmon-pink from the setting sun (amplified by the massive amount of dust and wildfire smoke in the air). A bright rainbow appeared, and a second faint one next to it. A calm settled in, and the whole day seemed worth it.


Carson City, NV BLM

(I would have posted pictures, but they would not load!)

Stuck in Slop and Showy Snowstorms

Might be more than a month ago, our motley crew mistakenly maneuvered into much muck. We managed to master the mire with much more matter and mustered moxie. Marinated in mud and muck, magnificently messy, but made merry by make-shift mastery, we maintained our march.20150506_172119

Silver shadows sent us shivering. The sunlight shriveled silently and swiftly. Storms snuck south, suddenly sullying our satisfied spirits. Still, us seven shouldn’t stop, said someone with stout-hearted sense. So, six settled somewhat skeptically.20150506_175704

Soon we saw a shimmering suspension of snow specks at summit. The sky suggested we’d see no sunset nor stars, and some suspected sleepy shivers. Seems we soon might not set sight on seed supply sites or small shrubs. Shouldn’t such slight snow soften by sunrise? Supposedly.20150506_183417

We woke warm and not wet with wild water; this weather had worked well for wanted winks. When watching the wondrous whiteness, we wandered while waiting. Work wavered as weeds withdrew in whirls of white. The white-wash world made our worthy work worthless! Wow Weather, why wouldn’t you wait?! This Wednesday, Weather won.DSC_1879 DSC_1932


Carson City BLM


Signs and Symptoms of Spring

With a sigh of relief, Spring has arrived in Carson City. Along with the warmer and longer days (but still the occasional dusting of snow), arrive leaves, flowers, and seasonal allergies. And thus begin the Seeds of Success (SOS) collections, or at least the collection and pressing of flowering plants which will later be used for SOS identification confirmation. You see, the plants are typically at their most identifiable stage when flowering, so first we must scout the plant populations and collect specimens before the time comes to collect thousands, dare I say millions, of seeds.

As we step lightly through the desert, carrying our pick-hammers and plant presses, we look for flowering native plants with a population hardy enough to withstand a collection (>50 individuals). When sufficient in number, we dig up a plant, sandwich it between newspaper and cardboard, and then tighten the stack of plant sandwiches using straps and burly intern muscles.

Here, thoroughly flattened and surrounded by this dry, dry climate, the plants desiccate and become well preserved, easily storable reference sheets. This process is always (ALWAYS) accompanied by plenty of detailed notes and several photographs. Once compiled, we turn all of these into herbarium specimens for our BLM office, UNR and the Smithsonian.

Here are a few of my favorite things (plants)…lupinecloverbitterbrushdesert peach

While out collecting specimens for SOS, we have also been surveying for the threatened species Ivesia webberi (Webber’s Ivesia or wire mousetail) in various allotments in the area. Though it’s not in bloom in the following photo, around this time it displays clusters of yellow flowers that will brighten your day.Ivesia

Spring cheers from Carson City.

Out of the Office and Into the Field

I was getting ready for work Wednesday morning, packing my bag for the field when my phone buzzed on the table. It was an email from our mentor Dean: he had an unexpected and important meeting to attend late morning at the office, and our field work would have to be delayed. Disappointment settled in. We had been putting in a lot of office hours in the month since I arrived at the BLM in Carson City, and Wednesday had promised a full day of scouting planting sites in the mountains. Though I know full well that all this indoor work is a necessary prelude to the field season, I still squirm in my chair by the end of each day, rubbing my computer-tired eyes. Because of the trip’s long drive and hike, a morning’s worth of delay might likely have meant “not today”. At least that was my thought as I begrudgingly changed into jeans (of course I still brought my hiking pants, because you can’t get caught with no work pants on.)

At the office the hours swept by in anticipation, leaving me glancing at the clock and thinking, “At what point will it be too late to leave?” I focused my attention on cartography, and putting my new GIS skills into practice, layered contour lines on top of aerial images to create a clear map of our site. By noon I decided to take a break outside to soak up a healthy dose of apricity, and lull my anxious mind. Just as I was dozing off (yes, I did set a timer!), Anna came out to tell me it was time to leave.

To the Pine Nut Mountains!


You can see why I was so eager to get here – it’s beautiful!

The TRE fire burned for 5 days in May of 2012, blackening over 6,000 acres of BLM-managed land in the southern Pine Nut Mountains. The high intensity fire killed off much of the perennial vegetation, most notably pinyon, juniper and mountain mahogany. Our goal, as we scoped out this stark landscape, was to find suitable places to plant 400 mountain mahogany saplings. We split into two groups and began the long hike up, up, up, to the tops of our respective mountains. We didn’t come across the charred remains of mountain mahogany until about 7,000 feet, near the top.


There, over yonder!


Of course, it did take a few minutes to hone our identification skills and distinguish between the different types of charred trees. All of us being new to the area, we had a good sense of what a live mountain mahogany tree should look like, but a dead, blackened one proved more of a challenge. It was an important distinction that would allow us to plant the saplings in a suitable home, and to emulate the pre-fire habitat.


charred pinyon


charred mountain mahogany (please ignore the beckoning, snow-covered mountains in the distance, even though my camera’s auto-focus couldn’t.)

The evening sunlight lit up the diaphanous cheat grass, and the radiance temporarily distracted us from noting its onerous stronghold on the land. Weeds seize the opportunity of disturbed soil, burgeoning and preventing native plants from establishing. Hence why it is so important for native plants to reestablish after a big disturbance such as this fire.


cheat grass at its finest

The two teams reunited en-route back to the car, and thanks to Dean’s keen eye, we got to see a mountain mahogany tree making a concerted effort at regrowth after the fire.


John and Aaron inspecting a tenacious mountain mahogany

We reached the car, and in the darkening sky watched the nearly full moon rising in the east. Lassitude settled over the rest of the group as we discussed who could stay awake long enough for the dark drive home. I volunteered, still filled with an unequivocal vim from an exciting day in the field.