My Internship in Threes

As my time here in Burns comes to an end, I’m reflecting on all of the best things that I’ve experienced over the past 5 months. Without further ado, here is my internship summarized in threes:

3 Coolest Field Work Sites:

1) The Steens Mountains - this view was gorge-ous.

1. The Steens Mountains – this view was super gorge-ous.


2. The Alvord Desert – the playa was so cool to drive on!

3) Coyote Gap - it was exhilarating trying to outrun the rain.

3. Coyote Gap – it was exhilarating trying to outrun the rain.

3 New Field Techniques:

  1. Pace 180 and Step-point vegetation surveys
  2. Multiple Indicator Monitoring (MIM) of streams
  3. Back-country navigation via map + GPS

3 Favorite Place in Oregon:

1. The Oregon Coast - beautiful (and the Country Fair was quite interesting)

1. The Oregon Coast – just beautiful (and the Country Fair was quite interesting)

2. Newberry National Volcanic Monument

2. Newberry National Volcanic Monument

3. Crater Lake - coldest, clearest water I've ever swam in.

3. Crater Lake – coldest, clearest water I’ve ever swam in.

3 Favorite Trips Outside of Oregon:

1. Seattle, WA - an amazing Labor Day weekend.

1. Seattle, WA – an amazing Labor Day weekend.

2. South Warner Wilderness, CA - my first backpacking trip!

2. South Warner Wilderness, CA – my first backpacking trip!

3. Boise, ID - floating on the Boise River was a highlight of the summer.

3. Boise, ID – floating down the Boise River was a highlight of the summer.

3 Things I Learned:

  1. Always be open-minded and receptive. Spend your life learning from others, embracing different opinions, and expanding your viewpoints.
  2. First impressions are important – exude an air of poise and confidence.
  3. Travel as often as possible. The world is so much more vast than you think; there will never be enough time to see it all.

And so ends my internship with the Chicago Botanic Garden & the Burns District BLM. Time for my next adventure!

-Austin Yantes

16 weeks in, 6 to go!

Although Eastern Oregon is beautiful, there are 3 things I desperately miss about the Midwest: 1) water, 2) trees, and 3) smoke-free air. These are things I took for granted until I moved here – to a place where I have to drive an hour to get to a lake, where there are no trees to provide shade or a private place to pee while doing fieldwork, and where the air can be so thick with smoke it looks like fog.


One of Eastern Oregon’s treasures: the Steens.

Luckily, we’ve gotten to do quite a bit of riparian work over the past month – which means we got to be around water! Mostly just sad, tiny streams, but water nonetheless. Our first foray into the riparian world was the stream restoration I alluded to at the end of my last blog post. We built stone walls and pools to help prevent further erosion of the head cuts and to preserve the wide, moist riparian areas along the stream bank. It was exhausting and dirty work, but it was rewarding to see all of the reinforced head cuts and eroded banks.


Rock pools built to slow flow & prevent erosion.

In the middle of August, I drove to Bend for the weekend to take the GRE (not a fun time). Afterwards, I met up with a friend at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, so I got to enjoy two lakes and plenty of shady trees for the weekend.


Paulina Lake, East Lake & the big obsidian flow.

Next, we got to learn how to do Multiple Indicator Monitoring (MIM) of stream channels and streamside vegetation. This involves looking at the size of the substrate, the width of the stream, the height and age classes of trees, the alteration of the stream banks, and the composition of the greenline. It’s a tedious process, but I’m very interested in wetlands/riparian zones, so I loved getting experience in that area. The only bad part was that it was incredibly smoky due to the hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding wildfires – it was like being caught in the smoke at a bonfire but not being able to escape. At the end of each day my throat and eyes burned (no pun intended).


Smoke, smoke everywhere.

Thankfully, I was able to get some relief from the oppressive smoke with a few more weekend trips – I flew back to Iowa to visit my boyfriend, and I drove to Seattle with my co-interns, stopping along the way to camp in the Mt. Hood National Forest.


Mt. Hood National Forest (this is fog, not smoke).


A sunny day in the amazing city of Seattle.

This past week we’ve been monitoring photo points along streams. These are sites that have been photographed somewhat regularly since the 1970’s to see how the stream/vegetation has evolved over time. It was interesting to see how much change can happen in just 5 years, whether it be due to drought, grazing, or fire. Moreover, I’m excited we’ve gotten to do so much riparian work because I think the techniques will be directly applicable to the research I hope to do in grad school.

I can’t believe there are only 6 weeks left of my internship – time flies in the high desert!


Until next time,

Austin Yantes

Burns District BLM

It’s a Cow’s World

I’m going to start out this blog post by openly admitting that I came to Burns with the mindset that beef is the root of all evil. I stopped eating beef when I was 15 years old because of the environmental implications; it takes an estimated 2,000 gallons of water and 12 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of beef. That’s pretty darn inefficient, and a completely unsustainable way to feed humanity over the long term. With that in mind, let’s just say I had a fairly uncomfortable transition to an area where ranching is so common and cows are beloved by all. In fact, the BLM was formed from the former U.S. Grazing Service, so basically my job revolves around making sure the beef cows I am so adamantly opposed to have good land to graze.

There was a lot to be learned about cattle ranching in the Wild West, however. First of all, the cattle here are all free range, making it an entirely different ball game than beef production in the industrial system. I still wasn’t convinced, though, because I was frustrated by the fact that people seemed to prioritize grazing land over conserving the natural plant communities. For example, many of the wildfire rehabilitation sites that I monitor were seeded with “desirable non-natives” such as forage kochia and crested wheatgrass. These are highly palatable plants that cows love to eat, but they aren’t native to Oregon. So what’s the point in using plants that don’t even belong here? To me, it didn’t seem like a very environmentally-conscious rehab plan.


Vegetation monitoring at a fire rehab site

Here’s where it gets interesting. As I’ve mentioned before, wildfires are a huge issue out here. They burn hot and fast, and scorching all of the good plants like sagebrush and native bunch grasses in their paths. In the past, these plant communities would’ve bounced back naturally; however, with the introduction of invasives like cheat grass and Medusa head, the natives just can’t compete. Which means that if the fire sites are left to their own devices, cheat grass and Medusa head will completely take over (no animals will eat them and no other plants will grow back). That’s why the BLM uses non-native plants in their seedings – they do a better job at competing with and blocking out the invasives, whereas the native plants would never have survived. By preventing the invasives from taking over, there is a better chance that the native plant communities will eventually regrow and live cohesively with the desirable non-natives.


A fire site overrun with invasive cheat grass

That’s still hard for me to swallow. I am disappointed that the only way to prevent the spread of invasives is to plant non-natives, but I suppose that is the lesser of two evils. And I’m happy to know that they don’t plant things like crested wheatgrass because they want to make the cows happy, but rather because it’s the only choice they have. However, I still think more research is needed on how to control the invasives, and while the BLM does a good job stabilizing and rehabilitating the land after a fire, there really is no push to restore the native plant communities. So in that regard, I do wish the BLM put a little more emphasis on conservation and preservation, not just grazing.

All in all, I had a lot of misconceptions about how things are run out here. I’m not saying that I’ll be cooking myself a juicy T-bone steak anytime soon, but I’ve certainly learned a lot about fire ecology and beef production in the West. I hope to continue having my opinions challenged and horizons widened during my time here. Because that’s the beauty of exploring new places – you may not recognize how close-minded you are until you truly open your mind to the thoughts of others.

On a lighter note, here are some pictures from the past two (exceptionally muddy) weeks:


We were headed out of the field just as a huge storm rolled through…


…and things got messy real fast.


The very next day our truck got thoroughly stuck in the mud.


This week, we did stream restoration. Hauling all of those rocks was a dirty & tiring job!

Austin Yantes

Burns District BLM

Around the Bend & through the Fields

The past month has been a whirlwind of maneuvering through airports, packing and unpacking duffle bags, and riding in cars. The week of June 8-12 was our CLM training workshop at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. My fellow interns and I spent the weekend beforehand exploring Boise, ID (we tried Basque food!) before flying out to Chicago. Once at the Gardens, we were treated to a week of nonstop learning. We had lectures on conservation genetics and graduate school options, as well as crash courses in botany of the west and monitoring/inventory methods. Best of all, we got to go to a symposium and listen to presentations on large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts.


Most of the workshop was held at the Plant Science Center.


I loved taking pictures of all the beautiful flowers!


Aside from the useful tips we received for success in the field, what I took away from the workshop was a reaffirmed love for learning and research, and a confirmed desire to further my education by pursuing a PhD. I stayed in the city through the weekend with my boyfriend to check out the Field Museum (free admission with my employee ID!), the University of Chicago, and Chinatown.


Chinatown & the Willis Tower

After being back in good ol’ Burns for just three days, Megan (my roommate/co-intern) and I were off to Bend, OR for a two-day grass identification workshop. Although that might sound about as exciting as watching paint dry, it was actually extremely useful. The first day was spent learning grass morphology and picking apart the seed heads under a dissecting microscope. By the second day, we were fairly proficient in keying out grass species, and we got to apply our newly acquired knowledge in the field. I now feel much more confident in my ability to ID grasses, which will be very helpful when doing trend sites. Megan and I stayed in town for the weekend and enjoyed live music along the river, the Bite of Bend, and camping/hiking in Ochoco National Forest.


Equisteum (not a grass, just cool)


View from our campsite on the Crooked River.

The day after we returned from Bend we drove two hours to Fields, OR, a town with a population of 8 (yes, 8, that’s not a typo). We spent two days zipping around on a UTV to some of our more southern trend sites, which was a blast. The surrounding area was breathtaking – snowcapped mountains, a lake, and an expansive desert were all within sight. We spent the night at a field station which is affectionately referred to as “the Hilton” because it has air conditioning and a TV. Now that’s luxury.


Open space is endless out here.


Mariposa Lily

Now that I’m back in Burns, I’m recalling some words I saw on the wall of the Tourist Information Center in Bend: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Thinking back on the last month, it’s hard not to smile with appreciation for the experiences I’ve had, and the hope that I am truly making the most of this one life.

Adjusting to life in Burns, OR

Rain pounds against the windows of my new home – a double-wide trailer on a farm in Burns, Oregon. I’ve just returned from a long day of fishing, mushroom hunting, and gun shooting (some of our coworkers were kind enough to immerse us interns in the Burns way of life). The rain is much needed, as the area is in the midst of a four-year drought. Burns is located in sagebrush country, an ecosystem typical of the high, intermountain deserts of the West, and a far cry from the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” that I’m accustomed to. In a region already ravaged by wildfires, the drought has only intensified the issue. Therefore, the BLM began the Emergency Stabilization & Rehabilitation (ESR) program to combat the damage done by the fires. One of my primary duties as an intern this summer will be to perform vegetation surveys to monitor the progress of the rehab program.


Fire damage in Malheur National Forest.


All of the morels we found!

I have officially completed my first week as an intern for the Burns BLM, my very first post-college job – yay! The three other interns and I spent the week doing various training activities. On Tuesday we completed defensive driving and four wheel drive training (necessary for the rough roads out here). On Wednesday and Thursday we got to go out in the field and practice the point intercept and Pace 180° methods for vegetation sampling. Our coworkers gave us a run down on the ecosystem, the wildfires, and the local flora. So far, it seems as though there isn’t all that much plant diversity, with sagebrush (three subspecies of A. tridentata), several bunch grasses (e.g. F. idahoensis, P. secunda, A. thurberianum), and the occasional juniper tree (J. occidentalis) accounting for the majority of species.


One of the 20 density plots we do at each site.

On Friday we did a self-guided tour through Harney County to familiarize ourselves with the immense area managed by the Burns BLM. The district covers 3.36 million acres of public land in addition to large areas of private, Federal, and State lands – a daunting task for a new intern! As we drove, the landscape alternated between farmland, rangeland, and endless sagebrush, all framed by the Steens Mountains. The vastness of land out here is truly awe-inspiring; I have never seen so much open space. A highlight of the day was seeing a mama Great Horned Owl and her three babies, and listening to them hoot back and forth to each other.


Mother owl staring me down.


Wetlands here are few and far between.

Overall, I’m very excited for the five months I have in Burns. Everyone I’ve met has been extremely nice, the district is beautiful, and there are lots of animals on the farm to play with (including two adorable, friendly cats). Here’s to the adventures that lay ahead!

Enjoying a sunset on the farm after work.

Austin Yantes

Burns District BLM