All Shook Up

Alaska harbors a world of depths — deep oceans, interminable skies, mountains so high and snowy you could mistake them, at a distance, for clouds. Atop a mountain road, you can stare across a sea of black spruce that stretches miles unbroken to the horizon. The Last Frontier is also a place of great dangers to pair those depths, including big game (bears, moose, and wolves), active volcanoes, avalanches, biting cold, isolation, massive wildfires, Fata Morganas that create false landforms in front of your eyes, and more. On Friday morning, I was sauntering around an icy downtown Anchorage bus-stop when I heard a heavy cracking noise, like cement splitting. Seconds later the streetlights and surrounding buildings began to sway. The shaking that followed lasted all of 30 seconds but it jolted everything in the city to life.

I have learned in the past few months that Alaska is a place of natural wonders I could have never fully imagined without living here. When the earthquake hit, I knew we were in the midst of one of those stupefying Alaska moments — when you realize that despite all we as people know and can do, we live at the mercy of the world and its complex meteorology, geology, and tectonic shifts. As the world shook violently around me that late November morning, the Pacific plate was subducting beneath the North American plate, causing a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that began 10 miles north of Anchorage. Half an hour later, when I arrived downtown to report for work (oblivious as any East-coaster would be to the severity of the quake), the streets were dark and office workers had flooded out onto the sidewalks. Still reeling from the 1964 megathrust earthquake, which caused tsunamis and registered a magnitude of 9.2, (the most powerful recorded in North America), older Alaskans I met seemed especially on edge.

It is now Wednesday, December 5th. We have had thousands of aftershocks, including a 4.5 magnitude earthquake early this morning. The federal building where I work is damaged and still closed, but also still standing. So are most of the buildings downtown. It might not be the prettiest city, but Anchorage, like the Alaskan people, is resilient and strong. The world shakes like a snow globe in a child’s hands, almost no-one dies, and people move on. (For reference, it is estimated that over 200,000 people died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake of the same magnitude — eight years later, the island nation is still recovering).

After the 1964 quake that devastated southeast AK, the city was rebuilt for an event like this, and, despite the heavy vibrations we have received over the past week, life has resumed for most in a remarkably normal fashion. Alaska residents seem less daunted by challenges or unexpected events than those living in any other place I have lived. The ethic of self-resiliency in the state can be contagious, and while living here, I have found that I prefer a lifestyle and work environment that forces me to think and innovate independently. Big, new challenges make us smarter, stronger people.

Earthquakes aside, I would be remiss if I did not reflect on my CLM internship that brought me to this magnificent place. As I hinted in previous posts, I had a rocky start. When I arrived, there was little work initially planned for me and I began a motley range of assignments to fill my days — fixing picnic tables, trimming foliage on trails, random office work, et cetera. However, even on rough days out in my little outpost in Glennallen, AK, I did not regret the choice to come here. I lived in a beautiful wonderscape of clear lakes and immense mountains. I biked weekly along the surrounding highways through some of the most incredible terrain I have ever seen before. I learned to do things that had nothing to do with forestry, but were useful life skills nonetheless.

Things improved in the fall. CLM and BLM gave me the incredible opportunity to attend the National Society of American Forester’s Conference (an educational candy-land for us forestry folks) and to write my own forest management plan. I have spent the past couple of months working on (and struggling with) this management plan for BLM and have learned a great deal about Alaskan silviculture, subsistence hunting, and the history of public and private land in the state. I also refreshed my ArcGIS skills, made valuable contacts with people from a range of different fields in natural resources, and most importantly — learned that I am capable of researching and teaching myself more than I thought I could. If there is anything I have gained from this internship, it is a firm belief that self-reliance is not only important, but highly attainable. I feel more confident in my field and the idea that I do not need to be ashamed of what I do not know — I just need to be willing to learn.

My CLM internship ends in about two days, but the Alaskan landscape has wooed me to stay.  Next week, I will move into a remote dry cabin (without water or electricity) next to a glacier for a temporary job with the Park’s Service while I figure out my next steps. I feel good about it. Whatever happens, I am confident that I will rise to the challenge.

In the near future, I am hoping to continue to learn more about Alaska’s history and current environmental issues. While writing my current forest management plan, a number of articles I read mentioned that boreal forests are experiencing some of the most dramatic impacts of climate change. Not only has the landscape been significantly altered in recent years (it is hard not to notice a shrinking glacier), but there are more exceptional temperature increases in this part of the world compared to southern latitudes (different climate projections predict temperature increases between (6.3 – 13.5 °F by 2100). Boreal forests also store a significant amount of global terrestrial carbon — at least 24 percent — and warming in the Arctic is already contributing to a positive feedback loop of global climate change. These relationships are important to think about when we as a country are seriously considering an increase in mineral and oil exploration in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At the moment, the economic benefits of such a project do not outweigh the costs — and those costs (including loss of habitat for porcupine caribou, permanently damaged tundra, and increased CO2 emissions) could be very great. Meanwhile, Alaskans are already experiencing the negative effects of climate change. This summer saw some of the worst returns of salmon in years (an important source of income and food for many Alaskans), while rising seas are rapidly swallowing up coastal villages like Newtok and archeological sites in Nunalleq. There is a deep part of me that hopes that the inherent strength, resilience, and innovation that I have seen in Alaska so far will continue to work to find mitigative solutions to the most pernicious effects of climate change. In the meantime, I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Alaska as it is now. The incredible natural beauty and human diversity of the state is truly inspiring. It would be a shame to not do anything about the anthropogenically-caused climatic shifts that threatens that.

I want to send a big thank you to Krissa Skogen and Chris Woolridge from CLM and to my mentor Eric Geisler from BLM for giving me this incredible internship opportunity. I have learned so much and I am so grateful that I had the chance to begin my forestry career in Alaska!

November hoarfrost outside of Anchorage, AK.

To Tarry in the Taiga

June 2018

After just over two weeks working as an intern for the Bureau of Land Management, I am just beginning to settle into the rhythm of Glennallen, Alaska. The town, and those surrounding it, are like no part of America I have ever experienced before. It’s in the taiga, so the trees are small (a black spruce that you can close your fist around can be upwards of 100-150 years old) and the highways (there are almost no roads here, just highways) fold up everywhere like an accordion from winter frost heaves. It seems like a third of the buildings are abandoned and falling apart. There are solitary gas pumps, faded signs, and long-deserted cars in multiple nooks along the highway. In a way, the taiga is slowly creeping back in, reclaiming the laundromats, crushed 4-wheelers, wood-paneled trailers and other fringes of the scattered boom towns here. Tourists traveling through photograph prodigiously. The people I have met so far are for the most part hardworking and kind with an optimistic DIY attitude towards any mishap or mechanical issue that arises around them.

My actual job — working as an intern under a GFO forester — has not come into full swing yet. I spend most of my days collecting plants for an identification guide, keying out local flora for my own knowledge, occasionally collecting insects from bug traps and helping out with odd jobs around the field office and surrounding campgrounds. My supervisor has sent me on several errands that have taken me decent distances around the Copper River Valley, so I have been fortunate enough to see a good amount of the surrounding SE interior Alaska so far. The surrounding forests and snow-bedecked mountains with their cold tarns interspersed between them are a level of beauty beyond description. I have included some photographs below, which could not possibly do the environment here full justice.

The Tangle Lakes

Mountains Abound
Abandoned Buildings
August 2018
The remaining summer days of June and July since my last post passed in much the same way — marked by hours spent driving along interior Alaska’s deserted highways hemmed in by lakes, bogs, and stunning mountains. When not completing odd jobs around the field office (building pick-nick tables, organizing sheds, trimming foliage, chopping wood, etc.), I was frequently sent off to search roadside gravel pits for non-native invasive weeds such as bird vetch and sweet white clover. Around the end of July, I had the opportunity to flex my academic muscles in a research project involving mountain goats for our field office’s wildlife biologist. I spent a week scouring any research article I could find on BLM’s research databases concerning the impact of helicopter noise on these elusive ungulates and related mammals. Though I would not consider myself a wildlife enthusiast, I was surprised to discover my own newfound fascination with this topic, along with the dearth of much-needed research on the impact of man-made sounds on animals. I learned quite a bit more than I expected to and produced several pages of notes for the wildlife biologist to use in an Environmental Impact Statement he was writing at the time. In the process of this project, I also learned quite a bit more about the intricacies of NEPA documents, which I am sure will be useful in my future work.
Shortly after I finished my research on my mountain goats, I was whisked off in early August for some forest inventory work north of the arctic circle. In was elated to finally begin working within the purview of my internship description and also to see some new boreal ecosystems. For a period of two weeks, I traveled with a team led by a northern Californian forester, Ken Stumpf, setting up surveys around Yukon Crossing, the arctic circle, and Coldfoot — a tiny outpost in the rain-drenched Brooks Range. We sampled approximately 65 field sites off of the Dalton Highway using Stumpf’s unique line-point transect sampling methodology. In contrast to the AIM sampling method typically employed in BLM surveys, Stumpf’s method provides more precise species-specific canopy cover estimates and other metrics that provide a more holistic description of a given ecosystem from the ground up. Individual sample sites were chosen based on the results of image stratification from 2017 Landsat 8 imagery that determined the largest homogeneous areas of different spectrally-determined strata — each of which described a different forest type. This process ensured that we surveyed a wide variety of land classifications, information that can then be applied and mapped to represent a wider scope of BLM land in Alaska. While working with this team, I had the opportunity to not only learn a new sampling method and pick the brain of a brilliant forester, but also to immerse myself in a menagerie of unfamiliar plant species. I collected several plants, which I intend to label and leave at the field office here for future educational purposes.
After returning from the arctic circle, I spent a few days meeting with a forestry review panel to discuss reforms in BLM Alaska’s forestry program. A decent amount of time was spent reviewing policies regarding non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Subsistence permits for NTFPs (e.g berries, mushrooms, burls, walking sticks, etc.) are a unique feature of rural Alaskan life that does not exist in the lower 48.
This past week, I assisted a team of botanists from Anchorage with collecting seeds for a plant restoration program called “Seeds of Success.” We collected from a wide variety of grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs in the Tangle Lakes region, and again, I was thrilled to buff up my plant identification skills. The climate of the Tangle Lakes could be best characterized as mesic, and rarely does it have a cloudless sky, but the weather held out for at least two days that we were there. This much-welcome window of sunlight lit up the surrounding mountains, the tallest of which were brushed with yearlong snow, and the smaller ones were set ablaze in the vibrant autumnal colours of turning fireweed and resin birch. In late August, fall has already arrived here.