Autumn in Appalachia

Coming from New England, I didn’t expect fall in West Virginia to compare. Boy, was I wrong! Autumn here is absolutely beautiful. I’ve been enjoying the cooler weather and seeing how the leaves change at different elevations. Usually, I only have time to appreciate changing leaves on the way to class. This is the first year I’ve gotten to fully immerse myself in the changes of the season, and I appreciate it now more than ever before. With the change in season comes change in work as well. I was afraid that the end of summer meant the end of outdoors work, but luckily I still get out in the field most days.

Vibrant colors at Dolly Sods Wilderness Area (above and below).
Summit Lake
A beautiful fall day spent seed collecting at Spruce Knob (above and below).

Abbie and I finished up our trailhead surveys and have begun using the information we gathered to create a management plan for future interns. One thing I noticed in my time here was that we missed our time frame to treat many invasive species because we were too busy finding them- this plan will help solve this problem by suggesting when and where to target efforts.

Since my last post, we’ve done a few more NNIS treatments. One of the most notable was treating over 700 trees for Hemlock Wooly Adelgid in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and State and Private Forestry. The area we treated at, Blue Bend, has a rich history and is characterized by big, beautiful Hemlock trees that I’m proud to have helped keep healthy.

Though Japanese Stiltgrass seems like an impossible invader to eradicate, we put our best efforts forward to protect this special place. This is Leatherback Run, a tributary of the Greenbrier River, and West Virginia’s highest stream. We spent 9 straight hours weed eating Japanese Stiltgrass along a 7-mile Forest Service road. This is the 3rd year this area has been tackled and progress is noticable! We want to do everything we can to prevent the stiltgrass from spreading down further to the Greenbrier.
We helped get rid of Autumn Olive on an allotment. The cows weren’t bothered at all by the chainsaws!

Native Plants
My favorite part about this fall has been finally doing some seed collecting! The seed collection I have been doing isn’t for Seeds of Success like most other interns, but instead we collect from our forest and bring it to a local plant materials center to be processed and propagated. On rainy days, we help out with drying and cleaning the seed, which has been a really cool process to learn about. The plants will be replanted on our own forest in the future. A lot of our restoration efforts are focused on high elevation mineland areas, but not many nurseries offer plants that are adapted for these conditions. By collecting seed from plants in high elevations like Mountain ash, Hawthorn, Mountain holly, and Speckled alder, we ensure that we will have hearty plants built to survive on the Monongahela National Forest. Don’t worry- we still employ SOS collection protocol!

Collecting mountain ash (Sorbus americana), a member of the rose family that grows well at high elevations and provides plenty of shade when in leaf.
A sweet bear hunting dog that wanted to help us seed collect- who wouldn’t!

Professional Development
During the CLM training week, I remember taking note that we should always be searching for professional development opportunities. Luckily, I have an awesome mentor (Amy Coleman) who searches for valuable experiences for me! Amy, Chris, and Flo (both from CBG) made it possible for my cointern, Abbie, and I to travel to Saratoga Springs, NY to attend the North American Invasive Species Management Association and New York Invasive Species Research Institute joint conference (huge thanks!). 

I have never been in the same room with so many plant nerds (in the best way!!!) before. The NAISMA conference was filled with people just as passionate about protecting native ecosystems as I am. It was inspiring to hear about progress, new ideas, and hope for the future from professionals from all over the country and beyond.

The workshop had a total of 52 workshops and presentations on the schedule- that’s right, enough to attend one a week for a full year! The theme of the conference was “Connecting Science to Action.” I got to learn everything from how to communicate with policy makers to get results, to using population distribution models to predict invasive species spread. It was interesting to hear from people from different areas of expertise as well as different regions.

As a cherry on top, Abbie and I got to explore the Saratoga Springs area. The mountains in the area were gorgeous with the changing leaves and sparkling lakes, and the downtown area had all types of neat shops and restaurants. As it turns out, it was only about a 2 hour drive from where I went to school- I’m kicking myself for not visiting sooner!

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned yet how much I love the diversity of things I get to do through this internship… but I love it a lot. In addition to all of the things I’ve already talked about, just this past month I’ve had the opportunity to dabble in fire monitoring (the first ever on this forest!), salamander surveying, rare plant monitoring, water sampling, and clearance surveys to name a few. I’ve been able to gain experience in a variety of field work that has been extremely valuable in planning what I want to do after this internship ends. Even experiences outside of work have given me insight into work I might want to do in the future…

This was the first day it was chilly enough to feel like fall- perfect for hiking to set up fire monitoring plots.
The George Washington/ Jefferson National Forest, which neighbors the Monongahela NF in Virginia, has a robust fire program. The Monongahela aspires to grow their fire program, including monitoring. I got to help with the first baseline survey on the forest for a site that was scheduled to be burned the next week. As you can see by this photo, it took a lot of trial and error, but was a lot of fun to figure out together.
We were doing surveys with USFW primarily for Cheat Mountain Salamander (Plethodon nettingi), which is a species found only on a few mountains in West Virginia. We didn’t find any of this species, but this guy is still cute.
Monitoring on top of Cave Mountain. One great thing about this internship is getting to work with people from other agencies- this day we worked with The Nature Conservancy, Americorps, and the Forest Service.
White alumroot (Heuchera alba), one of the plants we monitor, hiding under a rock ledge.

I remember when moving to West Virginia, someone told me that if someone offers to take me caving- say yes! I was finally asked, and despite my fears and doubts, I said yes. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. A couple of my coworkers and I went with a local grotto (aka caving club) to Organ Cave, which spans at least 45 miles of underground passages. At one point, we all shut off our headlamps and waved our hands in front of our faces… nothing. Complete and total darkness. If we were completely still, you couldn’t hear a single sound. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was amazing to see all the natural cave formations occurring in a world underneath land I’ve walked on and driven over for months, but never imagined. My favorite part, though, was realizing that I wasn’t scared at all. I really loved it! I enjoyed the challenge of climbing, crouching, crawling, and navigating the cave. Bat research is something I’ve wanted to do all my life, but was worried I would be too claustrophobic in caves to follow this dream. I’ve banished this fear and I couldn’t be more excited about it!

I definitely wouldn’t have been smiling this big if I wasn’t being led by someone who spent 10 years mapping this cave!

Looking Forward
I only have a few weeks left in my internship, which means my time here is coming to an end before I know it. It seems cliche, but it really does feel like I’ve been here for less than a month, and at the same time it feels like I’ve been a part of this office community for years. Marlinton has become a wonderful home and I can’t wait to gush about my time here in my final post next month. I already have intense nostalgia for something I haven’t left yet! I’m looking forward to my last couple of weeks here and figuring out what my next big steps will be. 

Signing off,
Tara McElhinney
Marlinton District Ranger Station

NNIS Knockout

As two of four certified pesticide applicators on the Monongahela National Forest, my cointern, Abbie, and I have become an important part of boots-on-the-ground action against non-native invasive species (NNIS). 

In July, we started conducting trailhead surveys as a part of a forest-wide NNIS management project. There are sixty trails that Abbie and I are responsible for traveling to and checking for NNIS. To conduct these surveys, we look around the parking area/trailhead and walk a half mile into the trail, looking for high-priority invasives. When we find one, we double check our identification then take down information on both an iPad and paper data sheets about where it is, how extensive it is, and more. 

I love trailhead surveys because it gives us the opportunity to explore parts of the forest we likely wouldn’t have time to get up to normally- almost like we get a sneak preview of trails we might want to come back to in our free time! Check out the pictures below to see the beautiful places we find ourselves. 

One of my favorite places to survey was Dolly Sods. Dolly Sods is a broad plateau with an ecosystem I’ve never seen before- subalpine heathlands. It has a bunch of cool trails, and an even cooler history. In World War II, this area was deemed “The West Virginia Maneuver Area” and was used to prepare soldiers for the mountains of northern Italy. Mortar and artillery trailing occurred here between 1943-44, so there are signs everywhere to warn you about unexploded munitions you might find!
A colorful display of the variety of plants just in one tiny area at Dolly Sods. I can’t wait to come back in autumn for even more vivid colors.
Another unique part of the geography at Dolly Sods, rock rivers.
A stunning view of High Falls. This was an eight-mile trail that takes you through fields, old-growth forest, a railroad track, and more! I hiked this trail in my free time and was stoked to learn I’d be going back to survey for NNIS (as if I wasn’t already on the lookout the entire hike- a curse of knowing NNIS identification like the back of your hand).
Sometimes Abbie and I have to drive a couple of hours to get to our survey sites. Its worth it when you end up at the highest point in West Virginia- Spruce Knob, 4,863 ft.
No two trails are alike in the Monongahela National Forest. This trail in Otter Creek Wilderness had a suspension bridge spanning across a wide river.

Information from these surveys will help us know which areas to prioritize the removal and treatment of invasives on the forest. Speaking of removal and treatment, see the photos below for a glimpse at the hard work Abbie and I have been doing!

Abbie was a natural when we learned the “hack-and-squirt” or bark injection method. In efforts to give existing red spruce a chance to thrive, we do spruce releases where we inject herbicide into surrounding canopy trees or smaller trees that may grow to shade the spruce. The spruce we release are carefully chosen, then we use a hatchet to make angled cuts into the trunk. We carefully squirt herbicide into the cuts we made. It took me MANY tries to successfully hack at the correct angle, and I definitely had a sore arm the next day, but I felt so accomplished knowing the native spruce will have a better chance at survival because of my work!
Can you spot the spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa)? I’ll give you a hint- they’re in the trash bags! Abbie and I pulled several trash bags and several hours worth of invasive spotted knapweed on this hillside. They were already in seed, so we had to be extra careful not to spread the seed as we wrestled them out of the ground.
Is that another photo of Spruce Knob? Nope, just a giant pile of invasives! Off of the Highland Scenic Highway, there is a fishing pier that had been completely taken over by bush honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.). Before we worked on this area, you couldn’t even see the Williams River. Abbie and I joined forces with some coworkers including our Youth Conservation Corps crew to cut and haul all of this honeysuckle out of the area. Its looking exceedingly better now and locals have told us how much they appreciate it- a great feeling.

Summer has flown by, filled with rewarding work and fun adventures. I’m excited to see what autumn in West Virginia will bring! 

Signing off,

Tara McElhinney

Marlinton District Ranger Station


Wild and Wonderful West Virginia

“Almost Heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads”

View on the Highland Scenic Highway- just a few minutes from the office!

When I told friends, family members, or even strangers I was moving to West Virginia, their first response was to serenade me with John Denver’s ode to the mountain state. Now that I’m here, I have to say- the country roads do live up to the hype.

A stunning view of the Allegheny Mountains from the side of the Highland Scenic Highway.


My new home in Marlinton, WV is in the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ). The NRQZ is a large area where radio transmissions are heavily restricted for scientific research and military intelligence purposes. In my case, this means no cell service.

At first, I was anxious about not having my cell phone available to me whenever I needed, or, rather, wanted it. This all disappeared within the first few days, when I realized this gave me all the time in the world to read, to explore, and to live in the moment. At work, I’m fully able to focus on the task at hand. I am more observant and in tune with nature. Though we have WiFi in the bunkhouse, I have come to prefer watching lightning bugs blink in the night to watching the blue light of my laptop screen.

A peaceful evening’s view.

Moving to West Virginia has given me a chance to slow down and take things in at a new pace. A pace that allows me to pull over on the side of the road to watch wildlife for hours at a beaver pond. One that allows me to stop my rollerblading to key out a plant on the side of the rail trail. One that allows me to ask questions about the world around me and seek out the answers. The peace and quiet of the mountain state is just what I needed to further my botanical knowledge in this internship.

A photo of Seneca Rocks, a scenic attraction in the Monongahela National Forest. I took this when my fellow CLM intern, Abbie, and I went on a hike here on our day off… we ended up working here just days later!

Protecting Native Ecosystems

Native plant communities support a variety of wildlife by providing food and habitat. We, as humans, also directly benefit from other ecosystem services native plants provide such as water filtration, erosion control, and carbon storage. However, these communities are threatened by invasive species. Invasive species are species non-native to the ecosystem whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

Coming from Massachusetts with a background in primarily wildlife, my West Virginia plant identification isn’t perfect. This big book is helping me learn the beautiful flora of West Virginia.

In the early 1970’s, areas of Monongahela National Forest were mined for coal, negatively impacting the ecosystem. When the areas were reclaimed, the species that grew back were grasses or non-native pines. One major focus of the U.S. Forest Service’s mission in this area is to restore red spruce ecosystems through planting of native species and removal of non-native invasive species (NNIS). As a CLM intern, my main emphasis is management of NNIS.

Abandoned coal mine at one of our restoration sites. We are re-vegetating the area with native plants.

Through my NNIS work so far, I’ve helped to protect several rare species- some of which I got to see up close and personal! For example, I saw the Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae), which is only found in two places in all of West Virginia. Other beautiful rare plants I helped protect through NNIS management are Yellow Nail-wort (Paronychia virginica), Smokehole Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa var. brevis), Limestone Adderstongue (Ophioglossum engelmannii), and Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) to name a few.

Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) in bloom.

Although NNIS identification, inventorying, and treatment/removal can be grueling work, West Virginia native ecosystem and views like this make it all worth it. As my first month here comes to a close, I’m feeling more at home in the area and with the people I work with. I’m looking forward to all that this internship has in store for me in the coming months!

A day of herbicide treatments, an important part of NNIS eradication. Because this was an area with protected plants, we carefully applied herbicide with sponges to reduce any drift.

A panoramic view of Smoke Hole Canyon- a perfect reminder of why I do what I do!

Until next time,

Tara McElhinney

Marlinton District Ranger Station