Final Reflections

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” ~Seneca

As my time as a CLM intern comes to a close, it has me thinking back to when it all began three months ago. It simultaneously feels so long ago and like it was just yesterday. I had so many worries coming into the program: Would I get along with my co-intern? Would I make friends or have anyone to hang out with outside of work? Would I physically be able to keep up with my coworkers? Would I like the work? Was it worth moving 16 hours east of my hometown just to turn around and travel back 23 hours west of my home? I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and with grad school looming ever closer I was tempted to just take the summer off. I am so glad that I decided to accept the CLM position and would highly recommend the program to anyone interested. On that note, I would like to use this final blog post to answer some of my own personal initial worries for anyone who might be considering applying to the CLM program.

My mom stayed the first week to help me get settled and explore the area!

One of my main concerns was honestly that I would not have anything to do outside of work and would feel lonely and isolated from the outside world, forgotten in rural West Virginia. Marlinton is a small town with, at first glance, seemingly little to do and a small pool of people to befriend. Since being here, however, I have found that concern to be entirely invalid. Having a co-intern is like having a built-in friend. I honestly cannot believe how close Megan and I have become in just the few months that we have known each other – she feels more like a sister than a coworker. We have come to a point where we do almost everything together, from working and living together, to hiking, backpacking, game nights, and even just going out to get coffee. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her once I get to Montana.

Megan and I have also discovered that there is a strong community within the coworkers at the ranger station. I couldn’t have imagined a more welcoming and kind group of people and I have made genuine friendships that I will forever be grateful for.

Another major concern was that I would not be able to physically keep up with my fellow coworkers. I am a reasonably small female who spent the last year and a half sitting in front of a computer working remotely, so the concern was embarrassingly valid. It has definitely been a growing process – growing not only in the sense of my muscle mass but also confidence in my own abilities. Even after getting here and finding that I am able to keep up with my peers, there was still the lurking concern that I might get passed up for future career opportunities because of my size and gender since conservation and land management often involves manual labor. During this internship though, I have gotten to work with a number of successful women who have been nothing less than inspiring. My mentor, Amy Lovell, is someone I especially look up to and has been endlessly encouraging to me. She is living proof that it is possible to have an established career and also be a wife and mother, all while still having personal hobbies and interests. I am truly grateful that I had the opportunity to work under Amy’s leadership.

Even with all my other worries, my biggest question coming into this internship was whether or not it would be worth it – was it worth moving, the transition period, the anxiety, etc? The answer to that is an easy and immediate yes. This experience allowed me to grow both professionally and personally and learned so much along the way. I have witnessed first-hand the complexity of restoration projects, the intricate relationship between research and practice, the plethora of roles that the USFS fills, and the wide array of projects that it is able to accomplish. I have made valuable connections and invaluable relationships. To top it all off, I got to learn about plants all summer and it has honestly been the best summer I’ve had in a long time.

This isn’t to say there were no bad days. Here in West Virginia, if the stinging nettle doesn’t get you, the bees, hornets, and wasps will. But the bad days for me were honestly the most valuable of all and I’ll tell you why: There is one particular day that stands out as possibly the roughest day I have yet to have out in the field. My mom called me that evening and I recounted the long list of mishaps to her. She started telling me how sorry she was that I had such a bad day, but to my surprise I found that, even with everything that had gone wrong, I didn’t actually consider it a bad day. It was a long day for sure, but not a bad day. It was in that moment that I knew I had chosen the correct profession. That peace of mind alone makes the whole internship worth it and I highly recommend the CLM program to anyone and everyone who might be interested.

Megan and I standing amongst a field of stinging nettle. Megan, I miss you already!!!

Quick Pit Stop at Dolly Sods

One of the neatest parts of being here in the Monongahela National Forest is that for the first time in my life, I’m only a few hours away from my grandparents (as opposed to almost 20 hours when I’m at home). After not seeing them for over two years because of a tight school schedule and then pandemic restrictions, I finally got to go and visit them and my aunts, uncles, and cousins in the area. I had the joy of looking at old pictures of my cute mom when she was around my age, I ate more sugar than I have probably all year, and returned to West Virginia with homemade applesauce and a freshly waxed car because my Grandpa was so excited about a ceramic car wax he had found.

To top the weekend off, Dolly Sods was immediately on my way back to the Ranger Station, so I impulsively turned my freshly waxed car to drive the five-mile gravel road up the mountain. I had heard it mentioned a few times by fellow coworkers but really knew nothing about it. It turns out, Dolly Sods is the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River and is one of the most unique ecosystems within the Monongahela Forest. While the views from the plateau were breathtaking, I was most excited about the plants I found (because I’m a nerd).

Looking out towards Seneca Rocks from Dolly Sods

I didn’t realize that blueberries and huckleberries grow wild across the plateau. I had never seen blueberries just growing out in the wild, so it was a really pleasant and yummy surprise! What was even cooler is that not a day later, Megan and I came across a patch of wild blueberries while monitoring fire restoration plots. I probably would not have been able to identify the plants without fruit had I not just seen them on Dolly Sods.


A similar thing happened with another plant I found. I am from Missouri originally, where gooseberries are as prevalent as wild blackberries and raspberries. When I was taking the Identification of Woody Plants in college, my professor had said, “Gooseberries are the one type of berries that can be found worldwide.” So, of course, the first plant I looked for when I got to West Virginia was gooseberry, and was surprised that no one I asked knew what I was talking about. I was beginning to doubt my professor until I came across the below plant while at Dolly Sods. It looked very similar to the Missouri Gooseberry plant, but not quite the same.

Skunk currant (Ribes glandulosum)

It turns out that gooseberries and currants are in the same family (Ribes) and the plant I found on Dolly Sods was a skunk currant. I lost my sense of smell back in February when I had the coronavirus, so I did not have the pleasure of smelling the fruit, but it apparently got the name because of its fruit’s pungent odor. Currants and gooseberries are differentiated by the thorns or spines on gooseberries and the lack thereof on currants. Ironically, I found Missouri gooseberry while doing a wetland survey not one week later! It was like finding a nice little piece of home, though they are definitely not wanted here because they act as an intermediate host for white pine blister rust.

I also found several American mountain ash trees, which American folklore claims to fend off witches and woe, and some common mountain laurel. All in all, it was a super fun place to stop by and I will be making a fully planned trip here before the end of the internship.

The Hunt for Running Buffalo Clover

Megan and I by the Mon’s sign after hunting through the woods for Running Buffalo Clover.

These last few weeks since my last blog post have been jam-packed with projects and rewardingly hard work. Megan and I managed to pass our exams and successfully become certified herbicide applicators! We have spent enough time pulling Garlic Mustard that I see it every time I close my eyes. Now anytime Megan and I go hiking, I constantly get distracted and stop to yank up the sporadic garlic mustard patches we come across.

Outside of our adventures with invasive species, we have also had the opportunity to assist Ruben Sabella, a master’s student from West Virginia University, with his research on the Running Buffalo Clover’s habitat and population ecology. Running Buffalo Clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) was thought to be extinct until 1983 when it was found by Rodney Bartgis in West Virginia’s Nature Conservancy. Through the work of many researchers and conservationists, it is now common enough that the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering removing it from the list of endangered species. Ruben’s research will hopefully add to the evidence needed to cross this milestone.

The main threat to Running Buffalo Clover (RBC) because of its specific habitat needs. RBC needs periodic disturbance in order to thrive – hence its name which refers both to the stolons or “runners” of RBC and the fact that it grew predominantly in buffalo grazing grounds. Using this knowledge, the Forest Service initiated a contract with timber companies to harvest specific sites, giving RBC the disturbance that it needs. Our job was to visit all of the harvested sites in search of RBC populations. We started with 100 flags to mark each population, expecting not to need nearly that many and ultimately running out before we had completed our surveys. It was a pleasant surprise.

RBC looks very similar to common white clover, with only a few distinguishing traits. The main identifying trait is the stolons that connect the individual plants of the colonies, but the easiest way to distinguish them is by looking at their base. RBC’s base fans out with little leaflets while all other clovers have thin and wiry bases.

Now that we have located all of the RBC populations, we will go back and count the individual plants of each colony. Then Ruben can begin analyzing the growth patterns and habitat preferences for his thesis. I have really enjoyed being a part of this project and am looking forward to seeing the results of the research!

Adventures in West Virginia

Hello and welcome to my first blog post as a CLM Intern! My name is Katherine Sparks and I am currently working with Megan Crapo at the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. I am so grateful for this amazing opportunity and am super excited to gain such valuable experience!

My journey to becoming a CLM Intern was an adventure in itself. Through a frenzy of trying to complete final projects for my previous internship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, recovering from the stomach flu, and applying to graduate programs, I came across the CLM program entirely by accident. After spending 40 hours a week staring at a computer screen for the past year, working outside in a national forest seemed almost too good to be true – but I am so glad it was true! I have now made the long journey from Missouri to West Virginia and am living amongst the beautiful Allegheny Mountains.

My first morning in West Virginia (PC Sarah Sparks)

The majority of my first two weeks here has consisted of reading training materials and studying to become a certified herbicide applicator, but this week Megan and I got a break from our computer screens and joined the botany crew for a training field trip at the Cranberry Glades. The goal was to see several sensitive, threatened, and endangered species in order to properly identify them for botany surveys in the future. We specifically looked at Canada Yew (Taxus canadensis), Heartleaf Twayblade (Neottia cordata), Appalachian violets (Viola appalachiensis), and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).

Appalachian violets (Viola appalachiensis) blooming alongside a logging road near Cranberry Glades (PC Rosanna Springston)

While out in the field, we also came across several species that – while not on our list – were interesting to see and fun to learn about! Cranberry Glades has a population of carnivorous pitcher plants and we were able to see them as well as an open sundew plant. It is believed that the pitcher plant population was artificially introduced into the system, but it was still interesting to see carnivorous plants in a “natural” setting.

Pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) population within Cranberry Glades bog
Bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis) in bloom along Cranberry Glades boardwalk trail
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) in bloom along logging road near the Appalachian violets population (PC Andy Wall)

After we finished learning the species for the day, we went out as a group to Summit Lake to conduct a botany survey and practice everything we had learned. We made it through the first plot without finding any of the species on our list and had made it through the majority of the second plot when the wildlife technician from the Gauley Ranger Station spotted a heartleaf twayblade hiding amongst some beech brush. It was an exciting way to end a fun day!

Heartleaf Twayblade (Neottia cordata) found near Summit Lake (PC Andy Wall)
Close up of Heartleaf Twayblade flowers (PC Rosanna Springston)

Hiking through the woods with individuals who are just as excited as I am to learn about plant species and their habits and ecology is a relatively new and undeniably refreshing experience for me. It was a great way to get to know my fellow coworkers better and an even better way to start the field season. I can’t wait to see what adventures the rest of this internship holds!

Megan and I with the botany field crew crouching amongst the rhododendron in search for the Heartleaf Twayblade (PC Rosanna Springston)