Monitoring and More

After a brief period of pretty warm weather, it’s started to cool down here in the Lincoln NF! It’s definitely crazy to think that we’re over halfway through the season- I’ve already learned so much more about botany down here in the southwest, and can’t wait to put my experiences to use in the future! Meanwhile, we’ve been assisting several different projects along with our plant surveys, the latest being some monitoring of known populations of Goodding’s Onion (Allium gooddingii), one of our listed rare species. In the Lincoln, these are persisting on the floor of spruce-fir and mixed conifer forest, generally around 9,000-10,000ft of elevation. This is in our Smokey Bear district, among the Sierra Blanca mountain range, which contain some of the highest points in the forest and makes for some pretty sweet (and literally breathtaking) views! We did a couple days of monitoring in this area, along with the state botanist and her assistant, Missy, who was the best hiker among us!

Missy among the Allium gooddingii.
Monitoring technique using cross-hair transect sampling.
These views beat the office lunchroom!

This particular area was home to significant recent fires, including the Little Bear fire in 2012 and the Three Rivers fire just this past spring. Part of our monitoring efforts were to compare these disturbance areas. This species is disturbance-dependent, and debris left by felling does cause issues in terms of space for populations and not harming existing populations during debris removal. Several populations were pretty vigorous!

Another project we helped out with was constructing some beaver dam analogs, to slow down water flow in stream/riparian areas and prevent further erosion. This included some post-pounding and lopping of willow branches, which is what we used to weave through the posts and create a woody barrier through the stream. It definitely was reminiscent of my fencing and trail work days! Helping out with such projects always provide a nice variety of tasks throughout these weeks, and provide even more experience in different functions of the Forest Service.

A half-constructed beaver dam analog.
Post-pounding using a generator-powered post driver.
The crew gathering and transporting materials (willow branches) for the dams!

Besides these projects, we’re also continuing our plant surveys and making progress on the amount of area we’ve covered. No unknown populations have popped up yet, but we still have several weeks more of surveying!

A quick pause on our pre-survey hike to check out these moody fungi.

To the Botmobile!

The past few weeks here in the Lincoln National Forest have certainly flown by! Each week is a whirlwind of activity- we’ve been completing a good amount of surveying work, starting out with helping the Natural Resources crew with Mexican spotted owl and New Mexico meadow jumping mouse habitat monitoring. This process includes gathering data on the vegetative growth in protected plots, and has given me practice on identifying grass species in the field. In turn, they’ve been helping us botany folk with our rare plant species surveys! I was pretty excited to start those, since that indicated switching the majority of the time to being in the field.

Our survey days have been pretty adventurous so far! With the NR crew, we have about 5-7 people covering at least several miles of surveying and have been able to complete almost 7000 acres in just a few weeks! A large portion of that was pinyon-juniper habitat, and while we haven’t found any rare species in that particular area, it’s mostly previously unsurveyed ground so just gathering data there is helpful for future analysis and the South Sacramento Restoration Project in general. Our other major site was mixed conifer, which while botanically more interesting, still yielded no rare plants. But even negative data is still data!

A view on a rainy day over our pinyon-juniper site, a relief from the Alamogordo sun!
Out on one of our early survey days at around 9000ft elevation.

 A typical survey day consists of all of us hopping into our Ford Explorer (the Botmobile!) and driving up to a couple hours to our survey site- luckily, we’ve specially curated a playlist that includes plant-themed bops such as “Plantasia” by Mort Garson (1976), early 2000s hits by Fergie, Shakira, Rihanna, etc., and even the internet viral sensation “Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf”- an eclectic warm-up to our long days of hiking. Some of our sites have included some interesting 4WD challenges, but our Botmobile has consistently exceeded expectations and remains as reliable as ever. Upon arriving, we plan our routes using our GPS units and Avenza. I’ve already gotten much better at reading topographic maps, a skill that saves a ton of energy when you can predict how steep an elevation gain might be. Once we have our plan, we set off, hopefully scrambling over brush and fallen logs as successfully as we’re able and in whatever (safe) weather happens upon us. I’ve definitely taken my fair share of falls over a tree or on a muddy slope, but it certainly adds to the excitement of being out in the field! We typically each are able to bushwhack about 5 miles before we have to head back, and the entire time we’re keeping our eyes peeled for any rare species that may pop up. Hopefully by the end of the season we can claim to have found an unrecorded population!

The summer weather sometimes brings surprises- this one made us regret our lack of saws!
A typical look at our botanical survey obstacle course.

Our next few weeks we’re starting some Goodding’s Onion monitoring, as well as continuing the botanical surveys for this restoration project. I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time out in the field and exploring even more of New Mexico in our off time!

Sunrise views over the lower Rio Grande just outside of Las Cruces, NM.

From Country Bumpkin to Desert Rat

I pulled into Alamogordo, NM, my Honda Fit stuffed with everything I had to my name (which admittedly, is not a lot), ten days unshowered and racing to my second-dose vaccine appointment. I had been driving since 4am, just coming off an extended road trip routing that included the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Escalante, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and down Highway 1 on California’s coast (my first time seeing the Pacific!). I’d just finished a 6-month term in Americorps’ ACE program based in Flagstaff, AZ, and took advantage of the time in between my end date in AZ and starting here in the Lincoln National Forest to do some solo-travel and live the #van (Fit) life. After 6 months of hard manual labor consisting mainly of trail construction, much of it backcountry, I was excited to get back into the world of botany, data analysis, and actual beds!

Coming from rural north-central Indiana, a flat hunk of land consisting mainly of corn and soybean fields, the West has been an entirely different planet full of jaw-dropping vistas and crazy conservation corps misadventures. This is my first time in New Mexico, and I’m excited to see what new experiences the Chihuahuan desert has in store.

 Here in Lincoln NF, my co-intern Natasha and I are going to assist a small part of the ongoing South Sacramento Restoration Project by conducting rare plant surveys that will contribute to the project’s database of federally listed endangered and threatened plant species, as well as regionally sensitive species that exist in the forest- this data collection will also help with building a dataset for a habitat sustainability model that is being developed for the Lincoln NF. Although we’re in the Chihauhaun desert, much of the Lincoln NF consists of sky islands, isolated areas that are ecologically radically different from the surrounding desert, often found in mountain ranges such as the Sacramentos. This leads to an extremely biodiverse region, with high species richness and many endemic species. 

View of our drive up to Cloudcroft, NM, around which much of our sites are located.

While waiting for our rare species’ to flower so we can accurately identify them, we’ve had several different learning opportunities working with different Forest Service employees- we’ve been helping the natural resources crew here build one-rock dams to control soil erosion in riparian areas, as well as learned about local wildlife through some birding with a local expert. We’ve also been collecting plants to practice keying them out and refamiliarizing ourselves with botanical terms and plant families, and have been practicing driving out to sites and using our GPS units to track and find points. My favorite find so far has been Viola canadensis, which is not one of our rare species, but a familiar sight to me after having done research on prairie violets during my Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden itself. I was excited to see Viola again for the first time in the West! 

Immature seed capsule of V. canadensis.
Birding with other seasonal technicians.

Working with Aurora, the forest’s botanist, as well as the other Forest Service seasonal techs has been great and I’m already learning a great amount from them! The flowering season here is almost upon us, so we’ll soon start our rare species’ data collections. I can’t wait to update everyone on how they go!

Botany and natural resources crew after a long day of hauling rocks! Natasha, Meagan, me, Joe, Vanessa, and Shelby.