Big Bear, Bigger Snow in the SoCal Mountains


Before I moved to Big Bear Lake for the CLM internship, I lived in Washington state for eight months. Before that, I studied environmental science in northern California for four years. The epic California drought is a common topic of conversation among my environmentally mindful circle of friends, coworkers, and teachers. With very, very good reason. California is the most populous state, and delivers a majority of the thirsty produce and meats and other foods desired by people all over the country (and the world). The drought here affects most everybody, and the establishment of new priorities and solutions in the face of this new climate regime is essential.

During the few weeks prior to my internship, I drove the full spectrum of the state in terms of moisture. Beginning on the North Coast, under the noble redwoods, I soaked up steady rain showers with college friends. Down in the Bay Area, a few pitiful sprinkles fell on the green-brown hills. Further south, on the Central Coast near San Luis Obispo, little more than a few live oaks survive to dot the golden hills. Another 200 miles south on Highway 101 the gold gives way to intense human development, palm trees, and the gray-green of coast chaparral. Finally, I turned east from Los Angeles towards the vast Inland Empire for the last leg of my trip. Along the road through Riverside and San Bernadino, I took note of the truly arid landscape. I’d never traveled this far south on the West Coast. Scrub, cacti, and yucca are the status quo here. I switched on Mountain At My Gates by Foals to magnify the montane vibes, and ascended into San Bernadino National Forest in my old Suabru.


Passing by the first National Forest sign I wondered if someone had made an egregious error designating this a forest. Where were the trees? It was just too hot, too dry, too sparse here to support a true forest ecosystem. But as I climbed another hundred feet and then another, the landscape rapidly transitioned. Hello trees. And hello everyone from SoCal. E v e r y o n e. Traffic up the mountain slowed to a crawl. My supervisor warned me this was a heavily utilized forest. She warned me it’d be a good idea to consider alternate routes on New Year’s Day. But, sometimes I mistakenly place too much trust in Google Maps, so spent an extra two hours in bumper to bumper conditions en route to Big Bear Lake. For all the roads in the world to crawl along, though, I was grateful this was mine. The brigade of southern Californians and I twisted and turned from dramatic mountain vista to vista, alongside diverse, beautiful plant communities. At last, I reached the lake and my new home.

I’d chosen to arrive a few days early so that I could properly settle in and explore the new digs. As it turned out, there was a trailhead just outside the front door of my government barracks that connects to the PCT and tops Mt. Bertha, which offers spectacular views of the lake and surrounding mountains. I seized upon the convenience, and made it to the peak in about two hours. I look to my left, lodgepole pine. To my right, juniper. Seems about right. I look down. Cactus. Growing straight out of the snow! What is this place? I share a photo with a few of my friends who assert the cactus is actually a set of dinosaur scales. Hmm. I can see it. But the naming scientist thought the species more closely resembled a beavertail. Therefore, beavertail prickly pear, Opuntia basilaris. While snow did cover some shadowed spots on the trail where I found this cactus, along the roads, and by the ski slopes, the majority of the area was dry. Like the rest of California, right? Not for long!


Two days into my internship, I was enjoying the company of a savvy USFS crew, I’d completed the bulk of my entrance paperwork, and spent some time transplanting baby buckwheat in a delightful greenhouse. Then the heavens opened up, and out spilled two feet of heavy, wet, snow. In southern California! This was a great thing. One storm will not cancel a four year drought. But snowpack will provide some degree of relief to the landscape and the community. The snow, however, also presents its share of challenges to a USFS district office complex.


Our priorities shifted from more paperwork to snow removal. The greenhouse was coated with a growing layer of frozen precipitation. We needed to relieve this weight from the roof of the structure, so got to scraping with a very long shovel. Fortunately, the other intern and I both grew up in New England and are no strangers to shoveling. It’d been a while since I’d seen this amount of snow, though, and it’d been a while for the locals as well. A couple informed us this was their first “big snow” in 3-4 years. The mountains and trees covered in glistening white is a spectacular sight, especially in contrast to the sharp blue mountain skies. The Forest Service vehicles and my Subaru, however, I prefer snow-free.


For the remainder of our time, the other new intern (the incredibly accomplished Marta) and I attended an informative meeting between our SBNF restoration team and non-profit partner, the Southern California Mountains Foundation. It was interesting to learn the ways in which these two groups of highly committed conservationists and educators work together to achieve forest restoration. Both rely largely on grant funding to carry out an array of impressive projects within one of the most heavily utilized stretches of public land in the country. So glad I took that grant writing class in college!

We also got to enjoy a bit more time inside the greenhouse, which remains humid and warm despite the chilly snow outside. SBNF collects seed and propagates several dozen species of native vegetation for out-planting at resto sites all over the forest—grasses, forbs, cacti, trees, and yucca, among many others. My favorite thing about the Big Bear area and San Bernadino National Forest so far is the dramatically different types of vegetation that grow side by side, and the variety of diverse habitats that exist in close proximity to one another. In fact, SBNF is part of a bioregion designated by Conservation International as one of 25 global biodiversity hotspots, demonstrating “high vegetation diversity, unique ecological communities found nowhere else, and many endemic species…” How fortunate I am to be stationed here for the next several months in this special corner of California. More soon!

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A Snowy Welcome

I was welcomed to the San Bernardino National Forest with a cascade of snow. By Tuesday, January 5, my second day of work, over three feet of snow had fallen. Despite being in Southern California, I was returned to my typical Boston and St. Paul winter duties: clearing roofs and digging out cars.

After clearing the greenhouse roof.

After clearing the greenhouse roof.

This is my second CLM Internship, and I am working at the Big Bear Ranger Station here in Fawnskin, CA. It’s about two hours to Los Angeles, an hour and fifteen minutes to Joshua Tree National Park, and steps away from forest recreation opportunities like hiking, skiing, mountain biking, and OHV riding. Interestingly, my first CLM Internship site has been in the news a lot recently: heard of Burns, OR lately? Yep, it’s crazy to read about what’s going on there and remember visiting the Malheur Wildlife Refuge on a sunny spring day to watch birds.

I am working with the Resource department in their Restoration program. This is not a normal Forest Service department, like botany, wildlife, or recreation; my mentor, along with some others, created and built it up to work on restoration and revegetation within the forest. Many of the restoration sites are OHV damage sites, and the majority of the money funding the department comes from OHV grants. The resource department also works closely with a non-profit, the Southern California Mountains Foundation (SCMF), and together they get this restoration and revegetation work done. Sometimes the Forest Service people will take the lead on a project; sometimes it will be SCMF. This way they can complete a chunk of the many projects waiting to be done.

So far, I’ve been in and out of the office and the greenhouse and spent one day visiting some restoration sites in the forest. I am reading a lot of literature as part of my work updating and revising the Native Plant Materials Notebook. This notebook will be a guide to San Bernardino restoration and plant propagation programs and provide links to many resources to help other National Forests or interested groups create their own program. This is already quite an impressive document, but needs updating as well as some additional sections.

I am learning all about the plant propagation process in the greenhouse. The plants begin in flats, are transferred to “small bullets”, then to “large bullets”, and then into the “tall pots”. They may be out planted, that is, planted at a restoration site from any of the last three pot sizes depending on need. What is really interesting to me is the focus on proper genetic selection of source plants for propagation for your restoration site. I read several papers on such selections, and they focus on choosing local plants in order to avoid both inbreeding and outbreeding depression, i.e. you want to gather seed from enough plants that you have a high genetic variation from within the population, but you do not want to swamp your restoration site with genetic material that could make the plants less fit for the ecology of the site. Interestingly, in the Resource program at Big Bear this translates to gathering plants from within the range of 500 feet vertically (because of the elevation change in this mountainous area) and about one mile horizontally. I have also learned about the watering regimen, some common pathogens, and how to plant seed and transplant seedlings.

It was great to get into the field this Wednesday to visit some restoration sites. Seeing OHV damage in the field, which is such a huge problem here, helped to connect everything that I have been learning from other Forest Service employees and the literature. The landscape was also stunning, with the San Bernardino Mountains brown against the snowy San Gabriel Mountains in the distance. I was happy to recognize plants from my days as a CLM Intern in Burns and to learn some new plants from Mary, a seasonal employee who has been working with the Forest for two years, starting as a CLM Intern. I also got a quick lesson on how to use a Trimble and was able to map a fence.

I am very much looking forward to attacking the Native Plant Materials Notebook, starting some milkweed plantings in the greenhouse, and getting out into the field again to learn monitoring methodology. Other things I am looking forward to doing during my free time are hiking or snowshoeing, joining a gym, volunteering, going to the library, exploring more of the town, eventually going to LA, Joshua Tree National Park, and the hot springs, and studying for the GRE.

Best Wishes,
San Bernardino National Forest

Month 11-CO State BLM Office

Hi everybody, I’m a bit over due for a blog. This is my eleventh month at the CO state BLM office! It is also my last full month on the job. So, what have I been up to?

Since returning from all the holiday fun my most recent task has been to inventory all the information known about the CO threatened species Sclerocactus glaucus. This is one of the species we monitor here at the state office, along with much help from the field offices. I went on a river trip surveying for additional populations over the summer, which I believe I talked about in an earlier blog.

The inventorying is going well so far, there is a lot of data to sort through from various sources. I’m trying to get a clear picture of how many plants we know exist, where they’re at, an idea of occupied habitat, and what portion of the population has any protections. This is all in an effort to get this species delisted.  There are a lot more plants on the landscape than previously thought and our monitoring efforts have shown density is higher than previously believed.

The largest problem I’m facing is how to deal with dated occurrence reports and geographic data without survey dates or population estimates. Luckily we do have a lot of reliable, accurate, and recent data, but tweezing out information from less recent, less reliable records has been difficult.

I also recently finished an annual report of our rare species monitoring for 2015. This is more or less just for our office here, but information for certain species will also be sent to field offices and partners. It’s important to summarize our monitoring activities and results from year to year, and especially helpful to new interns becoming familiar with these species and our monitoring efforts.

As I said, this is my last full month working with Carol here in Colorado. I have four more weeks, and will leave in mid-February, but it’s strange to think it’s all coming to an end. In my next, my last, blog I’ll share some parting thoughts and future plans!


Here are two pictures of a plant I really like, and saw for the first time over the summer.


Caulanthus crassicaulis

Caulanthus crassicaulis

Caulanthus crassicaulis

Until next time,

Colleen Sullivan

See ya later Cedarville

Well, today’s my last day in the Modoc. It’s crazy to think that 7 months have passed since my arrival. My first impression of this small isolated town is definitely memorable. I drove into town and the first thing I noticed that the town population was 514. There’s one of everything- one bar, grocery store, gas station….you get the idea. It was a little unnerving to live in such small, isolated, and conservative place but I really enjoyed working in the sagebrush country. The townspeople here are nice and friendly and the people I worked with all very knowledgeable and easy to work with.

This internship was very rewarding. I got to see the beautiful landscapes of Northeastern California as well as Nevada and Oregon and experience real seasons (unusual in other parts of California). Word to the wise: if you end up in Cedarville in the winter time, have a 4×4 or AWD vehicle. It makes life much MUCH easier.

This internship gave me an opportunity to get hands-on field experience in disciplines that I didn’t really know much about. For example, I helped out with evaluating rangeland health by assessing bunchgrass utilization. Before Cedarville, I didn’t have any knowledge about rangeland. Also, I got to work on various projects like flagging juniper trees for cuttings, monitoring vegetation, planting sagebrush seedlings, and doing pika and raptor surveys. Moreover, I got to hone my ID’ing skills for plants and wildlife. I actually got to use the information I learned in school. Ha!

I guess the final advice to future interns is: JUST TRY IT. It may be out of your comfort zone, but once you do it, you’ll look back and be glad you did it. To think that 8 months ago, I was stressing about making a decision about this internship and another job offer. I’m glad to say that I made the right decision and really enjoyed my time here in the Surprise Valley.

Well…I’ll stop rambling now…and end with some cool  and memorable pictures.

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Amanda and I in our cave. At the Lava Beds National Monument

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Sledding up at Cedar Pass on our off day. It’s great that we have a “ski park” only a couple miles away from Cedarville.

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Avenue of the Giants. California is a gorgeous state.

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View of the Pacific Ocean up in Humboldt county

Lunch time with new friends

Lunch time with new friends

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park

Final Thoughts from Cedarville, CA

My CLM internship in Cedarville, CA has come to an end. It has been a very enjoyable and educational 7 months spend with the BLM Surprise Field Office. Moving to northern California was definitely a change and provided me a great opportunity to learn a lot.

One of the first things that was a major change was the town itself. It is a small town consisting of only 500 people and one of everything….one grocery store, one gas station, one bar, and so on. It took a while to get used to the idea that Wal-Mart was 2 hours away and in a different state. Because of this fact, excursions to the store involved some planning. However, needing to get groceries gave me the perfect opportunity to do some exploring of nearby nature. During 2 separate trips to the store, my co-intern and I were able to explore Lava Beds National Monument and Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park

Another thing that was a major change and an opportunity to learn new skills was the fact that I was now living and working in a whole new ecosystem. Coming from the Midwest to here I had to learn a whole new set of plants. Luckily, I was able to learn the predominant species fairy quickly. It is really neat to see how plants are adapted to living in this area and compare that to how plants in my area adapted to living there. While the 2 ecosystems are vastly different, they each have their own special qualities.

Mountain Sunset

Mountain Sunset

While working in my office I also had a chance to work on a variety of projects.  I had a chance to work on wildlife, botany, archaeology, and range projects. It really was a great opportunity to help narrow down my career goals. It also gave me experience working within the federal government. It helped me to understand the process and why things are done the way they are. This will help me easily transition into another office.

I greatly enjoyed my CLM internship and the experience and knowledge that came with it. I would definitely suggest this internship to anybody thinking about working in the federal government. It is a great way to earn valuable experience, network with professionals in the field, and possibly experience a different ecosystem then they are used to.



Where I’ve been in the past year

Hello world,

Last year about this time, my post was a map of where I’d been in the past year. I couldn’t think of a better idea then, and I can’t think of one now, so here we go again.

I’ve highlighted the counties of the Las Cruces District Office in red. Each of those blue dots is a place where I’ve taken a picture and recorded what plants were there. About a third of those dots are places I visited as part of my CLM internship, the rest are mostly recreational botanizing. I continue to move slowly towards my goal of having been everywhere in southwestern New Mexico, but do not anticipate achieving that goal any time soon. That’s good. If I thought I knew what was going on, I would be wrong and it would be time to move elsewhere. For instance, at this time last year I had visited 174 of the LCDO’s 608 grazing allotments. Now I have visited 250 of them. So, closing in one half-way for that particular metric. In the last few weeks I’ve decided to wander around northwestern Luna County for no particular reason. It’s nice out there.

And, recently, I came across a mysterious Cylindropuntia. I couldn’t identify it, so I sent the pictures out to folks who might. According to Marc Baker, it is Cylindropuntia davisii, a species I had not seen before that has been very rarely recorded in southwestern New Mexico.

It’s kind of an unpleasant little cactus, but interesting. And, repeating a theme from my earlier posts here… you wouldn’t find it unless you’re walking around out there for a while, and why would you do that? Well, why not?

Looking Back

Nearly five months ago I began a journey with the CLM internship program with no idea what would be in store for me. Little did I know that I would be a pioneer of something new to the state of Texas. This botany internship is the first to be established with the United States Forest Service in Texas.

I have met many great people from the Caddo-LBJ National Grasslands District office, the Ladybird Wildflower Foundation, and Texas Nature Conservancy. I have seen new sides facets of the conservation that I have previously were unaware off, such as wildland fire fighting.

Accomplishments achieved include the completion of the offices first seed collection, a monarch butterfly survey, and Asclepias survey.

This internship has opened new possibilities and options for the coming days. But for now it is just time to sit back and relax in the moment.


First collection complete and shipped to Bend for cleaning.

First collection complete and shipped to Bend for cleaning.

Farewell to the Carson City Internship


‘Twas noon before my last day, when all through the office,

Not an employee was stirring, not even the botanist.

The plants were stored in the cabinet with care,

in hopes that new interns soon would be there.’

Such is the atmosphere at the Carson City BLM Office while I wrap up my botany internship; most employees have already left for their vacations and those who are still here quietly work while waiting for the holidays to arrive. The past several weeks have been spent catching up from the busy field season, processing plant vouchers, and preparing helpful training materials for the next group of interns. So much time in the office has given me time to reflect on the internship and what I have learned while living and working in the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada mountains. I have broken into sections the various musings and reflections I have had over the past days.



Castilleja chromosa in full bloom in Lassen County, California.

Identifying plants is at once relaxing, fun, and painful. Often, you think you have the correct identification only to read through the description and illustrations to find you are way off the mark. As frustrating as this process is (which usually depends on the quality of your specimen), most times you find yourself delighted with the ease of identification (especially if you have a spectacular specimen)! Many hours have been spent at the microscope, blissfully and fretfully keying out plants from the 2015 season as well as from years past. Here is a link to a poem I wrote in the midst of working through the piles of plants to identify.

How to Use a Dichotomous Key: A Poem

After I had processed most of the plant vouchers, I then set into updating the herbarium database for the Carson City office. The herbarium has vouchers dating back to the 1960s, providing valuable information about the plants of the area. My goal for organizing the data was to make a GIS shapefile available to the BLM Botanist and future interns so they could manipulate the data for their own conservation and land management purposes. I also used this data to build a list of ‘collection hot spots’ for future intern teams. I looked at vouchers collected over the years for Seeds of Success collections and found several heavily-scouted areas where seed collections were still waiting to be made. Being able to see where future intern teams could go for some quality seed collecting helped me connect the dots between the variety of work assignments I had completed this summer. At the beginning of my internship, I was so overwhelmed with the new area and the new plants to be able to settle down long enough to come up with a game plan for the season. Our team was still super productive under our supervisor’s guidance, cranking out 133 seed collections, but I hope my efforts at the end of this season will help next year’s group be even more efficient.

One final thought on botany: I hope I am able to see another desert spring in my lifetime. Again, I was so busy and overwhelmed in the spring and early summer to appreciate the beauty of the short-lived season of color here in the Great Basin. I would love to see the spring colors again so I can really take time to appreciate them.


Purshia tridentata flowers paint the landscape a soft yellow in the spring.

Adjusting to the West

Learning my way around the western side of Nevada and the mid-eastern portion of California has taken the majority of the internship, but has been quite rewarding. Navigating to rural areas of Nevada for seed collecting and fire monitoring took a lot of spatial awareness as well as the ability to use common sense while following a not-always-so-accurate GPS. Just driving on some of the back roads of Nevada requires patience, stamina, and flexibility. Most roads are super bumpy and sometimes roads will be washed out too. Impassable roads (or getting stuck halfway down an unknowingly impassable road) delays the work day and the only thing you can do is pull yourself out of the predicament and find another route. Having flexibility in these situations is so helpful when everyone is stressed and worried.


The 2015 team digs out the truck from a very wet drainage area in the Pine Nut Mountains.

Another adjustment to the west is the sheer size of the states. Being from the Midwest, I could travel between states within a few hours. Out here, it could take you a few hours just to travel from one county to another! Learning to allot several hours to travel anywhere definitely takes some of the spontaneity out of weekend trips, but the sites to see are so worth the time to get there!

One project I completed near the end of the internship was an ESRI Story Map journal that highlights the Carson City internship experience and leads viewers on a tour of some of the areas of interest throughout the range of the Carson City intern team. The Story Map web application is a powerful tool for telling your story or making information accessible and visually stimulating. It was exciting to be able to pull together the past twelve years of intern experiences into one place so future interns can acquaint themselves with the area before heading out into the field. While there is always value in self-exploration of a new area, having access to the Story Map resource will make it easier for future interns to plan field work and understand the large-scale scope of the Carson City internship. Check out the map at the link below!

ESRI Story Map Journal: Life of a CLM Intern in Carson City

Wildlife and Weather

While most days in the desert consist of cloudless, bright, sunny skies and breezy-to-gusty winds, sometimes the weather is unpredictable. One evening in May, our team was out doing rare plant monitoring and a snowstorm blew in as we were setting up camp for the night. I didn’t realize it was supposed to snow, so I didn’t have all of the layers with me I normally bring for cold nights. It was so cold that night, I ended up sleeping in one of the trucks so I could stay warm! I never forgot my layers after that experience! Always having enough layers for the surprise storm or just for the cold desert nights is a crucial part of being prepared in the desert. Surviving in this ecosystem requires more than just bringing enough water!

snow in pine nuts

Most of the 2015 team huddles around a campfire in May after a snowstorm blew in overnight. Photo credit Olivia Schilling

As for wildlife, nothing compares to waking up in the middle of the night to the stars shining above you and the sound of a coyote pack crying to the moon. I still get excited chills thinking about the countless nights this summer when I found myself in this situation. On the nights when I opted to sleep completely under the stars instead of in my tent (which never made it out of its bag as summer progressed), I was reminded of just how close the coyotes were and how exposed I was at that moment. As amazing as it is to hear coyotes howl, it is slightly unnerving to know they could run past you at any moment.

Another animal that is always neat to see is the wild horse. Running into a pack of horses grazing in the sage brush is quite an experience even when you realize the havoc they wreak on the environment. Our group was lucky to see a handful of different horse groups throughout the summer, but the most involved encounter was at the Palomino Horse and Burro Ranch north of Reno. While doing weed surveys here, we were able to interact with some of the horses who were begging for some pets. 🙂


Wild horses at the Palomino Horse and Burro Ranch lean through the fence to beg for some pets from interns.

Final Thoughts

As I wrap up my time in Carson City, taking time to reflect on all of the adventures I have had while here has been helpful as I transition into the next stage of my career. I do not know yet where I will be going after this, but I am excited about the possibilities that have opened up because of the skills I have learned through this internship. I am incredibly grateful to have been an intern with the BLM as well as the CLM and Seeds of Success program.