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

Final Thoughts and Good-byes

Well, this is it. My five months are up. I’ll be leaving the Forest Service in beautiful Southeast Idaho in less than a week. More than that, I’ll be bidding the best co-intern ever good-bye. I have faced all the thrills and challenges of this summer alongside my CLM teammate: Claire Parsons. From our first exposure to the sagebrush steppe and glorious mountains of Idaho in May to our final botany adventures in the October snow, we have been quite the team.

Can you tell we worked together all summer? Claire and I unconsciously hitting the same pose during some field work 🙂

Some final thoughts/advice regarding the friendship and CLM internship experience that I have shared with Claire:

1. Embrace working with a partner. Don’t be shy! Learning with someone is so much better than learning alone. Both myself and Claire started as interns here in Idaho with botanical knowledge of OTHER places, so we were both faced with the learning curve that new flora poses. Taking notes together and admitting ignorance regarding the new flora was such an awesome way to learn and build solidarity between us early on.

2. Seed collecting, and any other field work, is always easier with 2 people 🙂 Talk about your strategy and plan before heading out to streamline the process (e.g. while seed collecting Claire was a champion with photo and voucher taking while I covered collecting the necessary GPS points).

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate. With each other and with your mentor. Be honest about your boundaries, comfort zone in the field, and skill set! Don’t be afraid to tell your mentor about your interests and passions, they may be able to provide unique opportunities to you as a result. Don’t be afraid to share your life goals and dreams with your work partner, if you are as lucky as me, they will be such a great listener and provide priceless council and advice…or at the very least, commiserate right along with you 🙂

4. Share driving responsibility and road snacks! We put a lot of miles on the work truck because we had such amazing opportunities to do botanical work all over Idaho and in Wyoming and Utah. Soak up the places you work in and thank the many professionals and volunteers you meet. Write down names and network away!

Crossing the Snake River during one of our rare plant surveys this season. Our mentor Rose was such a superstar in catching candid picture of us both, good memories 🙂

5. Talk to the individuals in your office, seasonal and permanent employees alike. You will feel more at home at the office and may garner new/difference management and conservation insights from them. Thanks to the flexibility of our incredible mentor, Claire and I got to go out into the field with soil scientists, hydrologists, and the range crew. Ask for these opportunities!

5. The staff at CBG are amazing. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them with any questions you have or issues that arise with travel, paychecks, or time sheets! They are an incredible resource. Also, your mentor is a seasoned professional in their field-ask them questions, tap into their knowledge, take their advice! They can offer you so, so much 🙂

Well folks, that is a wrap. I hope the above reflections and suggestions are helpful! I’ll be leaving my CLM internship more skilled in all things botany and plant conservation and bidding a wonderful mentor good-bye. And, saddest of all, for the first time in five months, I will no longer be spending almost every day with my most favorite fellow botanists-in-training.

The usual: Claire and I in a field of wildflowers.

Thank you CBG and R. Lehman (best mentor ever!) for this outstanding internship opportunity, and thank you Claire for being such a gem, I am forever grateful.

The Time Has Come

My time in Carlsbad has officially come to an end. To say I have learned a lot during my CLM internship is an understatement. Not only have I learned skills related to my field (plant identification, seed collection strategy, etc.) but I have also learned about wildlife, archaeology, and so much more.

As a crew, we met our seed collection goal and finished 20 range monitoring plots as part of a project to determine if herbicide spraying of desert shrubs increases forb growth. One caveat of the range monitoring project was that we had to identify every plant to species. There was surprising diversity at some of the range sites and our last week in the office we spent nearly 3 full days identifying specimens of unknowns that we had collected. We probably identified at least 100 unknown species, not including specimens we had collected that turned out to be species we already knew.

I think my favorite aspect of my internship was learning so many new plants. The Chihuahuan Desert is much more diverse than I expected and I didn’t even scratch the surface. In May, I had a very basic knowledge of grasses and little experience identifying them, and now I feel confident keying them out, even if they’re still not my favorite.

I really enjoyed my time in New Mexico. I was able to explore so many new places I never would have gone if I hadn’t been in Carlsbad. From the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains, the bat flight at Carlsbad Caverns, the cute little mountain town of Cloudcroft, to the Organ Mountains, New Mexico has some special places. Thanks to Carlsbad, my mentor, and my crew for making my CLM internship great. Here are some last few plant pictures to sign off!

Mentzelia strictissima
Panicum virgatum florets
Sphaeralcea angustifolia

A Change of Pace

Scene over the Black Rock Desert Salt-pan 

Now with the field season over, well at least in terms of camping, we have switch gears excitingly. When not traveling out to places still accessible to us, we are becoming deeply engrossed in the process of SOS beyond merely collecting seeds.

Now we are collaborating with many groups, to clean data, and prepare and lay the groundwork for the next year’s intern. However, by a stroke of luck perhaps we will also be involved in the preparation, propagation, and rearing of native seeds given to us in common gardens and greenhouses across the county.

It is with hope that in mid-October we will be chain sawing, brush cutting and clearing, laying tarps upon common gardens to begin the process of understanding success and phenology, in a cultivar setting.

Work work work.

After my first trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, I stayed busy at work continuing my rangeland monitoring routines. The cattle have been steadily transitioning out of the summer range allotments for the past month, so, many of the pastures within them are completely empty now. It has become the new norm to hardly see any cattle out in the field, but this means that we can focus on studying the patterns of vegetation heights in individual pastures. Lately, we have been in an allotment called Silver Creek. It has four pastures within it: Strawberry, McLean Meadows, Sweetwater Canyon, and Rocky Draw. As of right now, we’ve finished monitoring all but the very last one! We monitor them by mapping the grazing/utilization patterns. This requires us to venture around an entire pasture as much as possible. Whether we are in the truck or on foot, we are constantly observing the vegetation to determine what percentage has been grazed, and therefore, what percentage has been utilized. Once we agree on a number, we then mark the patterns we see on a huge map with colored pencils. This has definitely been one of my favorite responsibilities of my internship, especially considering all of the wildlife we’ve seen in Silver Creek. This includes more greater short-horned lizards, birds of prey, a badger, a prairie dog, and finally, two moose! 

Our utilization map of Silver Creek when we had just completed Strawberry and McLean Meadows pastures. Sweetwater Canyon is the blank pasture at the bottom of the map, and Rocky Draw is the one in the top right corner.
Another greater short-horned lizard, or Phrynosoma hernandesi, we found in McLean Meadows. This one I was able to catch and hold for a few seconds.
Pausing for a moment to admire where we were and what we were seeing. Jon got this photo of the wind practically taking me away, haha.

Mid-September-ish, we were able to get one last autumn camping trip in before the cold really came to Lander. A few of my Wyoming coworkers and friends joined me and Johnny at Worthen Meadows Reservoir in Shoshone National Forest one weekend! We found the most perfect campsite right on the water, got a fun hike in, grilled burgers, and saw a really beautiful sunset. We had the best time!

Our campsite — literally right on the water. 🙂 We had our own picnic area, grill, and bear box. The best part was that this campsite wasn’t in season, so staying there was free!
The incredible sunset we caught on Worthen Meadows Reservoir.

In the following weeks, the autumn colors started to pop out everywhere in Lander and around our BLM field office. It had literally been a dream of mine to see aspen trees in the fall, but for some reason, I had only thought that they grew in Colorado. I was incredibly surprised when I saw them out here and realised that I would still be here to watch them change. Needless to say, I was out there almost everyday taking pictures. The landscapes turned magical, but soon after the leaves turned yellow, they were falling to the ground. I swear it changed from fall to winter in a matter of days — we have already gotten several snow storms!

One of my favorite parts of our picturesque route home from Antelope Hills Allotment.
Catching the sunset above an aspen grove just outside of Atlantic City.

While we were monitoring our third pasture of Silver Creek Allotment, Sweetwater Canyon, our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We got to see several shrubs and tree species in their fall colors, and some incredible wildlife. On our way home one day, we came across a small family of prairie dogs, as well as a badger, all in a span of a couple miles.

The incredible view at the top of Sweetwater Canyon.
The curious prairie dog we saw on our way home. I think this scientific name is Cynomys ludovicianus.
The first good photo of a badger, or Taxidea taxus, I have been able to get in Wyoming!

The other week, I got to go out in the field with another one of the BLM’s rangeland specialists. Along with his main job responsibilities, Steve is in charge of collecting a few rain gauge and mercury samples for the National Atmospheric Deposition Program. This program, run by the National Trends Network, collects samples from all over the United States (and further). They study the bases, acids, and nutrients in nationwide precipitation in order to show trends over time. This was so fun for me to assist with because, earlier this summer, I was exposed to this program in Shenandoah National Forest! My Chemistry class took a field trip to the Big Meadows NADP site near my university. We learned about the same rain gauges, as well as various other equipment that the NTN uses.

The huge mass of snow and fog clouds that rested in Sinks Canyon that Tuesday.
This is one type of rain gauge provided by the NADP. A small black box extending from the surface of the table has a metal plate attached to it. Once it senses any sort of precipitation, the gray shelf will slide up off the rain collector bucket so that the total rainfall can be contained and measured. The only downside to this piece of equipment is that it cannot always pick up light precipitation, and so it may show slightly lower precipitation values than expected.
This was one of the South Pass City NADP sites we went to that Tuesday. This site is completely solar powered, and can accumulate snow as high as the fences that surround it! Steve said that in the winter, he often has to snowshoe in from a main road. Apparently, this spot is notorious for moose, but we didn’t see any that day.

The first NADP site we went to that morning was in Sinks Canyon State Park, one of my favorite places. Usually it’s a bit colder there in the mountains than in Lander, but that day, it was so cold that it was snowing! After work, I went back to take some photographs of the snow and fog that had settled throughout the day. I included just a couple below.

The deer were scaling the mountain like it was nothing. This group had at least a dozen members in it.
Snowy evergreens — one of my favorite parts of winter.

Our Sweetwater Canyon monitoring still wasn’t complete until later that week when we hiked along the riparian land down in the canyon. This ended up being a 9+ mile hike, and so much fun. We saw a few snakes, two moose, and an abundance of heavily grazed land. Our team started on the East side of the canyon, while a second team started on the West side. The idea was to meet in the middle if possible, in order to map the entire riparian zone. Along the way, each team had several photo points to take for the rangeland specialists, and a few transects to run. We were also noting anything strange, unexpected, or over-utilized. The canyon seemed like it had been a paradise for the cows, with endless shade spots, water, and vegetation.

Our view for most of the 9 mile hike we took through Sweetwater Canyon.
This picture may look weird and gross because there are two snakes here! We found a larger snake swallowing a smaller one whole. Ick.

Our CLM Blog has been down for a couple of weeks, so this post is pretty late. The photograph that I found from the field below is one that I love, but have no idea where I took it. A bald eagle, or Haliaeetus leucocephalus, had been standing in a field we drove through, right next to a golden eagle, or Aquila chrysaetos. I was blown away by these magnificent birds. Usually, bald eagles live along rivers, or bodies of water, so I don’t know why this one was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He took flight, and flew right alongside us for a half mile or so down the road. Just a couple of dreamy minutes. Another blog post or two will be following this one — so much is happening in my last month here. 🙂

My favorite bird of prey. We could spot him from a mile away. 🙂

Coeur d’Alene Nursery and upland wildflowers

Harbor view of Coeur d’Alene lake.

It is not often that I get to spend the entirety of a day surrounded by millions (yes, millions!) of tree, shrub, and forb seedlings. We were sent to collect 1,096 wildflower starts from the US Forest Service Coeur d’Alene Nursery to plant in southeast Idaho for forb island research promoted by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest botanist, Rose Lehman, and Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS). This nursery is a force to be reckoned with. It consists of a seed extractory, germination facility, large cold storage warehouse, extensive land for tree reserves, and current forest health research sites. They also have roughly 20 greenhouses fully stocked with various conifer species such as: white bark pine (Pinus albicaulis), western larch (Larix sp.), and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). One conifer greenhouse can hold up to 1.2 millions seedlings! Additionally, they have four native plant greenhouses filled to the brim with multiple species including: kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.), and black elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). These plants are grown for various projects throughout Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and Utah for reforestation, landscaping, timber sales, and forest conservation. 

One of the four native plant greenhouses.
A glorious representation of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) seedlings.
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.) plugs being grown for a wildlife corridor in Washington.
Black elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is being grown extensively at the nursery. We were all impressed with how productive the flats are.

The main goal of the trip was to arrive early enough to individually pack each one of the wildflower seedlings needed to complete the restoration project south of Idaho Falls on the Curlew National Grassland at the end of the week. The initiative is working to establish native plant zones in a low elevation, sagebrush-steppe landscape by hand-planting the following forbs: parsnip buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides var. heracleoides), curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens), low beardtongue (Penstemon humilis), and tapertip hawksbeard (Crepis acuminata). These flowers provide strong pollinator habitat, upland establishment, and tender forage for sage-grouse chicks. The chicks thrive off of the insects found on wildflower species and often use the vegetation for shelter. 

Orchestrating a planting operation like the Coeur d’Alene Nursery is beyond impressive. Seedlings are documented from the beginning of their seed collection, through gestation, germination, upsizing, transplanting, and then their shipment. Every flat, in every greenhouse, has a barcode that provides a timeline and location for the individuals. It acts as an electronic paper trail for each organism on the property. For our specific project, we were able to see the final stages of a plant’s life at the nursery. This consists of collecting the flats, removing them from their plugs, getting rid of any dead leaf matter, cleaning the root bases by trimming them with scissors, compiling them into plastic bags, and placing them safely into large shipping boxes. We loaded them into the chiller for the evening so they would remain properly hydrated until we picked them up the following day.

Example of removing plugs from their flat and trimming the ends before bagging them up. This is curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa).
Olivia Turner is cleaning off dead leaf matter off of curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) to ensure the individuals look fresh for their long journey to the Curlew National Grassland.
One of seven boxes each filled with 200 or so wildflower seedlings for our restoration planting.

Overall, this was an incredibly successful trip and partnership! Each one of our chosen species grew with great success which ensured we could get them to the restoration project safely. We were able to see a very small snippet into what it means to facilitate active plant conservation on a national forest scale. Learning that there are only six national forest nurseries made us both overwhelmed with the importance of these facilities. I certainly look forward to future opportunities that allow me to be involved with any one of these nurseries.

To learn more about what came next for these plants and the planting process for our project, check out my co-intern Olivia Turner’s recent blog post, “A Planting Frenzy”.

Here’s to working for three more weeks in such a special place!

Claire Parsons

Caribou-Targhee National Forest, S.O.

A Planting Frenzy

Our group of Curlew planting volunteers, all smiles.

We recently obtained almost 2,000 baby plants from the Coeur d’Alene Forest Service nursery (see my co-interns blog about our experience there!), all of them bright and bushy tailed with green leaves and even a few flowers! These native plants are special because their source was known and local to Southeast Idaho. This is an important feature because it greatly increases each individual plants chance of surviving, once placed in their ‘home’ habitat, and reproducing successfully because of local adaptations they contain. Our goal for these kid plants was to establish them down on the Curlew National Grassland as part of a stream bank and habitat restoration initiative. Because all of them are perennials, if we get them into the ground before the first frost they will die back this winter and be ready to roll next spring! In one overcast and windy day, we planted over half of them within and above the floodplain of Deep Creek on the Curlew. Volunteer master naturalists, citizens, and other Forest Service and NRCS employees came out to help. Shovels were flying, compost was distributed, and plugs were pressed into the ground. We were rewarded with a lunch of hot, homemade chili (made by our wonderful mentor) and then wrapped up the day by putting a layer of mulch around each plant, to tuck them in and discourage weeds from popping up.

Hard at work planting, planting, planting!
A very happy buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides var. heracleoides) right after being planted.
An example of what the floodplain looked like with the baby plants in the ground! All dark patches have one or two plants in their center. Mulch had yet to be spread around them at this time.

We still had a handful of plugs after the Curlew planting effort so our mentor took some to local National Forest District offices to establish native plant displays and then we took the rest to a Juniper treatment area (where removal of Juniper trees occur in order to stop their excessive encroachment on meadows and shrub-lands). The piles of branches and twigs had been burned, leaving sooty circles of bare ground. Our mentor was interested in planting some of the native forbs in these bare areas to asses growth and reproduction potential over the years and to help establish pollinator habitat within the meadow itself. Our team of three (myself, my co-intern, and our mentor) quickly got to work digging, composting, and planting in the circles of dark soil and ash; the ‘forb islands’ we created sites of promising green. . At the end of the day we counted the plugs that remained-we had given all but 200 plants a home in the ground!

My co-intern busy placing the native plugs within the bare areas marking the meadow/shrub-land.

Our plan is to store the plugs securely over this weekend and then spread them in more areas that need some native plant TLC over the Forest the following week-we may even be able to donate some to a local University in order to help them in their effort to become a pollinator friendly campus!

My co-intern and I enjoying the sun between the establishment of the ‘forb-islands’ within the meadow/shrub-land.

I have to be honest, before this week, I had never been a part of such an extensive planting initiative. I learned that it is hard work that feels good and rewards you with a lovely visual of fresh green on the landscape and the knowledge that the baby plants are happy and at home, ready to grow and soak up the sun come springtime.

13 hour day… but HORSES

The last week of September was cold but sunny. Up in the mountains, the wind tore through us and I was glad I had thought to bring my fleece jacket. But what really kept me warm was the anticipation; that day, we were to take horses down a mountain trail. It was something people come to Wyoming and spend a hundred dollars to do, and yet here I was, getting paid to ride a horse all day. I was elated: bucket list item completed and I hadn’t lifted a finger to set it up. My supervisor had arranged the whole thing with someone in the office who owned horses, and all I needed to do was be there, ready to jump off my horse and pound in signposts.

My horse that day was named Lassie. She was a beautiful brown mare who immediately gave me the side eye before turning her back on me, unimpressed. But after I brushed her down she seemed slightly less disdainful of my presence, and consented to some groundwork bonding of my having her run in a circle. Then we loaded up the horses: two were to be ridden and the third was to carry the posts and pounder in a crazy looking saddlebag setup. Everything and everyone secured, we began our day.

Bonding with Lassie
Jazz rocking this balancing act with patience

While I had taken horseback riding lessons as a child and had a few experiences riding horses since then, the day had a steep learning curve. Lassie especially liked running me into low-hanging tree branches to see if I would fall off (which, despite being routinely stabbed and gaining quite a few twigs in my hair, I managed to avoid). Generally, we would ride until we either found an old trail post that needed to be replaced, or until we reach an ideal location for a new carsonite post. Carsonites are the brown fiberglass posts to which one attaches stickers or other forms of signage, and are commonly used to designate trails or the boundaries of public lands. We pounded these posts into the ground using our obnoxiously orange and heavy carsonite pounder, which utilized gravity and some human force to drive the carsonite into the ground. But woe to you who chooses a rocky location for your sign – between a carsonite and a rock, the rock wins and you are left with a mangled carsonite that has a small chance of proving reusable. And even more woe to those who touch the carsonite with bare hands while attaching signage, for the fiberglass likes to embed itself in unsuspecting or careless fingers and itches for days after.

Pounding in carsonites
On the trail

The morning moved somewhat slowly. By the time we stopped for lunch, we had fixed or added some 20 carsonites on the trail and entered truly steep and beautiful terrain. After lunch, we began the process of rerouting the later part of the trail, our main goal for the day. But after a few more hours, it became clear that we simply did not have enough signage to complete this task, making it so next year’s CLM intern will also be able to have a wonderful day of horses and trails and signs to look forward to. When we turned around, I switched places with my supervisor, who had been hiking ahead and scouting out spots for signage. Hiking back up the many hills we had covered, it hit me just how impressive horses are, with their ability to travel long distances with great weights on their backs and not really break a sweat, whereas I was dying be the bottom of the fourth hill. But the vigorous hike was an essential break for my aching body, so I couldn’t complain.

Vistas from the trail
Struggling up a hill behind my supervisor

By the time we returned to the trail head the light was starting to fail. We had achieved much of our task, but it had taken longer than anticipated. Driving back to the office, I knew that although my body would not thank me the next morning for the 6+ horse I had spent on a horse, it was completely worth it. Not many people get to have such adventures on a work day and I know myself to be extremely lucky. Although the workday ended up being 13 hours, it was an awesome experience that I will always remember as being a highlight of my time in Wyoming.

Obligatory end-of-the-day photo with Lassie, who did such a good job!

-Buffalo BLM Rec Intern

Flat Tire in The National Forest

For the first week of September, my work brought me to the Mountain City and Ruby Mountain Districts in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. These districts of the forest burned significantly last year, so we were sent to identify the plants that were coming back to assess how plant communities are responding post-disturbance. Additionally, we were supposed to make seed collections on certain target species if there were ideal populations. Collections made from healthy populations in post-burn areas are most ideal because the population is more likely to grow in areas with the same seed zones after a burn.

For the first few days of our hitch, we cam[ed at Wild Horse Reservoir and scouted the Mountain City District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe forest. We were able to make collections for Phacelia hastata and Macaeranthera canescans before storm clouds began to form on the second day. We were fortunate to make two collections before the storms because afterwards all of the seeds from populations were completely gone.

Exploring the burned areas was educational, yet devastating at the same time. We noticed significantly eroded hillslopes and disturbed sites as a result of the burn. The loss of plant communities as a result of the burn made the hillslope exceptionally erosion-prone, especially after a wet winter and spring in the following season. Many forest roads were damaged from the erosion, making scouting in the area very difficult for my field partner and I. While in the Mountain City District, we found ourselves on a road that became increasingly narrow as it hugged the highly eroded banks of a creek. Traveling took much longer than we anticipated because of the large amount of debris and dead trees alongside the road. As we slowly approached sunset, we were eager to get out and onto the highway to get back to our camp. Soon we hit a private fence that blocked the road leading to the highway. Nervous to travel onto someone’s property, we tried the other roads that diverged from the ones we were on because they seemed like they might lead us around the property to get back onto the highway. We tried all of these roads only to find that they all lead back to a fence from the private property. The sun was now setting and we were running out of options, we were to either ask for permission to pass through on the property or turn around and take the road back (which would take several hours into the nighttime). We decided to ask for permission once we made it to the second fence. As we came up to the property, a friendly older man came out of the house and jokingly said, “Gosh I am so sorry girls! I saw you about an hour ago coming up to the fence. I should have told ya right there and then to come on through! Of course, you can pass on through!”

He was so kind and offered to give us a ride back to our truck on his UTV. As he drove us back to our truck, his grandsons wearing cowboy boots and pajamas ran with the UTV. We thanked them for the ride and allowing us to pass on through and they all said, “Anytime! Please, anytime you need to get past.” Happy to have had such a positive interaction with the rancher, my field partner and I hastily got the truck started. As we drove off, the young boys chased after our truck screaming “Wait! You guys have a flat!” We looked at the sun setting over the mountains and then jumped out of the truck to change our flat. Luckily, the rancher and his grandkids helped us change our flat tire and we were able to get back on the road in less than thirty minutes. While we changed the flat tire we must have been swarmed by mosquitos the entire time!

Soon we were able to be on our way again and thanked the family for helping us that night. We drove in the night back to our campsite and made it back just in time before the torrential downpour and lightning strikes begain. It rained that evening until 6 am in the morning! However frightening, we woke up to the most beautiful sunrise in the morning.

The sun rising at Wild Horse Reservoir after a night full of thunder and lightning storms.

leaving a mark

My time in Carlsbad is quickly drawing to a close. I decided to take a break from packing to take a minute to reflect on the five months I’ve spent here…

There’s a hill on the north side of town with a gravel trail I frequent. This morning I decided to visit once more before I depart. The weather’s been atypical. Dreary, cold, and hardly a glimpse of the sun. The last time I had visited this trail, the mariola hadn’t quite started blooming. Today, the hillside was covered in a blanket of creamy composite flowers with a fragrance unlike anything else. Every so often, a dayflower would fight for pollinator attention with its striking azure flowers.

While I’m relieved to be returning home to my loved ones, I realized this place and the work I’ve done here have left a profound mark on me. I have learned so much from my coworkers, my mentor, and the landscape. I can only hope I’ve left a similarly positive impression on this place.

This season has been one of the shortest chapters in my life, but I believe it has also been the most profound.

A view from the top of Guadalupe Peak in Texas. My final weekend trip out here. Any time a field day would take me and my team southwest of the office, these mountains would be watching over us. I had decided early on that before I left I would pay them a proper visit. I’m fortunate for the opportunity to connect with this incomparable landscape.

I would encourage people to take some time to explore the land should they ever find themselves in the Desert Southwest. While the climate can be less welcoming than the forests found in other parts of the region, this area has its own distinct beauty. The richness of life and colorful essence of the land will move anyone who stops to take it in.

El Capitan, an old Permian coral reef who now watches over the desert landscape stoically, looks very different from above.

My time here was not without challenges, but I suspect that element persists wherever one ends up. I am excited to take all the knowledge and experiences with me as I continue this journey. I’m also happy to proclaim my love of plants has not wavered. It has grown exponentially since my arrival in Carlsbad. Furthermore, I’ve come to the conclusion people who don’t like plants can’t be trusted… But that’s a different soapbox.

To anyone thinking about applying for CLM, I would say this: It won’t be easy. The work conditions and expectations will test your limits. However, this work is some of the most rewarding work I’ve done, and the connections I’ve made with people and landscapes will remain with me for a long time. I can’t think of a better opportunity to learn and grow. I’m deeply grateful to have had this opportunity with CLM.