Getting to Know a Changing Forest

“Try chewing on a twig,” suggested my mentor, Ian. He held a branch low for me. At first, it tasted like nothing, but as I broke through the smooth bark, a distinct minty flavor emerged. He explained to me that the tree was a yellow birch. Recognised by its unique peeling bark and serrated leaves, yellow birch branches bear a strong wintergreen flavor. 

It was my first week interning at Ottawa National Forest. Two weeks after graduating from college, I had found my way to the small town of Ironwood, Michigan. The iron in Ironwood is gone now; the last mines closed decades ago, but there is no shortage of wood here. The town sits on the western edge of the forest, a million acres of aspen, pine, oak, maple, ash, tamarack, willow, cherry, birch, and more. 

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve just begun to learn the local plants. Interrupted ferns have sporangia in the middle of their fronds. Sweetgrass with warm tan spikelets dots roadsides, and lily pads shaped like pies with a slice cut out float on calm ponds. While I’m here, I want to try and learn as many plants as I can. The forest is vast and changing. I want to know it all. 

Some of the change happens naturally —  a stand of aspen dies back and hardwood trees grow in succession — and some of the change is brought about by people — a stand of aspen is cut, so new aspen can grow in its place. Much of the change currently happening in the forest is driven by a warming climate. Ian told me that the elk and caribou that used to roam here have almost entirely been replaced by deer from the south. The deer eat young hemlock trees in the winter, making them rare in the forest. This summer, I will be focusing on a different source of change, invasive species. 

Brought in from far away by boats, birds, firewood, and a thousand other sources, many invasive species throw local ecosystems out of balance. Without natural checks on growth carefully forged by thousands of years of evolution, these species can start to take over and greatly reduce ecosystem diversity. As CLM interns assigned to the invasive plant team at the forest, fellow intern Tessa and I — lovingly termed the “Weed Crew” — are tasked with heading out to sites in the forest with known infestations of “Ottawa’s most wanted,” the invasive plants with the most potential to harm the forest’s ecosystems if left unchecked. Armed with hand saws, trashbags, gloves, and hardhats we venture into the depths of the forest looking for Japanese barberry, invasive honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and others.

Ian, Tessa, and Emily take a selfie in the forest. Emily is wearing an orange vest and hard hat. All are smiling.
Ian (left), Tessa (right), and I (middle) take a selfie

Though some invasive species have native lookalikes, each is distinctive in its own way. With glossy leaves and delicate thorns that will splinter into unarmored hands, the yellow stumps of Japanese barberry look like specks of gold against the dull forest floor. Invasive honeysuckle can look similar to native honeysuckle species on first inspection, but if you snap a twig, the dark bullseye inside lets you know you’ve found your mark. Garlic mustard can be identified visually — small white flowers with four petals crown erect stems — but true to its name the smell of the plant gives garlic mustard away. It has an odor that would make any vampire turn and run. 

Spending long days in the forest, Tessa and I travel from site to site. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of past invasive plant crews, infestations have gotten worse. This week, I went to a trail entirely lined with dense clumps of garlic mustard. Sometimes, though, we will go to a past site and walk it diligently, concluding, after thorough inspection, that the invasive species has not grown back. 

After cutting down a dense clump of invasive bushes, the forest can look barren, littered with rocks and stumps. In these moments, I remind myself that by removing the invasive species, we are creating the opportunity for new plants to grow. These past few weeks, we scattered many native seeds — primrose, sweetgrass, St. John’s wort, white asters, and black-eyed Susans. We also planted hundreds of native trees, making sure the little seedlings’ roots were straight and pressing the dirt family around them as if tucking them into bed. 

Picture of a small lake surrounded by dense greenery and a blue sky.
One of the many lakes in Ottawa National Forest

On Wednesday this week, Ian and I traveled deep into a wetland, my black rubber boots getting stuck in the mud, until, straining with all of my weight, I pulled them free. Tall moss and orange mushrooms grew over decaying logs, and light filtered in through the leaves of black ash trees. An invasive bright green beetle called emerald ash borer has just reached the edge of the Ottawa, so in a few decades all of the ash trees in the wetland will be gone. That’s why we were there. Carrying hundreds of silver maple fruits, we walked in a wide circle watching them twirl like helicopter blades into the mud. We are hopeful that as the ash trees die, the silver maples will grow in their stead. 

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to learning more about the forest, meeting new people, and continuing to explore the diverse ecosystems here. Thinking far into the future, though, the thing that excites me most about our work this season is the chance to come back to the Ottawa in twenty years. I will walk the places that are by then familiar to see all the ways the forest has changed, how it has stayed the same, and if the trees we planted have grown. 

Botany trip to the Bull Run Mountains

Hi! I’m Emma Greenlee, and I’m a CLM intern based out of Winnemucca, Nevada this year. I moved out here a few weeks ago as I was finishing my last finals period at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Now that I’m settled in and have been at work for a few weeks, I’m here to report what I’ve done and learned so far!

Picture of me with mountains in the background
Me near the Penn Hill repeater in the Bull Run Mountains

I’m working for the Forest Service on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which is the lower 48’s largest national forest, spanning Nevada and some of California. I’m stationed at the Santa Rosa Ranger District in Winnemucca, and am working primarily with Sierra Sampson, the zone botanist for the northeast part of the forest. So far I have liked the Forest Service vibe (maps on all the walls, animal skulls and other natural specimens everywhere, and kind people who know and care about the area) a lot, while also seeing the challenges of working in an understaffed and underfunded office with more land to manage than time and resources to accomplish everything. Sierra is awesome and I’m excited to work with her and hopefully other people around the district and forest.

Picture of the sun setting behind mountains
Sunset on our first night in the Bull Runs––did some dispersed camping on the forest

After a week of training on noxious weeds, UTV operation, herbicide application, and common invasive species identification, Sierra and I drove to the Bull Run Mountains, a range north of Elko, NV near the Idaho border on the Mountain City Ranger District, to meet two botanists from the University of Nevada-Reno (Jerry Tiehm and Jan Nachlinger). Jerry and Jan are prolific botanists who have been collecting specimens for UNR and other institutions’ herbariums for decades together and it was very cool to get an introduction to subalpine and northern Nevada flora from them. I have a very long ways to go but I was able to commit at least some species to memory and start to recognize others and think about how the plant communities in this area are organized. We camped with those guys for several days and then went our separate ways to spend one last night camping in the Ruby Mountains east of Elko. The Rubies were a stunning mountain range that I was surprised wasn’t a national park! (And that’s how everybody knew I wasn’t from here…) Sierra and I saw a few marmots and a last awesome sunset of the trip and I jumped in the stream running through Lamoille Canyon. I can’t remember how cold Lake Superior is anymore but this felt like it came close!

Butterfly pollinating a flower along with some other plants
Butterfly on a yellow flower (which I have not successfully ID’d, feel free to comment if you know it) in front of some Eriogonum kingii (Ruby Mountain Buckwheat)!

Throughout the trip I saw Sierra take the time to build positive relationships whether it was with seasoned botanists, campground hosts, or members of the public. Although I’d thought about the role of land stewards like the FS in interacting with diverse stakeholders, I hadn’t thought about how this might play out in small, everyday interactions like Sierra demonstrated, so this was a small but important part of the trip that I will keep thinking about along with all the new species of Eriogonum (wild buckwheat) I learned. I also have a soft spot for geology and I’m dying to get my hands on a copy of Roadside Geology of Nevada after all the amazing rock features of northern NV I saw this week.

Picture of me splashing face first into a creek
Jumping in the creek
Picture of my tent in front of a pink sunset and some rocky canyon walls
Left the rain fly off to look at the stars!

Until next time!


USFS-Santa Rosa Ranger District, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest

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.