My blog week assignment came with good timing because I just finished my position in Lakeview, OR last week. I was only there for a little short of three months because I’m headed off to other adventures (grad school), but even in such a relatively brief time I came away with valuable new skills and experience.
Lakeview sits in Oregon’s high desert, at the northwest extent of the Great Basin. I quickly discovered it does not have a lake view. At least not from the streets of the town. I had to hike to the top of Black Cap, a high point in the surrounding hills that houses radio and cell towers, to see Goose Lake a few miles to the south. I guess they can keep the name.
During my time in Lakeview my supervisor was Joe Wagner, a fire ecologist who has been with the BLM for almost 40 years, most of which is experience with fire and range management in the Great Basin. My main function in working with Joe was setting up and monitoring fire effects plots. Our work was concerned with vegetation on the sites: frequency of forbs and grasses, cover and density of shrubs and juniper. I learned the joys of driving two and a half hours to a field site, then laying out transect lines through a tangle of juniper limbs and 8 foot high bitterbrush in 95 degree heat (okay, that’s worst case scenario). Fire is a widely used land management tool in the Great Basin but its effects on specific sites are not always well understood since there is so much variability in the plant communities, soil type, slope, etc. That’s where local case studies like ours come in. I felt like I was doing something that matters, which made the work very satisfying.
Especially for the first few weeks, but to some smaller degree for almost the entire duration of my internship, I missed the climate and scenery of home in the Seattle area. There were no blue, snow-flecked mountains, lush forests or great expanses of deep inviting water. There were miles and miles of open country covered with sage, rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, greasewood and juniper, flanked by rolling mountain ridges, buttes, and rims. Almost all the water was in alkali lakes and reservoirs for livestock. The soils were painted more in sandy grays and reds than dark, loamy brown. I thought it somewhat barren and monotonous, but that’s because I wasn’t familiar with it yet. Then I started to learn the identity of vegetation in the landscape by texture and color, make out interesting fire scar mosaics in the hillsides, and realize that at night the low horizon exposed more stars than I had ever seen before. All the arid Great Basin species became part of my widening view as I learned their names. Even in late summer when all the grasses and forbs dry up beyond recognition (which makes it really fun to ID them for transect work) their golden color is a beautiful contrast with the crisp blue of a clear sky.
Things live here, thrive even, but many remain hidden. Some of the most interesting plants are the smallest and easiest to miss, or vary wildly depending on seasonal precipitation. Many animals seek refuge during the heat of the day. But the more time I spent in the field and the closer I looked, the more variation I noticed, the more surprises I found. It grew on me.
I will miss the largely untouched openness of the Oregon outback. The smell of sage. Pronghorn antelope kicking up a trail of dust as they raced across our path and out of sight over a crest. The friendly waves from complete strangers as your vehicles pass on a remote and bumpy dirt road. Tiny Mimulus and Cryptantha dotting the ground like fragile confetti. Towns small and remote enough that an annual “Mosquito Festival” is the most exciting thing going on within about 100 miles. All these things and more, in an utterly new and unfamiliar place that I thought I could never call home but is now an inextricable part of my life.
-Robbie Lee, Lakeview District BLM, Oregon