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