Happy late October from Southern Nevada. The JTGP team is basking in balmy fall weather here and working away in the USGS greenhouse, pampering our Joshua trees. You read right: pampering. Who would have thought these magnificent plants of the Mojave would be so fussy!
You see, it turns out that some of the seeds are quite particular and have decided to fight germination with stark determination. Tucking them into nice damp soil, regulating their day and night temperature in the greenhouse, and diligently watering them makes not a difference.
They simply weren’t having it.
But, little did they know, the same thing could be said for us: we were not having their complete lack of germination.
So, we decided to treat these most persnickety seeds like the royalty that they are: laying them out on a damp filter paper in a Petri dish and setting them in a temperature regulated growth chamber to imbibe in warm darkness. We visited them twice daily to alter the chambers day-time and night-time temperatures, gently cleaned them if mold popped up, kept each filter paper nice and damp, and crossed our fingers.
And what do you know-it was just what they preferred! In no time we had lots of happy germinates.
Now, every day more and more germinates appear in the Petri dishes and we scramble to transplant them into their respective plant bands (tall, bottomless cardboard ‘pots’ that allow the Joshua tree’s roots to grow long). And our success hasn’t stopped there. These Joshua trees are (finally) pleased enough to send up bright green hypocotyls and cotyledons. Up next are primary leaves and more, each plant growing as much as possible before its final transplant into the Common Garden sites at the end of the year!
And now we know: despite initial struggles, germination is indeed possible. So grow on Joshua trees, grow on.
A few new things have happened since the last time I posted, so let me get you up to speed. After my inaugural blog post, Caroline and I went out on few more botanical surveys. Since we were still familiarizing ourselves with the plant species found throughout the Mon, we were lucky enough to have two incredibly knowledgeable botanists, Emily and Ken, at our office that were open to having us help them conduct rare plant surveys. Although Emily and Ken were nearing the end of survey season and still had a lot of land to cover, they never made our presence feel like a burden. Each of them took time to help us identify species and test our knowledge. It really gave me and Caroline a glimpse into the day-to-day of a career path that we might one day pursue. While it has been nearly a month since the last time we went out on a survey, I often find myself grateful for the fact that we were able to spend so much time with such great teachers. Just like the times we’ve had to endure intense off trail hikes through dense red spruce (Picea rubens) forests and huge patches of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), my time with Ken and Emily will forever be etched into my memories, my knowledge base, and my heart.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
After a short delay and a few email exchanges, we were finally on the track to go out to the field to collect seed! With the help of our mentor, Amy Lovell, we were able to connect and meet up with the lead botanist at the Bartow office, Todd Kuntz (about two hours away from the Marlinton office). Before meeting Todd, Caroline and I heard nothing but great things about him from our coworkers; so our expectations we’re pretty high! On our first outing with Todd, he took us to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. It was a whirlwind of a day where Todd taught us heaps of knowledge about the plants’ growth habits and seeding patterns.
The following week, we met up with Todd again to collect some new species. Little did I know, we were headed to a trail that led up to the highest point in West Virginia, Spruce Knob. Once we had reached the top, I was completely and utterly awed; not just by the height, but also by the vastness of the view before me. I felt as though I were literally on top of the world. Never in my life had I seen something so ethereal and so perfectly crafted by the Earth. That moment was a beautiful conclusion to a wonderful day of picking seed and picking Todd’s brain about everything related to Allegheny plants.
Although I haven’t yet returned to Spruce Knob, I continue I relish the memories of being on the top of world and yearn to bask again in her glory. May we meet again, Spruce Knob.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The transition between botanical surveying season to seed collection was gradual, and only slightly overwhelming. With the main seed processing and propagation center becoming more restricted about visitors due to COVID-19, we had to rethink our expectations on how we would learn how to clean, process and store the seeds that we would be collecting over the next few months. We shifted our plans and began researching and learning the seed processing techniques on our own and designed a small scale processing center. At this point, the supplies have arrived and we are ready for setup! I am more than ecstatic about the prospect of starting from the ground up with my co-intern, Caroline. Until then, we’ll be exploring this beautiful state and gathering some seeds along the way.
As a child growing up I was subject to weekly spelling tests. The efficacy of these tests is questionable based solely upon the amount of red lines on my screen at this very moment, however there were at least two words I never forgot to spell. Those words, of course, are desert and dessert. The trick I was taught to remember the number S’s in each word was that “you always want 2 desserts, but 1 desert is more than enough”. Thus, the letter s appears twice in the word “dessert” and only once in the word “desert”. This trick has served me well, that is until now because I have seen the desert and I would have to disagree on the notion that one desert is more than enough. Last month I had the pleasure to spend two full weeks working “in the field” in the Mojave expanse. In this paper I will argue that the spelling of the word “desert” be permanently changed to dessert so that the number of S’s reflect the beauty, and value of this incredible place.
I would like to predicate my arguments by explaining the reason the JTGP team found ourselves working in the desert in September. We were enlisted to help the USGS with an ongoing project working on repopulating burnt areas of the desert with Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia), Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), and Burro-weed (Ambrosia dumosa). This project is a long-term restoration project spanning many years and hundreds of plots across southern Nevada. The project is aimed not only to restore burnt areas’ vegetation, but also to document survivorship of young plants in the wild of these three species and to help contribute to the limited knowledge available to science on these matters. Over the two weeks we spent in the field we had the good fortune of visiting 5 distinct sites across the region to collect data on the survivorship of the outplants.
A typical day in the field consists of waking up at 0530 Hours for some sunrise shenanigans. My co-intern, Michele Beadle, and I shared coffee and breakfast every morning from the back of the government owned pick-up we called “home base”. After finishing up breakfast, we would load coordinates for our first plots of the day and then head off into solitude. Following gps coordinates we would then walk around and attempt to find hundreds of metal tags that correspond with individual plants, and then record the health of said plant in our PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistant). We carried out this task until the clock struck 1800 Hours, at which our team all returned from their individual plots to home base for dinner. Shortly after dinner we would go to sleep, and then repeat this the next day. While this doesn’t necessarily sound like the most thrilling schedule in the world, it is not the schedule that makes the day, but instead it is the experiences that you fill that schedule with.
Now that we have augmented the situation, and schedule we operated under during our time in the desert, we can begin to explore the exciting aspects of our experience. The first thing that needs to be noted is the breath taking landscapes. Having come from the deciduous forests of the Northeast I can comfortably say I have never seen anything like I have seen in the desert. The strange shapes and vibrant colors of a sunset over the Mojave are absolutely captivating and I have a newfound appreciation and curiosity for what I was predisposed to disregard! Traveling to every new site was an exciting proposition yielding unique landscapes, geologic structures and plant communities. I originally thought that our sites would look more alike to each other than different, but I was wrong, and I am so glad that I was.
Next I would like to mention the wildlife seen. We found a pretty impressive array of desert creatures to our delight (and surprise sometimes). Some cases in which wildlife sightings were great included our twilight observations of Great-Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus), our multiple distanced sightings of beautiful Mojave Green Rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus), and the evidence of Loggerhead Shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) marked by lizards impaled on Yucca leaves. Less positive (yet still interesting) observations would include co-intern, Josh Poland’s experience with Desert Hairy Scorpions (Hadrurus arizonensis) crawling onto him at night, and my personal experience of being jumped by a tarantula (Aphonopelma chalcodes) whilst sticking my hand into a hole in the name of science.
Lastly, but not least importantly, I would like to say that the desert is a fantastic place to learn how to change a tire! On the second to last day of our tenure we found ourselves on top of a hill with three inflated tires, and one tire that had been impaled by stout branch. As we all sat outside the vehicle staring at the task ahead, our supervisor posed the question “who has never changed a tire before?”. Without hesitation Michele and I raised our hands in excitement. After about and hour or so of exploring the laws of thrust and leverage we had successfully changed the tire of our truck! This might be completely subjective, but I would like to say that learning how to change a tire was the cherry on top to the entire desert experience.
All in all I would like to say that jokes aside I would implore everyone to give the desert a shot because it is more than a barren wasteland devoid of life and happiness. With the correct planning and attitude it can be one of the most interesting landscapes in the world and a place worth protecting and studying. Our time in the desert was a great change of pace from the endless world of datasheets and Joshua Tree seeds we’ve found ourselves in at the City that built the Hoover Dam. Currently we are all back home continuing our work growing plants from seed for our common garden experiment, but each of us will remember and cherish our stints working as desert ecologists last month. And I, for one, will be looking forward to my second des(s)ert experience!
This past weekend I attended a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) Wilderness First Aid training here in Boise. I wanted to do this training because there have been several times where I have been out in the field, decently far from a hospital, without service. I realized that if anything were to happen, I really would have no idea what to do. Since I expect to spend more and more time outside, both for fun and work, I figured it is good for me to be prepared in case someone gets hurt.
Within the first few minutes of the class, I immediately felt out of place. During our brief introductions, where the icebreaker was to list your favorite way to get into the back-country, I realized that I was way out of my league. Almost all of the other students were back-country skiers, rock-climbers, backpackers, and mountain bikers. My nerdy, sheltered self– who broke her ankle attempting the very easiest route available at a bouldering gym– has never even seen snow, let alone ski!! I introduced myself, just said, “hiking” and then vowed to hide just how little I knew about outdoor adventuring.
Despite this rocky start, the class went well. These were two fully packed days: we learned what to do in case of cuts, burns, broken bones, sprained ankles, heatstroke, hypothermia, and more. We also learned how to be resourceful, improvising splints out of things we might have with us while out in the field. Throughout the entire weekend, we took full COVID precautions, with everyone wearing masks and gloves and checking temperatures at the door. We also were outside for the majority of the class.
All of the skills we learned were put to the test as we acted out scenarios that might happen in the back-country. We took turns being the patient and care-givers, mostly working in teams of two or three. To help with making the scenarios realistic, our instructors even used wound makeup to simulate cuts, bruises, and scrapes.
I left the training Sunday evening tired but feeling much more prepared for my days in the field than I’ve ever felt before. I now know what kinds of tools to bring for different trips and how to act under different scenarios. I hope that I will never have to use these skills, but now I am more confident in my ability to deal with trips that don’t go as planned. I also feel more capable of helping people I find during my adventures. Now, instead of panicking if someone is injured, I can say, “Hi, my name is Lili, and I have wilderness first aid training. Can I help you?”
This summer has really been a crazy whirlwind and I can’t believe it’s over.
During the past couple of weeks, I have been doing a seed collection project which is part of conservation efforts to save the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly, which is an extremely rare, endangered and endemic butterfly. As the botanist on the project, I have been collecting seed from a variety of its nectar plants and most importantly its host plant, the New Mexico Penstemon (Penstemon neomexicanum). This species of penstemon is pressured greatly by cattle, elk and horse grazing in this forest, which has contributed to the butterfly’s decline, so hunting down viable fruiting individuals has preoccupied us for the last couple of weeks.
As my mentor is out on a fire detail and my partner injured for most of the summer, I have gotten the chance to be the lead botanist and really played an integral role in the project which has been a great learning experience and I think will benefit me in my future career. I have really enjoyed seed collecting, as I find it very relaxing, and I have gotten to see some beautiful new parts of the Forest.
This week is our last week as CLM interns and I will really miss being able to hike around the Lincoln everyday. I am so thankful for my time here as I have learned so much about the flora of New Mexico and about working for a federal agency, which I know are invaluable to my future career, wherever it takes me. I have gotten to work on so many different projects, hike so many miles, meet new people, live in a new region of the country, and see countless cool, beautiful plants. I am really grateful for my time spent in the Lincoln National Forest as a CLM intern and will definitely never forget it!
The past few weeks have been exciting and full of new experiences for me. I was finally cleared by my doctor to go into the field and I have been helping Julie with a seed collection project. We were tasked with collecting seeds in an effort to protect the New Mexico Checkerspot Butterfly habitat, which is currently threatened due to excessive cattle and elk grazing. Julie and I have been driving out to different sites around the forest trying to sustainably collect seeds from a long list of potential nectar and larvae plants, including New Mexico Penstemon (Penstemon neomexicanus), Sneezeweed (Helenium hoopesii), Cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and many more. Julie and I got to virtually attend a seed collection workshop from the Institute for Applied Ecology in Santa Fe to learn proper techniques for sustainable seed harvesting. We were assisted by a rotating crew of botanists from the Lincoln NF and even the former NM state botanist, but it was up to us to organize the collection sites and data. I really enjoyed seed collection because it was relatively relaxing and allowed us to drive to many different sites in one day. It does have some frustrating aspects, such as locating the target plants throughout the forest and making sure that we are collecting the correct species and all of the surrounding habitat data, but it is so satisfying to see how many seeds we can collect at the end of the day. I missed working outside so much and it was great to finish out the internship working on an important project with Julie. Plus, fall has arrived in NM and the leaves are starting to turn into beautiful shades of red, gold, and orange. The scenery makes me appreciate my work environment and this job so much!
This is my final week as a CLM intern! It went by so fast and even though the injury stopped me from going out in the field for a lot of the experience, I still learned a lot and had a great time in the Lincoln. I was exposed to the inner workings of a government agency, got to hike every day for work, and made a new friend in Julie. I loved being in a completely new place and learning about all of the fascinating animals and plants in the Lincoln NF, many of which are rare endemics that I will probably never see again (or until I return). The Forest Service staff were very supportive and informative – especially our supervisor/forest botanist Aurora. I learned how to conduct botanical surveys, worked on my plant ID, organized a land-use database and collected seed to save a rare butterfly! I am so grateful to have had this experience and will take all of the things I have learned on with me to the next adventure.
Overnight, the Alleghenies transitioned from summer to early autumn. A breezy, warm, humid Sunday afternoon gave way to a morning of unmistakably crisp, cool weather: wool-sock-weather, wear-a-scarf-indoors-weather, light-your-woodstove-in-the-morning-weather. And you know what that means – seed collection season is well underway. As the humans here in Marlinton begin to layer up in cozy knit hats, windproof shells and bulky scarves, so too the plants shed their showy inflorescences in favor of cupule caps, seed coats, and follicle wraps.
I used to overlook seed season, which to me merely marked the period between the summer bloom and the delightful pigments revealed in autumn foliage. But this year is different. This year, my whole job revolves around finding, harvesting and processing wild seeds. Just today we harvested staghorn sumac, black elderberry, mountain ash, pokeweed and winterberry holly, while making notes on species verging on ripening next week: wild hydrangea, common milkweed, wild raisin. Instead of my standard indifference to the dried-up flower heads or inedible berries lining the mountain roads, I now find myself deeply entangled in a rotating wheel of fresh questions: which plants have gone to seed, and which fruits are ready to pick? What kind of fruit is this, and how can you get the seeds out? Does the seed grow easily when scattered on fertile soil, or does its hard outer layer require mechanical breakdown within the gizzard of a bird? The latter can be dealt with artificially (with scarification– no animals involved), but it certainly adds a few steps to the process. The propagation of wild seeds for ecological restoration work requires additional measures which the domesticated garden does not, but that’s the fun of it.
Our initial plans to work with a local nonprofit to process our collected seedstock have changed, and Ivy and I are embracing the challenge of doing it by ourselves. With the help of our supervisor, we are building our own seed cleaning station comprised of large buckets, trash bins, several gold pans of various sizes, and a few large tarps. With these tools, we will extract the seeds from the fruits we’ve collected, a process called “cleaning.” The cleaning process will involve de-awning and de-hulling any dry outer coverings and appendages, stomping on and shaking seeds loose from their fruit capsules, sifting seed contents through various screens, and winnowing away excess fluff using box fans and a tarp. By the end of the process, only the bare seeds will remain (theoretically). We will then bring these seeds to a local greenhouse where we will ready them for propagation and seed mixes. Soon enough, our wild seed mixes and propagated plants will be used to restore native red spruce forest to one of the reclaimed mining sites in our ranger district.
But for now, we will spend the rest of September and October focusing entirely on collection, dying our thumbs magenta with pokeweed berries, clipping off staghorn sumac and checking milkweed follicles for ruptured sutures. The collected seed will be stored in our seed cooler seed season is over, the autumn leaves have fallen, and it’s time to begin the cleaning process. Until next month!
Hello again with another update out of the Lincoln National Forest! It has been a busy month for me due to an injury, conferences, and a new remote project. The biggest news is that I am recovering from a broken ankle and two torn ligaments due to (what I thought was) a simple fall while completing rare plant surveys in the field. I am currently working on a remote project that is focused on creating a database of grazing permits to help the Rocky Mountain Research Station evaluate land use over time. While this injury is pretty unfortunate for the future of my fieldwork as a CLM intern, I am learning to adjust to new projects and a different side of land management. I have been working from home for the past month and have also had the opportunity to virtually attend conferences for both the Botanical Society of America and the Ecological Society of America.
For this blog post, I wanted to follow fellow CLM intern Lili Benitez’s lead and discuss the land-use history of the Lincoln National Forest, with the intention to learn and think critically about my position as an uninvited visitor on the unceded territory of the Mescalero Apache tribe (also known as Mashgalé-õde / Mashgalénde / Mashgalé-neí). The term Mescalero was first used by Spanish Colonists as a reference to the traditional practice of harvesting agave for mescal production. The Mescalero Apache people have a long history of land use in the SW central region of NM, primarily relying on the forests and mountainous areas for resources and shelter from the heat of the desert basin. The region’s mountains, some of which are located in the Lincoln National Forest, are important centers of spiritual tradition and community. Leading up to the formation of the Mescalero Apache Reservation by Ulysses S. Grant in 1873, the Mescalero Apache people were subjected to decades of state-sanctioned occupation and violence from the U.S. Army. Today there are three subtribes: Mescalero, Lipan, and Chiricahua which make up the Mescalero Apache Tribe. The current reservation is located on 463,000 acres of land just north of the current boundaries of the Lincoln National Forest.
In 1876 Congress formed the position of Special Agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beginning the long history of natural resource management at the federal level in the United States. This office eventually transformed into the modern-day U.S. Forest Service which currently manages over 193 million acres of land. It is important to understand, especially considering my current position as a CLM intern working with the Forest Service, that this land is unceded territory currently being managed by the Forest Service due to a long history of colonization and erasure of native people from the landscape.
The Lincoln National Forest began as the Lincoln Forest Reserve in 1902 and by 1907 it had expanded to include the Smokey Bear Ranger District. In 1908 the Sacramento and Guadalupe Forests were combined to create the Alamo National Forest and in 1917 President Woodrow Wilson merged the Alamo Forest with the Lincoln Forest Reserve to form the boundaries of the modern Lincoln National Forest. The Lincoln Forest has since served as an important center for cattle grazing, timber production, and recreation in the region.
As a botanist, I was taught to identify plants with a Latin binomial nomenclature system, which is the standard accepted in the scientific community. However, this practice results in the erasure of the botanical knowledge that native people have gained through the use and study of plants in their communities. So, in an effort to decolonize my botanical knowledge I looked into some common plants in New Mexico, such as the mescal agave, and learned both the scientific name (Agave parryi) and the Mescalero Apache name (Astaneh). I encourage you to think about incorporating these names in your scholarship and to always examine the land-use history while doing fieldwork.
The past month has been kinda crazy, filled with lots of different activities and a lot has changed since my last blog post. My co-intern Emma broke her ankle while in the field (which was crazy!) so we have not been able to do our normal surveying. To give her some time to heal we got to attend Botany 2020 and the Ecological Society of America Virtual conferences which were so cool! But once we found out Emma would need more time to heal than just two weeks, the nature of my internship shifted a little to give me a wider range of experiences. I have been able to write and read forest service reports, dabble with some data entry, gone into the field alone and work with other multiple crews on different Forest Service projects and fill in where ever I am needed. Though these last couple of weeks have been unpredictable, wild and spontaneous, I feel really lucky to be given the chance to learn so many new things and be involved with different surveying and monitoring projects and techniques, which I know will be useful for my future!
While working with another Natural Resources crew, I helped complete grazing surveys and different vegetative surveys for federally endangered species here at the Lincoln National Forest, such as the New Mexican meadow jumping mouse, the Mexican spotted owl, Goodings Onion and, my favorite, the Sacramento prickly poppy. I have also been really lucky to get out to countless new areas and districts of the Forest, including Sierra Blanca which is the highest peak in Southern New Mexico. Each of these monitoring projects requires different surveying and monitoring equipment, techniques and protocol, which I was so excited to learn about and work with. I have gotten the chance to get up close and personal to so many new plants than I otherwise would have been able to learn about and see so much more of the Lincoln, working across all the districts. While working on these projects I expanded my grass ID, invasive and native plant species knowledge and surveying skills.
I feel really grateful to learn so many new things, gain new skills, meet new people, and go to some really cool places, but I am hoping Emma heals quickly and can return to the field soon!
Here are just some pictures from my unpredictable, and crazy past couple of weeks!
Michele here from the City that Built the Hoover Dam. That is Boulder City, NV if you did not know that fun fact.
This week the Joshua Tree Genome Project team was greeted by a break from the desert heat. A high of 81℉??? What a delight. At 10PM I felt a chill in the air for the first time since I arrived in the desert. For a group of interns that are accustomed to fall breezes and leaves turning blazes of orange and red, we were ecstatic to see some weather that even sort of resembled a “fall” before a swift return to 100 degrees awaits us.
Aside from the cool weather, this week the interns split into two teams. Two of us went into the desert to help monitor a restoration project and two of us continued working at the greenhouse taking care of the Joshua Tree seedlings. I was on the greenhouse team. Along with continuing to collect data on the growth of the Joshua Trees, our task for the week seemed simple at first. Our goal is to plant new seeds for the Joshua Trees that had died after transplanting the seedlings into the crates, but then we took a closer look at how many needed reseeding. Lets just say, we planned for 3,200 trees in our crates and we need to reseed nearly half that number. Nonetheless, we took on the task and persevered through the maze of tracking down each seedling that needing replacement, preparing plant bands for reseeding, finding the corresponding maternal lines to reseed, and of course planting the seeds. This time around, we would plant the seeds directly into the plant bands and we would plant two seeds in hopes of increasing our chances of having a healthy tree from all of the maternal lines needed. By the very end of the week, we had reached our goal, and our crates were FULL of seeds.
To say that all of our plants were dying, however, is far from the truth and quite the negative perspective. The trees that are healthy, are absolutely thriving! We are starting to have a little forest of Joshua Tree seedlings. They are beginning to have as many as five leaves on them! It is amazing to see them grow from the first signs of life, as at the first stages they could be easily confused for a blade of grass. Now they are beginning to look a bit more like multiple blades of grass! I know, how thrilling! But for the life of a Joshua Tree Genome Project intern, it really is incredible.
Next week the team is switching spots, which means I get to go out into the field! I am excited for my first true adventure out into the desert. Usually the field work I have done in the past has been venturing out into forests or prairies, so I am excited to see the contrast the desert will provide. One of my true joys is venturing far into natural landscapes that are well off the beaten path. Having the opportunity to experience places that many others have not is such a blessing. I am excited to see the native plants, walk through the dust, and gaze up at the stars at night.