The Cubicle Chronicles: Pt 1

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I never pictured myself spending so much time sending emails, working with spatial data, troubleshooting network/general computer issues and designing vegetation monitoring recommendations this early in my career, but hey, I’ll take it!

It’s been a busy winter since arriving back to Anchorage from the National Native Seed Conference in Washington DC. I was tasked with a smorgasbord of jobs to complete and have spent about 95% of my time staring intensely at a computer monitor.

During this period, I have completed the following tasks:

  • Developed a workflow for determining ideal sampling size of line-point intercept (LPI) plots in mine reclamation sites based on previous year’s data.
  • Generated and digitized polygon features from invasive plant survey data in the form of GPS coordinates taken in the White Mountains and Nulato Hills near Fairbanks, AK in 2016. The fate of this data resided in the National Invasive Species Information Management System (NISIMS) and the Alaska Exotic Plant Information Clearinghouse (AKEPIC)

I obtained a wealth of information and invaluable help from the AIM Monitoring Manual for Grassland, Shrubland and Savanna Ecosystems, The Landscape Toolbox and a few generous folks at the BLM National Operations Center (NOC). Without these reference tools this would have taken me all winter! The Landscape Toolbox website is a monster system of tools and resources that can save land managers an awesome amount of money. Solid job to those involved in it’s development! *fist pump*.

For the NISIMS project, feature layers were to be imported into the AK state spatial database engine (sde) and ultimately the national sde. NISIMS is quite the system, and anyone who has experience working with the database network knows it’s complexity. Due to this, some training is necessary to fully comprehend and successfully execute the steps from mobile device to, ultimately, the national sde. Luckily there exists a plethora of online help documents and training videos located on the NISIMS sharepoint site, and a strong support staff available both at the NOC and within the state offices.  I’ll spare the details, but it took me a minute to finally obtain the proper flat file geodatabase and align my spatial data with the attribute table seen in Photo 3.

With every day logged into ArcMap, I become savvier with the software, and tasks that once took me several days now take me an afternoon. What a learning experience this has been, and I am starting to feel truly competent in with ArcMap geoprocessing tools, NISIMS data processing and navigation/permissions within government networks.

Photo 1. Point feature to polygon conversion. Top left – right: full extent of point feature data from surveys conducted in the White Mountains, zoomed extent of several days worth of surveys, line features grouped together logically by day and space (output generated from points to line tool). Bottom left-right: 150 ft wide buffers generated from line features, original point feature layer with points buffered 1 acre on top of buffered line features, final polygons generated by dissolving group fields… and voilà! A unique polygon feature for every survey!

Photo 2. Edit feature tool used for digitization of larger area surveyed near camp.

Photo 3. Attribute table with NISIMS required fields. This feature layer was pulled from a flat file geodatabase, and each field contains regularly updated domain attribute values.

Aside from the above projects, I have also been working on QA and QC of Forest Vegetation Inventory System (FORVIS). The FORVIS surveys generally consist of two parts; first, a walkthrough where forest characteristics, including understory vegetation and fuel loading, are described, and second, a plot survey where specific information is collected on individual trees (species, age, height, DBH, etc.). The ultimate fate of the plots is in theory the Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS), a model developed for stand examinations. Certain inventory design information, stand-level variables and tree data information are required for the model to run correctly. Many of these fields are missing in the existing data, but can be easily determined to ensure the information we have meets the FVS requirements. Since Alaska has yet to introduce an FVS, this data will help facilitate the generation of a model for the state.

It’s been a good winter with the BLM, without doubt being both productive and educational. Whenever possible, I have taken advantage of my weekends in the snowy Chugach and Kenai Mountains. The theme of my weekend warrior missions has been backcountry skiing, or splitboarding in my case. It’s an intoxicating effort, and I foresee it being a part of my life for years to come.

Traversing a ridgeline in the Kenai Mountains in search of the coveted fresh line.

Of my beloved experiences in the silent winter mountains is hearing a faint thumping sound, and soon realizing it’s the sound of my heart beating.

The long days are returning, and it’s starting to feel like spring is in the near future. Before I know it we will once again be experiencing the long, fruitful summer days of the Alaskan summer.

Here’s to the changing seasons, and the rise of photosynthetic activity which keeps us all employed!

Cheers,

Jacob

Winter in AK and The National Native Seed Conference

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Winter has happily settled itself in Anchorage-area. 185 inches of snowfall have been recorded at Alyeska Resort in 2017, leaving no doubt a true winter has returned despite several years of absence.

Photo 1. Alaska’s Kenai Mountains / Photo Jacob DeKraai

My presence in Anchorage has been facilitated by acceptance into a second Conservation and Land Management (CLM) internship, and although both internships were based in Alaska, the experiences are not comparable. The dramatic move from Copper Center (pop. 328) to the busy hub of Anchorage (300,000+) was initially a shock, but I have finally acclimated to city life. I can get used to traffic, angry people, shopping malls and higher cost of living, but most difficult to stomach was the necessary change in work attire from rubber boots to dress shoes.

I was brought onto the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Alaska team to work on several projects this winter season and assist in numerous botany projects the subsequent summer. The following tasks were of highest priority upon joining the team:

  • Prepare poster presentation and write-up to illustrate Seeds of Success (SOS) accomplishments in AK and how they integrate into the overall execution of BLM-facilitated mine reclamations. The poster was to be displayed at the National Native Seed Conference in Washington DC.
  • Assist in the design of monitoring regimes on mine reclamations for maximum statistical strength
  • Digitize new polygons from survey points during previous season’s invasive plant surveys and move into National Invasive Species Information Management System (NISIMS) database.
  • Help describe state and transition models for mine sites.

Developing the presentation for the Native Seed Conference was my first task, and initiated my investigations into the workings of BLM AK botany projects. In execution of this project, I have acquired valuable knowledge regarding the agency, the extent of SOS efforts, policies on mine reclamation, reclamations underway, native plant material production, alignment of efforts with the National Seed Strategy, and most importantly, partnerships necessary to make all of this happen.

Having the opportunity to contribute at the conference had me eager about my future in the current movement of native plant material production. I was honored to join my mentor in DC and experience the collaboration of many passionate, dedicated people working together to execute the National Seed Strategy. From small-scale private collectors to large, commercial growers to PhD students studying comparative germination requirements of upland sedges, all walks of life were present at the conference. Despite this diverse group, the atmosphere reflected that of a community with vested interest in others’ triumphs/discoveries.

Photo 2. The National Native Seed Conference / Photo Jacob DeKraai

Photo 3. Alaska Seeds of Success Program poster presentation / Photo BLM

All this talk of native seed has led to increased thought on the subject matter. In an effort to improve my literacy on the plight of native seed, I have turned to contemporary literature. I recently began reading the book “Seedtime” by Scott Chaskey. A poet and proponent of plant biodiversity, in his book he has illustrated the following analogy:

“Encapsulated in each seed is a story, a story held in a state of rest until released. Only with significant patience and effort can we interpret this language, which gradually is revealed as the cotyledons, or first leaves, unfold from a seed’s invisible center. A plants coming into being, or maturation, is such a quiet progression that we tend instead to focus on the fruit, the colorful prize of production and the vessel of taste. To grasp the whole story, however, we will have to look at the structure of a flower, how plants have evolved to attract pollinators, and how a flowering plant produces seed. Our entire food supply is a gift of the angiosperm revolution – the magnificent event that introduced flowering plants to the world 140 million years ago – and our heath and food futures are entwined with the way in which we choose to nurture or manipulate the seeds of that natural revolution.” – Scott Chaskey

In the US, 17,000 plant species tell individual tales together composing a complete anthology of plant evolution. This anthology represents both the evolutionary history of flora and, if also containing spacial information, the guidelines of how each individual tale branched, changed and is now presented differently in varying environments. The tales remain the same, but slight variations have led to stories with local adaptions, unique and individual.

In a time of mass habitat destruction, we wonder how many unique stories we have permanently lost. Genetically appropriate seed is a key component to increased success in ecological restoration.

As the conference began to wind down, I started reflecting on my goals as a young conservationist. Beyond my work as a CLM intern, how do I positively impact the National Seed Strategy? Do I join the restoration community or pursue integration into the native seed industry? Finding a niche can be difficult, and it’s easy to feel without direction in a room full of accomplished professionals of diverse disciplines. I imagine this is a common thought of many up-and-comers in our field, but those of us working in these botany projects must find pride in our work. That invasive plant survey, that seed collection in Idaho or that week you spent doing inventories for a rare plant and didn’t find a thing. These are all small chunks of information and material that consolidate into large informational packets or accumulations. These informational packets are used to help make decisions that impact our cause, and every single accession is part of an overall accumulation, increasing the genetic diversity of our seedbanks.

What an exciting time to be alive. We have the opportunity to be engaged in a movement for science, conservation and ecosystem health. Protectors of the past and activists for the future. Pretty cool.  For now I remain focused on current efforts with the BLM and maintain excitement to support the National Native Plant Materials Development Program and the Native Seed Strategy through SOS and mine reclamation in the state of Alaska.

Thanks for reading!

Jacob

Oh, the places you’ll go!

I cannot wrap my head around the fact that only 8 months ago, sitting in the concrete jungle of Quito, Ecuador, I had my first interview for the CLM internship and was referred to work with the National Park Service in Wrangell-St. Elias NP, AK. Fast forward to late October, I find myself in Anchorage, snowboard in hand, anxiously waiting for snow to fall in the mountains. In the time interval between these two moments, my CLM internship both brought me to Alaska and provided me with professional skills important to my developing career. My personal “internship” was unlike any of the past, and certain job responsibilities forced us to grow professionally and meet expectations within the resource department of a government agency.


Skills I developed during this season will, with certainty, carry-over to future employment in natural resource management.

  • Experience with ArcMap
  • Data collection and processing with Trimble units and Pathfinder Office
  • Writing professional reports
  • Public outreach and an understanding of its importance to government work
  • Backcountry logistics, which is especially valuable to fieldwork in Alaska
  • Further experience in identification of plant species using keys, particularly grasses
  • Various applications of Microsoft Office products

Of equal importance to the skills above, which transfer well to paper, are the planning and preparation experience one can only acquire with trial and error. Some invaluable learning experiences of the summer are listed below.

  • Proper field preparation and checklists are crucial and never to be underestimated. There is no “Oh, we forgot THAT?! Let us skip back to the office and grab it!” after being dropped off via bushplane in the Alaskan backcountry.
  • Trip reports are very helpful for future reference and should always be completed if time allows.
  • Always be ready for the worst possible situation, and understand that forces out of your control will occasionally crush your plans, although every conceivable precaution has been taken.
  • Humility is important for getting over mistakes, and having healthy, happy work relationships with your coworkers.

Among the skills acquired/honed and lessons learned, this season was rich with work-facilitated experiences to be appreciated for the rest of my life.

  • Laying eyes upon Iceberg Lake of the Tana Glacier was a breathtaking moment, and promptly reminded us of how lucky we are to work in a field with exposure to such beautiful, wild places.
  • Surfing for the first time in Yakatat, Alaska (believe it or not, a 6/5 mm hooded wetsuit is a bit too warm for the Gulf of Alaska during summer).
  • Organizing and weighing seed collected during the 2016 season.
  • Writing the 2016 summary report with the my fellow CLM intern, Natalie.
  • Building cartographic skills while developing maps to help describe our field season.
  • Pressing, mounting, and developing herbarium labels for over 60 aquatic plant specimen.

Above is a sample of my experience as a CLM intern in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. Each individual intern likely received an overlapping, but occasionally different and equally beneficial wealth of skills and personal lessons. I am a firm believer in this program and feel fortunate CBG provides young botanists and conservationists with such incredibly diverse and beneficial internships. Let us hope that environmental policy continues to swing in our favor, increasing permanent employment opportunities to meet our skilled pool of qualified field biologists and technicians.

Salud,

Jacob

Autumnal Equinox

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Yesterday was the Fall equinox for our latitude, which means our days are drastically getting shorter: approximately 5:35 minutes per day in the months of September and October. At this rate, although the day length difference does begin to decrease with a tapering effect, at the end of October we have a sunrise at 9:30 am and sunset at 6:00 pm. At the end of November, 9:44 am and 3:52 pm. Aye, winter is upon us.

The Equinox also allowed the opportunity to reflect on a productive field season; friendships made, concepts learned, surveys conducted, data collected and water conserved (who needs showers?).

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Field-family photo

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Too much time in the backcountry can make you behave quite strangely.

After a season of primarily surveys and monitoring, it was refreshing to finally do some seed collection for the Wrangell-St. Elias native seed bank. Since our focus for the seed is restoration in disturbed areas of the park, primary successors were the focus of the collections. Two weeks were spent scouting and collecting from Calamagrostis canadensis and Elymus trachycaulus and Oxytropis campestrus populations, while also finding time to obtain some smaller collections of various wildflowers and some less abundant grasses. We were lucky enough to have a lovely SCA crew working with us during this period and it dramatically increased our productivity. As it turns out, 10 individuals can collect an awesome amount of seed in 2 weeks. Thanks guys! As far as seed processing and refinement goes, we processed most of the small collections ourselves, but our larger collections will soon be sent off to a plant materials center once dry.

A seed mix was derived from a portion of this years seed, along with that from previous years. The goal was to restore vegetation with this seed mix to a series of gravel slopes in the Kennecott Historic Mining District within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. With the help of the SCA crew that aided us in our collections, the first stage of a small restoration was conducted in the areas. Fingers crossed for successful germination!

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Native seed mix to be sown in Kennecott

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Collecting Bromus ciliatus in the Wrangell Mountains

As the field season is officially over, we start to find odds and ends things to fill our days; Preparation of voucher specimen for placement in the herbarium, seed cleaning, educational programs and so on. Without a doubt most time consuming of tasks will be writing our 2016 Summer Report. The end is near, and it certainly feels odd writing a summary report for this season.

Synced with the Equinox are many more Alaskan pleasantries. Here in Alaska, this part of the year is a wonderful time for folks to come together and celebrate with recently acquired game, particularly moose and caribou. I am not much a fan of red meat, but caribou heart just may be the most incredible muscle tissue I have ever consumed.

In other news, a winemaking project with blackcurrants and blueberries will be wrapping up soon, and we are quickly accumulating snow on the glaciers in Thompson Pass, which means backcountry ski/snowboard season is here. October will be swell.

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Delicious caribou heart.

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This candid male moose had an uncomfortably small flight zone earlier this summer. I wonder if he escaped the ravenous hunters this fall.

The summer—no sweeter was ever;
   The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
   The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
   The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness—
   O God! how I’m stuck on it all.
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
– Robert Service

 

I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever leave this place.

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Above Nabesna Mine with a glimpse of the Nabesna River. The Nabesna River is famously fed by Nabesna Glacier, the longest valley glacier in North America.

 

 

 

Humbled

The largest terrestrial ecosystem on the Planet Earth is the boreal forest. Standing on top of a bluff or mountain, with a view of the interior, invokes a sense of awe that at this moment I cannot express in words. When attempting to describe how it feels to gently walk on a soft sphagnum carpet through the spruce/aspen stands, weaving through a berry-rich understory, lichens crumbling under my feet, sentences fail and language becomes ineffective. I have come to the conclusion that ecosystems of the north are otherworldly.

During the course of this summer, I have come to understand the allure of Alaska. So much can be accomplished under the summer sun, with days reaching 24 hours in length. Since the commencement of our field season, I have had the opportunity to see countless mountains, glaciers, river deltas and forests, both interior and coastal. Our primary goal has been the detection and management of exotic plant populations in the park. If you know anything about exotics in the lower 48, then 13,000,000 acres and with merely 4 people is completely ludicrous, but in Alaska, many of these infestations are only just establishing and can be controlled if detected early. And so we have set off to survey the most highly visited areas of the park, both road accessible and not, to search for these human-transported exotics.

The Copper River Basin with Mt. Drum hiding behind the clouds.

The Copper River Basin with Mt. Drum hiding behind the clouds.

Continue reading

62° North.

Greetings!

I am happy to be reporting from the land of the midnight twilight where I have had a spectacular introduction to the Alaskan wilderness. I came here to work with plants, but with the impact of bear, moose, salmon and mosquitoes on life in Alaska, it appears my association with the animal kingdom is inevitable.

This summer I will be working for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with the Exotic Plants Management Team. To shortly describe our summer activities, we will be focusing our efforts on surveying for the aquatic invasive Elodea spp., periodic management/surveying for newly discovered and prior existing invasive terrestrial plant populations, monitoring of aspen phenology and leaf miner damage, community outreach efforts and native seed collection for our restoration projects… We are certainly not void of projects. The last few weeks have been primarily focused on mandatory all-personal park training (aviation, bear and ATV training), and also specialized work training to get familiarized with navigating the NPS network drives and managing GPS and GIS data. It was a tremendously long process, but we are finally getting out into the field!

A glimpse of the Wrangell range from Willow Lake. From left to right: Mt. Drum, Mt. Stanford and Mt. Wrangell.

A glimpse of the Wrangell range from Willow Lake in the Copper River Basin. From left to right: Mt. Drum, Mt. Stanford and Mt. Wrangell.

The two most recently visited field sites happen to be accessed by the mere two roads into our park, Nabesna and McCarthy. Given that Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest park and preserve in the United States with 13,275,799 acres, this presents a bit of a problem. The answer? Aviation. This park is SO remote that we will be flying via bush planes/floatplanes with frequency to backcountry field sites inaccessible by The Nabesna and McCarthy Roads (I’m quite excited about this).

Nabesna Road was our first destination where we convoyed ATVs into the backcountry to the Copper Lake Trail-Crew Camp. The trail is undergoing a serious rerouting project and we were there to assess the habitat damage during its construction and map potential sites for restoration and re-vegetation on unused or expired off-road vehicle and equipment trails. We even got our hands dirty cleaning up light inhibiting debris that was successfully choking out vegetation on many of these trails (see before/after photos).

Mapping restoration plots on the Trimble GeoXT.

Mapping restoration plots on the Trimble GeoXT.

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First stage restoration  – Before

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First stage restoration – After

In Alaska, many environmental hazards exist that have the power to seriously harm or kill if unprepared. Whether it’s the wildlife or weather (rain and freezing temperatures), it seems that this rugged wilderness is always testing the most seasoned of outdoorsmen/women. Despite these challenges, I’m convinced that insanity driven by mosquitoes is the most daunting obstacle in Alaska.  Somehow the experience of 200+ tiny dipterans piercing their proboscises of 21 micrometers in diameter through a material layer and into the flesh causes folks to lose their cool. The DEET-less summer is going to be more difficult than I ever imagined.

After Nabesna area our team visited McCarthy and the Kennecott Mines to scout more potential restoration sites along with a manual treatment of a Leucanthemum Vulgare population. From the mine are phenomenal views of the Kennicott Glacier, Root Glacier and Stairway Icefall.

Looking through the trees to Kennicott Glacier.

Looking through the trees to Kennicott Glacier.

Lateral rhizomatous sprouts of Leucanthemum Vulgare present quite the challenge for manual treatment.

Lateral rhizomatous sprouts of Leucanthemum Vulgare present quite the challenge for manual treatment.

In our spare time we have been busy botanizing, gardening, picking spruce tips and traveling outside the Copper River Basin. I arrived in Alaska during the pasque flower bloom and was lucky enough to stumble upon a calypso orchid my first week here.

A striking Calypso bulbosa in boreal forest of the Copper River Basin, AK.

A striking Calypso bulbosa growing in Sphagnum substrate of boreal forest understory in Copper River Basin, AK. Photo by Maura Shumacher.

Pulsatilla patens is a anxious spring wildflower. for it's brief period of bloom in Wrangell-St. Elias we found it most commonly on river bluffs and open patches of woodlands. Photo by Maura Schumacher.

Pulsatilla patens is an anxious spring wildflower. For it’s brief period of flowering in Wrangell-St. Elias we found it most commonly on river bluffs and open patches of woodlands. Photo by Maura Schumacher.

Life is sweet in Alaska and I am learning something new every day. Truly ecstatic to meet the other CLMs at training next week!

Hasta luego,

Jacob