About Cara Applestein

I'm working in Vale, Oregon for the summer between April and September. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology from University of Maryland and I am an east coast girl experiencing the true west for the first time.

Last Day in Vale

Today marks the last day of my CLM internship in Vale, Oregon.  It’s pretty amazing how time as flown by.  It seems like it was July just yesterday.  However, it’s obvious that the seasons are starting to change.  September has brought rain and thunderstorms.  I never thought I would see torrential downpour in this part of the country but it still happened last week.  We had been scheduled to do a camping overnight trip in Leslie Gulch, surveying for Senecio ertterae.  It’s a good thing that we didn’t go because when we arrived for a day trip the next day, the evidence of flash floods were everywhere and we were blocked by washed out roads. Living in eastern Oregon has been almost like living in a different country for me.  Ranching is the predominant way of life.  Lightening-caused fires are a constant summer time threat.  Smoke from the fires leads to days of poor air quality.  Water erosion is not a gradual process: the landscape is so barren that one large water event can move huge amounts of dirt.  Birds are everywhere: quail, chuckars, kestrals, ring-necked pheasants, and killdeer.  I also find myself with an acute awareness that if I were stranded out on these landscapes, I would not survive for very long.  It’s humbling to be reminded that despite all of our constructs of modern civilization, nature is still in charge.

The sagebrush has been interesting to experience but it won’t be a moment too soon for me to go back to living among trees.  The people who grew up here say that they get clastrophobic in forests; they don’t feel comfortable if they can’t see the landscape for tens of miles around.  I think I’m the opposite; I almost feel uncomfortable without the cover.

One of the things I think about a lot is how much potential there is for renewable energy on public land out here.  While it doesn’t look like we have much, there is a huge wealth of wind, sun, and geothermal.  There are relatively few people who would be bothered by having renewable energy projects nearby.  There are large amounts of land that have already been overrun by cheat grass and/or other invasives and can really not get that much worse in terms of disturbance.  Despite all this, according to my mentor, there is one single wind farm of about five windmills on all of BLM land in Oregon.  We went to see the project and look at the relatively small level of disturbance it posed on the flora in the area where it was placed.  The BLM is already heavily involved with mining and ranching.  I really hope that in the future, there is a push for renewables on public land because they are already there, just waiting to be tapped.

My next adventure will be a 10 1/2 month Americorp position with the Center for Natural Lands Management in Olympia, Washington.  I will be doing prairie restoration science.  I think that the botany skills I’ve gained during this summer helped me to get this position.  I’m excited about this opportunity and happy to get back to a wetter environment (though, check back with me in a couple months…. I might be complaining about rain).  If any current or future CLM interns happen to be in that area, look me up!  I’ll always have a couch for crashing.  Anyway, cheers!  It’s been great seeing how things have progressed this summer.  I wish everyone luck with whatever their future endeavors are.

All dressed up in fire gear (rather unnecessarily) to look at the after effects of a fire and whether reseeding would be necessary.

Hills, hills, and more hills

I’m actually nearing the end of my internship now and I can’t believe how fast time has gone.  In all honesty, I will be relieved to leave the desert but I will definitely miss all the cool rock formations, the smell of sagebrush, and the nice roads for road cycling.  This week has been a particularly rough week of hiking.  We were first working in Baker City doing vegetative monitoring in an ACEC at Hunt Mountain and later in the week, we surveyed for Pyrrocoma radiata, an aster.  Both jobs required walking along some serious slopes (probably up to 60 – 70%).  I now know that just because something looks inaccessible doesn’t mean that it is.

Despite the rough hiking, working at Hunt Mountain near Baker City has been my favorite part of the whole summer.  Our first trip there involved conducting white bark pine blister rust surveys with several different forest service employees.  I was incredibly happy to be working with trees again and found the lesson on tree diseases to be really interesting.  The level at which each individual tree was infected varied greatly and sometimes making the diagnosis was much more difficult than you would expect.  The trees living on these slopes were already under a great deal of stress from the climate that they had to endure on a regular basis, so few looked extremely healthy to begin with.  However, some showed symptoms (rough bark, animal chew, spores, tar, and swelling) much more than others.

The spores need moisture in the air to lead a successful infection.  Wet, cool conditions are perfect.  So the warming, drying trend of climate change might actually be good for slowing blister rust spread?  Wrong.  According to the forest service employees, Baker City and the surrounding area might be a rare place that actually experiences greater precipitation with climate change.  Bad news for the white bark pines.  I am very interested in this phenomenon and am considering studying it through a PhD program, which I hope to begin next year.

A quick update on SOS: we have made 11 collections so far and we are coming very close to the end of the seed season.  We only have one more population that we expect to collect from.  Despite having had a few disappointments (species we thought we’d be able to collect that didn’t pan out), we think that we have done pretty well.  Higher elevation areas have turned out to be the saving grace for this year’s drought.

Anyway, I think the next time I post, it will be for my final reflection!

We ran into this female and young bighorned sheep along the side of the road.

A view from along some really steep slopes we were working on near Rye Valley, OR.

The spectacular view from Hunt Mountain.



The half-way mark

July marks the halfway point of my internship.  It also marks the beginning of a long spate of extremely hot weather.  I have learned that eastern Oregon is perhaps the worst climate to attempt to grow tomatoes in.  They barely survived a late-May frost and, after making a come-back, are now wilting under the 108 degree weather.  I also feel like I’m wilting under the weather.  Even the night time temperatures are not very cool.

We have had a lot of SOS activity lately, completing our sixth collection today.  All the seeds are starting to go all at once and we are trying to get them before it’s too late.  Even the bitterbrush that we were collecting this week had noticeably drier seeds today than yesterday. 

Perhaps our most fun collection was a barton berry we helped the Baker City botanist with.  Barton berry is endemic to Hells Canyon, on both the Idaho and Oregon side but there is a gap in its distribution alongside the river.  The BLM is hoping to collect seeds in order to plant barton berry into this gap.  We stayed overnight in Baker City and then were greeted with the amazing sight of Hells Canyon: thousands of feet of rock cliff faces rising up out of a reservoir.  The two days we spent collecting there felt a little bit like working in a outdoor enthusiast’s playground.  We spent a lot of time clambering up rocks to reach elusive patches of barton berry that had a tendency to sprout up on talus slopes.

We witnessed our first wildfire yesterday, passing by on our way to work up on a mountain.  Despite the amount of smoke in the air, it was surprising to see the fire as just a thin, low line working it’s way up a slope.  I had the realization that our fires probably cannot compare in intensity to Colorado or Arizona or anywhere with dry woodlands.  We have so few trees that the fire cannot reach very far off the ground.  I made the mistake of thinking it almost seemed tame until we returned the next day and saw the huge swath of land that it had managed to burn in less than 24 hours.  Lesson learned: never underestimate the power of wildfires, even seemingly small ones.

One of my favorite flowers


Last week, for the first time since I’ve been here (a month and a half), we unexpectedly had several days of rain.  This kept us inside, working on our sensitive plant species guide rather than doing restoration monitoring.  Dirt roads become very dangerous with even just a little bit of rain and we were getting a lot by Vale standards.  Despite our restlessness, we were all glad for the rain: the plants needed it.

Yesterday, we returned to the site of the Bonita Fire where we had previously identified several populations for potential seed collection.  The fact that we had gotten rain was very apparent here; the mountain-top flats were in full bloom in an astounding array of colors.  There were purple Alliums (wild onions), several different types of yellow Lomatiums (carrot family), lavender Erigerons (daisies), native thistles, red and yellow Eriogonum (wild buckwheat), and about four different Crepis species (hawksbeard).  Crepis modocensis had been our target species for collection and we decided that the seeds were able to be collected.  So now we have made our first collection of SOS seeds!  It seems as though all the plants are starting to seed at the same time so we have the possibility of several more collections this week.

Up until recently, I had not had a clear idea of what SOS seeds are used for except for the vague term “restoration.”  However, we got a clearer picture of that purpose several weeks ago when we visited the Oregon State University (OSU) Ag Research Station for their native seeds field day.  OSU is working with the Forest Service and BLM to try to come up with the best methods of growing native sagebrush flora to inform and encourage commercial farmers to grow these crops alongside their food stocks.  BLM and the Forest Service want to be able to buy these seeds to use to restore lands following fire or other disturbance.  This program is perhaps still in its infancy; BLM is not able to secure the quantity of seeds that it would like but perhaps, with more efficient methods of growing these plants, farmers will be more willing to consider planting them.  We learned that many Lomatium species can be grown in a field with 8 inches or less of irrigation in a summer.  Compare that with onions that need at least 40 inches!

I am looking forward to go to Chicago this weekend.  I do miss the east and although Chicago is the midwest, I like to think that its bringing me a little closer to home.  It also looks like we have a great schedule of workshops lined up for us during the week!

First weeks in Eastern Oregon

Before getting the CLM internship in Vale, Oregon, I imagined all of Oregon as being like Portland: rain, forests, rocky coastline.  The eastern side of Oregon couldn’t be farther from this image.  In fact, before coming here, I was surprised when I looked at a map and saw the amount of desert and scrubland in Oregon, as compared to the amount of forest.  Vale is beautiful in a very different way from what I am used to.  I think of the gently sloping, forested mountains of Appalachia (near where I come) as a kind of soft beauty.  Vale is all yellow rock, volcanic remains, and then the amazingly hardy plants that somehow survive in this seemingly impenetrable landscape.

The wildlife in the desert is abundant and much more diverse that I would have expected.  Already, we have seen ring-necked pheasants, a short-eared owl, golden eagles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, quail, killdeer, a horned toad, marmots, and what seems like a million ground squirrels.  Even with incredibly little rain and almost no shade, the scrubland teems with life.

I have only been here for a few weeks now and feel that I am getting a condensed crash course in sagebrush botany.  I’m amazed at what I’ve been able to pick up already but I think that the botany skills that I am honing will be useful for whatever ecosystem I work in next.  Our first sensitive plant to monitor: Hackelia cronquistii, a fragile white-blue borage with an affinity for north-facing slopes.  After surveying several sites that had not been visited since the late 1980s and finding no Hackelia, we were enthusiastic to find one population of over 100 plants yesterday.  Hopefully, it will be one of many to come.

One idea that I have learned quickly is the difference between a good quality hillside and a poor quality hillside.  Perennial bunchgrasses hold the soil together and prevent erosion: they give slopes a bumpy, uneven look.  On the other hand, cheat grass, an invasive annual grass, has managed to establish itself on many hills, especially after fires.  It gives slopes an even, smooth, light green tint and usually dominates the ecosystem.  When cheat grass takes over, few natives can co-exist.

I’m looking forward to continuing my crash course in botany and look forward to meeting the rest of the interns at the CLM workshop in June!