All Shook Up

Alaska harbors a world of depths — deep oceans, interminable skies, mountains so high and snowy you could mistake them, at a distance, for clouds. Atop a mountain road, you can stare across a sea of black spruce that stretches miles unbroken to the horizon. The Last Frontier is also a place of great dangers to pair those depths, including big game (bears, moose, and wolves), active volcanoes, avalanches, biting cold, isolation, massive wildfires, Fata Morganas that create false landforms in front of your eyes, and more. On Friday morning, I was sauntering around an icy downtown Anchorage bus-stop when I heard a heavy cracking noise, like cement splitting. Seconds later the streetlights and surrounding buildings began to sway. The shaking that followed lasted all of 30 seconds but it jolted everything in the city to life.

I have learned in the past few months that Alaska is a place of natural wonders I could have never fully imagined without living here. When the earthquake hit, I knew we were in the midst of one of those stupefying Alaska moments — when you realize that despite all we as people know and can do, we live at the mercy of the world and its complex meteorology, geology, and tectonic shifts. As the world shook violently around me that late November morning, the Pacific plate was subducting beneath the North American plate, causing a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that began 10 miles north of Anchorage. Half an hour later, when I arrived downtown to report for work (oblivious as any East-coaster would be to the severity of the quake), the streets were dark and office workers had flooded out onto the sidewalks. Still reeling from the 1964 megathrust earthquake, which caused tsunamis and registered a magnitude of 9.2, (the most powerful recorded in North America), older Alaskans I met seemed especially on edge.

It is now Wednesday, December 5th. We have had thousands of aftershocks, including a 4.5 magnitude earthquake early this morning. The federal building where I work is damaged and still closed, but also still standing. So are most of the buildings downtown. It might not be the prettiest city, but Anchorage, like the Alaskan people, is resilient and strong. The world shakes like a snow globe in a child’s hands, almost no-one dies, and people move on. (For reference, it is estimated that over 200,000 people died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake of the same magnitude — eight years later, the island nation is still recovering).

After the 1964 quake that devastated southeast AK, the city was rebuilt for an event like this, and, despite the heavy vibrations we have received over the past week, life has resumed for most in a remarkably normal fashion. Alaska residents seem less daunted by challenges or unexpected events than those living in any other place I have lived. The ethic of self-resiliency in the state can be contagious, and while living here, I have found that I prefer a lifestyle and work environment that forces me to think and innovate independently. Big, new challenges make us smarter, stronger people.

Earthquakes aside, I would be remiss if I did not reflect on my CLM internship that brought me to this magnificent place. As I hinted in previous posts, I had a rocky start. When I arrived, there was little work initially planned for me and I began a motley range of assignments to fill my days — fixing picnic tables, trimming foliage on trails, random office work, et cetera. However, even on rough days out in my little outpost in Glennallen, AK, I did not regret the choice to come here. I lived in a beautiful wonderscape of clear lakes and immense mountains. I biked weekly along the surrounding highways through some of the most incredible terrain I have ever seen before. I learned to do things that had nothing to do with forestry, but were useful life skills nonetheless.

Things improved in the fall. CLM and BLM gave me the incredible opportunity to attend the National Society of American Forester’s Conference (an educational candy-land for us forestry folks) and to write my own forest management plan. I have spent the past couple of months working on (and struggling with) this management plan for BLM and have learned a great deal about Alaskan silviculture, subsistence hunting, and the history of public and private land in the state. I also refreshed my ArcGIS skills, made valuable contacts with people from a range of different fields in natural resources, and most importantly — learned that I am capable of researching and teaching myself more than I thought I could. If there is anything I have gained from this internship, it is a firm belief that self-reliance is not only important, but highly attainable. I feel more confident in my field and the idea that I do not need to be ashamed of what I do not know — I just need to be willing to learn.

My CLM internship ends in about two days, but the Alaskan landscape has wooed me to stay.  Next week, I will move into a remote dry cabin (without water or electricity) next to a glacier for a temporary job with the Park’s Service while I figure out my next steps. I feel good about it. Whatever happens, I am confident that I will rise to the challenge.

In the near future, I am hoping to continue to learn more about Alaska’s history and current environmental issues. While writing my current forest management plan, a number of articles I read mentioned that boreal forests are experiencing some of the most dramatic impacts of climate change. Not only has the landscape been significantly altered in recent years (it is hard not to notice a shrinking glacier), but there are more exceptional temperature increases in this part of the world compared to southern latitudes (different climate projections predict temperature increases between (6.3 – 13.5 °F by 2100). Boreal forests also store a significant amount of global terrestrial carbon — at least 24 percent — and warming in the Arctic is already contributing to a positive feedback loop of global climate change. These relationships are important to think about when we as a country are seriously considering an increase in mineral and oil exploration in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. At the moment, the economic benefits of such a project do not outweigh the costs — and those costs (including loss of habitat for porcupine caribou, permanently damaged tundra, and increased CO2 emissions) could be very great. Meanwhile, Alaskans are already experiencing the negative effects of climate change. This summer saw some of the worst returns of salmon in years (an important source of income and food for many Alaskans), while rising seas are rapidly swallowing up coastal villages like Newtok and archeological sites in Nunalleq. There is a deep part of me that hopes that the inherent strength, resilience, and innovation that I have seen in Alaska so far will continue to work to find mitigative solutions to the most pernicious effects of climate change. In the meantime, I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Alaska as it is now. The incredible natural beauty and human diversity of the state is truly inspiring. It would be a shame to not do anything about the anthropogenically-caused climatic shifts that threatens that.

I want to send a big thank you to Krissa Skogen and Chris Woolridge from CLM and to my mentor Eric Geisler from BLM for giving me this incredible internship opportunity. I have learned so much and I am so grateful that I had the chance to begin my forestry career in Alaska!

November hoarfrost outside of Anchorage, AK.

Closing thoughts

 

Lil blue beauty

A chill is setting in the air in Carlsbad. Mornings are colder, nights are coming earlier, and our time in Carlsbad is almost up. Our seed collections have slowed down substantially as most plants are done for the year. We have been collecting a lot of Bouteloua species, and recently found populations of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the sand dunes in our resource area. Some other sand species, like Annual Buckwheat (Erigonum annum) and Sand Sagebrush (Artemesia filifolia) are still holding out on producing seed.

We are finishing out the last of our collections now as we only have two weeks left of our internship. One fun collection was from the Madrona tree, a beautiful, tropical looking tree that can be found near the Guadalupe Mountains. Naturally, I felt the need to climb the trees to reach the somewhat out of reach seeds. Luckily no falls were had.

The rare Chihuahuan Desert Madrone tree monkey…oh wait no that’s just me in a tree.

With the end of my internship approaching, I have been reflecting a lot on the past five months. It’s crazy to think that it was only five months ago that I arrived in Carlsbad, and thrown right into the fire (literally, it was 100 degrees—nothing prepares you for that). While finding and collecting seeds was overwhelming back then, now it is coming naturally. Where everything was unfamiliar when I arrived, now I can look at the landscape and see plant species that have become familiar—maybe even dear—to me. Since starting this internship, I have become substantially better at identifying grass genuses (not an especially amazing feat considering I came in with NO knowledge of grass genuses—but I am proud of it nonetheless). I definitely would not have had such a great experience if I hadn’t been placed with such a patient, enthusiastic, and passionate mentor.

On a personal level, moving away from the cornfields and forests of the Midwest (I missed trees so much!) to the open ranges and scrubland of the Southwest lead to a great deal of growth in my independence. Though I went away to college, this was a MUCH further move away from my family and friends—to an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. Though this was scary at first, I gradually became more confident and comfortable doing things on my own. Fortunately, I wasn’t totally alone out here. I got to know some really fantastic and interesting people working in the BLM office from all over the country. With them, I was able to experience my first rodeo, explore Albuquerque, and gradually made Carlsbad feel like home.

Being in an oil boom town has been particularly eye-opening. Before, I never really thought about where the gas I was filling my car with was coming from. I was aware of the impact oil has, but actually became tangible when I could witness the oilfield firsthand. Now that I have had this experience, I feel that I really can understand the importance of what conservation programs like Seeds of Success and others do to help protect and recover the environment from practices like these. Moreover, it has made me think critically about how I can make my lifestyle more sustainable and actions I can take to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas extraction on the environment. All in all, I’m glad I had this opportunity to meet some amazing people and find beauty in an overlooked part of the country.

Drive a little ways south of Carlsbad, and you’ll be greeted by this view. Big blue skies, defined mountain ridges, desert scrub. I will miss it.

-Lucy Schroeder, BLM, Carlsbad NM Field Office

Farewell Carlsbad

Hi everyone,

As my internship comes to an end, I am starting to really think about all of the skills that I have learned and friendships that I have formed during the past few months. I am so grateful for this fantastic opportunity to work alongside some amazing people in the Carlsbad Field Office (BLM). The truth of the matter is that Carlsbad is one of the most difficult and busy field offices to work in due to the high oil and gas activity in the area. Thankfully, they have a great team that does their best to make the work environment as great as it can be and show that they really do care about each of their employees, even the interns.

Throughout the entirety of this internship, I have gotten to experience so many different things, both good and bad. I have helped monitor Bureau Sensitive Species, experienced just how hot the desert can get, hike in the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains, find out what it feels like to have prickly pear spines stuck in my leg, collect from some really amazing plants, and many more! Although field work can really test your patience and push your limits, it also allows you to get out and experience an ecosystem that you might not have had the opportunity otherwise.

I am truly thankful for the practical work experience that I have gotten from this internship. I am especially grateful for being placed in a Bureau of Land Management Office. Being from Kansas, I had no idea that the BLM even existed. If I had not had the opportunity to work in this office, I may have never pursued this federal agency. Now that I have been in a BLM office, I would love the chance to work in this area of government again. It has sincerely been a fantastic experience.

Below are just a few pictures taken in our resource area:

A collection of Riddell’s Ragwort (Senecio riddellii) that we were able to do.

A really fun collection of Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) that we were able to do just last week!

More Texas Madrone

Some of the Texas Madrone seeds collected.

We found some Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the dunes of our resource area! I was particularly excited about this one because of my previous work in the prairies of Kansas.

 

This little Manybristle Chinchweed (Pectis papposa) was a cool find because of its lemon aroma.

You can often find some really cool animal tracks in the dunes of our research area. Maybe this guy was a Greater Roadrunner?

Speaking of Greater Roadrunners, we had a surprise visit while wrapping up a collection.

Below are more pictures from the area, but not in our county:

A hike taken through the Lincoln National Forest.

Another picture from the Lincoln National Forest.

This was taken at the “Top of Texas,” which is in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Another picture of the Guadalupe Peak.

As I finish up the next two weeks and begin my trek back to the sunflower state, I will be thinking about all the experiences I’ve had here in Carlsbad, New Mexico. I just want to thank the Chicago Botanic Garden for allowing me to be apart of the Conservation and Land Management Internship Program, it was an experience I will not forget. I also want to give a huge thank you to my new Carlsbad family for making the last five months fantastic, I am so grateful for the time I have had here.

Signing out,

Caitie

Seeds of Success

Carlsbad Field Office (BLM)

 

P.S. I also can thank Carlsbad for a very special new member to the family, Ollie: