Keep every cog

I’d wager that the average person who pays some attention to the news and has some light interest vested in the sciences is familiar with the Svalbard Global Seed Bank. Located, as its official website states, “deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole”, it is hardly tangibly accessible, as a physical site and even, I think, a concept.

“Oh yes, like Svalbard,” a person might say after they ask why I’m knee-deep in mud, picking seeds in a salt marsh and I reply “For seed banking purposes.” Yes, like Svalbard. But what is Svalbard? What does that mean to you?

I had never sat down to examine Svalbard as a complete concept. In fact, I didn’t think to until a New England MFA candidate documenting seed banks mentioned the “interplay of Science Fiction and Reality” as it pertains to my job. Science Fiction?

If you look at Svalbard slanted, not over a Jeopardy answer board or a glass of white wine at a botanical garden soiree, it’s staggering. Biologists across the globe are up there in the snow hoarding seeds like so many winter-fearing squirrels anticipating the hunger of the future. The very nature of seed banking anticipates disaster: the loss of a regional genebank at best, the loss of a habitable world at worst. And who is to say that a habitable world is a guarantee in our future? Will the seeds I collected today even have healthy soil to grow in tomorrow?

I  brought up my newfound grim outlook on our work with my mentor during a long drive back from a successful field excursion to Cape Cod, some twenty canvas bags of seed bouncing gently in the backseat. He was quick to dismiss that line of thinking, reminding me that it is the job of every conservationist not only to prepare for the worst, but also to anticipate the best. It was a long conversation with much back and forth, but here is what I took away:

 

Backpack tour: Seeds of Success edition

“What is that smell?” asked my friend when she hopped in my car in Boston this weekend.

“Must be the harbor,” I said quickly, thinking guiltily of my field pack moldering in the backseat.

There are only so many times you can fling a backpack down in a salt marsh before it picks up an undeniably fishy funk. There are also only so many times you can fall face first in a salt marsh before you lose the ability to smell said fishy funk entirely, but even with my deadened senses I am fully aware that my backpack is due for a good wash. I figured unpacking its contents is not only required for due cleansing, but also an interesting glimpse into the daily necessities of an SOS intern.

Here is my backpack. I bought it roughly 6 years ago and it has served me well lo these many seasons. It has traveled roughly around the world on various airplanes, boats, and buses. It was once as white as the driven snow, and my advice to aspiring ecologists is: do NOT purchase a white backpack for your field pursuits. Realistically I owe it to myself to purchase a new one. Realistically I will use this backpack until it dissolves in my hands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life in the time of Orchids

If their is one song that describes my life, it is DBS out from the album Rogue Taxidermy by Days n Daze. To date, I have explored over 15,000 road miles in California (I mean since plants up), and collected all over the state. Let’s be honest, I need to get out way more but i’ve been working on grad school stuff. I’ve hiked over 1,000 miles, and up more than about 50,000 feet. Collected about 1,000 plants, and identified a few hundred more. It’s been a dream 🙂

“I wish we were leaving tomorrow you say
And I really can’t blame you
cause I hate to stay in the same place too long
I swear it drives me insane
The smell of the air, the roads and the people
Become too familiar
no longer exciting to me
That’s annoying I just want to get away

The monotony is killing me it’s killing you
So what to do
Jump in the car and drive away
We’ll worry about gasoline later
When we’re broken down on interstate ten west
Cause I just cannot stand it here for any longer….”

So anyways, what do  I do when i’m in town? Well I’ve switched over to the Cotini-Coast Dairies National Monument for the next four months. It’s a small (6000 acre) parcel, that was designated by President Obama in his last week in office! We don’t really have much (if any…?) funding so it’s all being dealt with pretty off the cuff- which means if their are plants i’m dealing with ’em.

 

I’m currently working on an assemblage of 20+ seed collections simultaneously, mapping insane amounts of weed, collecting every plant and identifying them, and writing up things all government like, while also surveying for rare plants. It’s alot of things to be juggling, It feels like I spend the majority of my time rummaging through my pack to grab out another thing I need to do one of the above tasks. Anyways. those seeds only go one way, so I gotta get outta town back out to the Coast.

By the way…. in one week: Piperia michaelii, P. elegans, and…. LAST ORCHID FOUND IN SISKIYOU…. It’s orchid time! WaHooo

Phlox hoodii

 

back here

Those are lichens, packets of lichens. Today I was staring at the Ocean, breakers roaring as I collected Bromus carinatus, Danthonia californica, Elymus glaucus, and Stipa lepida seed by seed in a prairie. It hearkens back to my college days. I passed my days running barefoot through the Thuja plicata, Pseudotsuga mensiezii, Tsuga heterophylla forests- and scraping lichens off branches. Collecting any plant I could to analyze it’s volatile’s with every minute I could spend on a GC mass spec. I lived on the water nearly the whole time. going out on midnight hikes through the woods on full moon nights, canoe voyages on moonless nights. Always watching the waves from the Pacific creep into the Southern stretches of the Puget Sound. Flipping side after side of LPs and cassettes, coz you’d better know the grass ain’t greener on the other side, but better than that Jerry’s there too!

Anyways, living in a college town again, with ecologists, working near the water and still screaming along to Pigpen is making me something like nostalgic. It makes me appreciate how fortunate I am that CLM ever put up with me and offered me an internship in the first place-let alone ths extension for the fourth time. It’s shown me how much i’ve grown. When I was a junior in college I never thought i’d be able to get a job as a botanist- I thought I was a hopeless case. Then I got one, then after my senior year I got another.

When I started as an ecologist my goal was to work in the wet wet forests of the West; and then my head got spun right around by heading to the Columbia Basin. After my second season in the desert i’d started to metamorphose into one of the infamous desert rats. I didn’t really think about coming back over the crest for long, but then well ya know life happens..

So yes, as mentioned i’m a 4th term intern now- I might finally be a CLM legend, although only Justin could verify this. So what am I up to? When not writing sub-par blog posts-despite my extensive experience, I am working on the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument collecting seed and surveying.

It’s a fascinating area to work. It’s small, only 6,000 acres. It’s composed of three main habitats, Coastal Prairie, Soft Chaparral, and Coastal Redwood, but their is some Oak Savannah and mixed forests in here too. It’s not open to the public yet, but it’s in a very urban area. It’s apart of what i’d almost call an endangered ecosytem-much like the San Joaquin Desert. It was designated in the last week of Obama’s presidency. It’s really unlike any experience or area I have heard about in BLM.

Anyways, i’d like to say it’s all relaxed, but it’s not quite yet. This extension here started kind of late, and so every day I find myself doing an insane amount of activities. I now carry a burlap bag full of envelopes to collect seed into- 19 types of envelopes, yes these woodland species, don’t produce much seed, and they are distributed at low density, so alot of my time is spent flipping through this accordion of envelopes looking for the right guy. Most of these collections are multiple (5+) day events! Not what i’m use to with SOS…

In between flipping through my purse-like bag i’m mapping weeds, collecting every plant, noting GPS of anything interesting, and collecting anything that I look at and go “yeah X genus, uhm but what species?” As you can imagine, I don’t cover a lot of ground.

 

CCMA, Sampson Peak. Radiolorian chert. Collecting lichens.

The Hempstead Plains – Remnants of a Relic

Credit: Long Island Pine Barrens Society

A map of the ecosystems historically shaped by fire on Long Island

In addition to the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens which have been shaped by fire ecology, there is another, lesser known climax ecosystem that still exists in small remnants in the Eastern U.S. It is known at the Atlantic Coastal Prairie, Sand Plains, Dry Tall Grass Prairie, etc. These semi-arid habitats are characterized by their poor sandy soils and their need for fire regimes (and now mowing). They are home to threatened and endangered species, including Agalinus acuta (sandplain gerardia), and were once home to a now extinct species of grouse known as the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido var. cupido) (Palkovacs et al., 2004), .

The extinct Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido var. cupido)

The endangered Sand Plain Gerardia (Agalinus acuta). The Hempstead Plains has at least 2 of the only 11 populations worldwide.

These unique eastern dry prairies still exist in isolated patches in New England and Long Island. The one I am most familiar with is the Hempstead Plains, the only naturally occurring prairie east of the Appalachian Mountains (Neidich and Kennelly, 2014). There is only around 100 acres left of the 60,000- 40,000 acres that existed prior to colonization. Since colonization, the plains have been used for farming and urban development. This has disturbed fragile topsoil crust and allowed woody and invasive plants to encroach on the grasslands. Once an important flyway for birds, the plains still serve as a home and migration stop for: wild pheasant, fox, orchard orioles, monarch butterflies, fritillaries, meadowlark, and others.

Credit: Harper 1911

These Plains were once a vast expanse.

The Hempstead Plains exist in a highly populated county directly adjacent to the burrow of Queens in New York City. Due to their close proximity to this metropolitan area, the flat land was prime for early urban sprawl developments. However, this also made them a good place for New York City botanists to study the unique flora assemblages, and there are botanical records going back over 100 years.They all noted the rapid disappearance of the ecosystem (Harper, 1911).

A Satellite image of Garden City, NY. The red pin is the site of the managed remnant of the Hempstead Plains. The green area just south of the pins is a larger, unmanaged portion. The green area to the east are golf courses that also contain grassland remnants.

The history of the development of these plains is an interesting one. They were once a commons grazing area for sheep. Years later, they were bought by a wealthy department store owner who opened golf courses, polo fields, and race tracks to entice other wealthy people to move to the area. Then, during the early 20th century they served as a major airfield where Charles Lindberg began the first Trans-Atlantic flight.

The Plains have been subject to unrelenting development up unto the 1970’s when a large stadium was built, and the community college was expanded. In 1991, 16.3 continuous acres were put under the management of a non-profit, Friends of the Hempstead Plains, for the purpose of education and preservation. Since the founding of the organization, both students and experienced botanists have conducted experiments regarding the specific plants that grow in these particularly dry soils. The unique soils are characterized by their upper lichen-moss covered crust, and well-drained, dark horizons above glacial out-wash. The Nature Conservancy carried out multiple controlled burns in the 1990’s in order to restore balance to the scarred and trampled remnant.

Black and white film prints of the Nature Conservancy controlled burns in the 1990s

Other, largely unmanaged portions are present on a nearby golf course, and across a highway from the managed parcel. It was on this county owned unmanaged preserve where a recent 5 acre wild fire occurred in 2016, causing a more blue curls and toad flax to bloom in 2017. This was where I found two species I was searching for to collect for a restoration project, Andropogon virginicus and Schizachryum scoparium. Although these species are extremely common, I needed to find them in this specific eco-region. As I mentioned before, this county is adjacent to New York City, highly developed and populated, so finding a wild population was not a walk in the park.

Prairie Three-awn (Aristida oligantha) growing through the cracks of an old airstrip.

I also collected an annual grass, Oligantha aristida  (Prairie Three-awn). This grass was growing between old slabs of asphalt and little blue stem. Talk about a tough little grass!

One of the many massive dumping sites within the unmanaged preserve.

As I walked through this rare piece of green space, in the center of a bustling city, I was disturbed by the utter neglect of management by the county. There are obviously ongoing problems of homelessness, off-roading,  and dumping. I couldn’t help but notice the irony that in the shadow of a huge hotel, there are people living in tents.

Friends of the Hempstead Plains at Nassau Community College Manages 19 acres of this rare Habitat

Compared to the tall grass prairie preserves out west this is a tiny swath of land. Some might question what the point of conserving such a small amount of land really is. In the middle of a metropolitan area, this natural landscape can teach so many people about the native flora and the history of the area. I for one got my start within the botanical field volunteering on this preserve. Now after seeing dozens of different habitats throughout the Mid-Atlantic and mainland U.S., I can tell how unique a place the Hempstead Plains really is.

To learn more about this grassland, go to Friendsofhp.org

I blinked and 8 months went by

As I write this, I can hardly believe that 9 months ago I was packing up my belongings and moving to the great PNW. I was excited and maybe a little nervous. I ran into some bumps along the road, but it makes for an unforgettable memory.

On my last day, my mentor held a farewell lunch for me, and that’s when I realised that this was actually over. I knew it would end, and, of course, I was sad, but that date always seemed like a far-away thing. Basically our entire office came to the lunch, minus the few out in the field or away from the office, and it was such a nice reminder of all the people I was able to work with and learn from.

I definitely will say that while I was primarily a seeds of success intern, I worked with just about every resource specialist in the office in some way and highly recommend for all those considering the internship do the same. I got to really see all that these amazing public servants do, and help out on some fun projects!

A quick recap includes: bat surveys (probably to date the coolest thing I did), WA state ground squirrel surveys, homestead archeological surveys (so cool to see the historical artifacts), identifying a pre-contact bison bone at one of our properties (!), going out to decide the action for mine reclamation, rangeland health assessments, watershed health assessments, right-of-way processing, weed surveys, and so much more.

I also got to work with the Spokane District’s National Monument office out at the San Juan Islands, learn some really cool history and learn from an amazing public servant, and eat all the yummy foods around the island!

Of course, there were days that I was “over” collecting seeds, and wanting to do something a little more to do with resource advising/management, but once I got out to the field, I was so happy to be collecting seeds. When the field season came to an end, and I collected my last seed, I fulfilled classic intern activities: filing, scanning, organizing files, throwing away files, general maintenance. Those days, I really missed the field, but I got to work along side awesome coworkers that made the day go by quickly.

I will be forever thankful that my first experience with a federal land management agency was with the Border Field Office in Spokane, Washington. I learned a lot, learned there’s always something to learn (or learn again), and made friendships that will last a lifetime. Although, at times I wished I wasn’t the only intern (or that I had a group of interns at the office), I am glad it was just me. It made me step even further out of my comfort zone, and let me know that moving across the country, knowing absolutely no one, is totally doable.

So for you future interns, don’t be scared to leave the familiar behind or to do it all by yourself, and always ask to do more than what you’re assigned.

I’ve made the decision to stick around out here, working seasonally until the next season comes around, trying my luck while I’m young. I don’t know exactly what or where my next steps may be, but I know I want to go to grad school, and one day end up working for the feds. It’s for that reason, I’m sticking around out west; I figure it’ll be easier to move from Spokane to whatever seasonal position I get next, rather than haul my life from Indiana again. So if you ever find yourself in eastern Washington, you can always look me up on here!

I can’t wait to see where this wild journey of seasonal work takes me next! I am excited for all you future interns to give this a go; it’s an amazing ride if you do it right!

Over and out

Valeria Cancino Hernandez, Border Field Office, Spokane District BLM

Final Weeks

Wyoming. It’s a state I can honestly say I never had any intention of visiting. I knew nearly nothing about it until I moved to Buffalo in May. It sounded exotic to me. The environment, culture and language felt foreign upon my arrival here from the northeast. In many ways they still do, yet I’ve somehow managed to finally feel at home.

With only a few weeks of my internship remaining, I’ve been trying to get as much done as possible for the Buffalo Field Office (BFO) before a new set of interns come in May. Most of the remaining work to do involves georeferencing aerial images from the 1970s. The work is tedious, but I like to think it will help somebody at the BLM in the future who might not have the time to do it themselves. There has been no shortage of coworkers offering to take me out to their field sites. The wildlife biologists even managed to take myself and another CLM intern to The Wildlife Society – Wyoming Chapter conference in Jackson last week where researchers from across Wyoming presented on their findings on all sorts of study organisms, ranging from pollinators to mule deer. Of course, we also made sure there was time for site-seeing:

Moose siting along Route 16 as we drove through the Bighorn Mountains on our way to Jackson, Wyoming.

The Tetons greeted us as we entered Jackson after our long truck-ride from Buffalo.

Dream home beneath the Tetons.

Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) gathered around to lick the minerals off of our truck. Their historic range spans the American West, but sadly today their range hardly compares.

As much as I love botany, it’s hard to not immediately fall in love with wildlife.

My last bighorn sheep picture. I promise.

I still can’t believe I get paid for this. A summer of backpacking and vegetation monitoring, the opportunity to further develop GIS skills and understand the inner-workings of a federal agency, learning to interact with stakeholders and landowners (and even coworkers) with worldviews vastly different than mine. This internship has allowed me to gain and develop a skill set more elaborate and wide-ranging than I could have imagined. I’m hopeful that, eventually, I will find a full-time permanent position someplace that I will love as much as I’ve enjoyed this internship. Not to say it hasn’t been difficult at times (particularly the office days…those can be tough), but the hardships are what have made the experience rewarding.

I’ve begun the countdown to the end of my internship. I will work through the beginning of January, and then afterward head west to California where I have another seasonal position, this time with a private company. I am certain that my experiences with CLM will translate across state boundaries as I immerse myself in an entirely new ecosystem with countless new flora and fauna to identify. I’ll probably have one more blog post or so before I leave my internship, but to anyone out there reading this and considering accepting an internship with CLM: it has been an invaluable experience for me, it has embellished my resume, and I have met too many wonderful people during my time in Wyoming than I can list. Seriously consider taking it.

On to New Adventures

Reflecting on the past 8 months, all I can say is it’s been an adventure. I came into this internship expecting a simple job, a few new skills, and a relatively easy summer wandering around the prairie. I definitely got more than I bargained for… but in all good ways.

We successfully completed a “pilot” AIM program for our field office, participated in and contributed to a variety of projects, saw new country, tried new things, learned something new every day, and despite all of the challenges a field internship can bring, stayed remarkably sane. The skills and experiences I gained through this internship are truly invaluable. I’m grateful to have been in such an awesome field office learning to manage land that means so much to me! Thanks CLM Internship Program, it’s been a blast.

To conclude my internship, here’s a few pictures of things we’ve been able to do in the past month:

A view of the Bighorn Mountains from one of our final AIM monitoring sites.

The view from Middle Fork Powder River Campground, where we spent some time doing maintenance.

30+ pounds of nails we pulled out of a litter site in Northeast Wyoming. There was never a shortage of litter to clean up!

A sagebrush seedling – we spent a couple days planting these babies in reclaimed road areas.

We stopped by the National Elk Refuge by Jackson, WY. No elk but plenty of Bighorn Sheep, including this adorable lamb!

We were able to attend the Wyoming chapter of the Wildlife Society’s annual conference in Jackson Wyoming. A beautiful place and a great way to celebrate an awesome internship.

Good Bye Taos, I will miss you!

Greetings everyone! My internship is over, and sadly, it’s time to say goodbye. I am going to miss the Taos area and the BLM field office there. I spent the last stretch of my internship happily organizing the TAFO herbarium, entering label data into SEINet, making labels, and mounting specimens. Since returning home, I’ve been reflecting on my internship experience. It turned out that collecting seed was both a simple and complicated endeavor that encompasses a mix of strategic planning and luck. I am very grateful for the experience and for the amazing people I have met along the way! Thank you CLM for this wonderful opportunity!

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge view.

 

Oh the Knowledge You’ll Know! (And Places You’ll Go!)

There were numerous times this season, looking upon the vast mountain ranges of Oregon, I stopped and asked myself how did I get here? I’m so thankful that one cold winter day in Upstate NY I found the CLM internship in an my colleges job listings and months later I ended up on the other side of the country; What a dream it has been!

I am always amazed with the infinite knowledge in science, it is exciting but often overwhelming! Before coming here I was intimidated by learning the flora of a whole new place but week by week I was piecing together the species of the region.

I had the pleasure to take a few classes this summer and am proud of the knowledge I accumulated. I took a botanical drawing course, expanding my botanical terminology and observation skills. I also attended a Graminoids course, trying to grasp the minute parts, microscope skills and general ecological discrepancies. When I thought I had a grasp on most of the common species of the area I took a bryophyte class and was yet again astonished at the diversity of life, even on one small rock or tree bowl. There are over 400 species of moss in Oregon, I’m pleased to say I know 10-20 of the common ones!

Just being around people with a vast wealth of knowledge and passion really inspires me to try my best and I hope someday I can be that person for others.

Throughout the season I have created a small study book of plants I learned throughout the season. Packaging tape and index cards make a great little book to learn and review species. It has been incredibly helpful for me to learn the plants this way! It’s sort of like stamp collecting but more fun for botany nerds!

Apart from traditional botany knowledge I was able to help out in a variety of unique tasks. From rafting the Rogue river, driving a huge pick up truck on the scariest roads, building fences to protect endangered plants, entering stacks of contract data using ArcGIS ….to name a few. Botany careers are not all about the plants!!

I have grown immensely from this unique experiences and would 100% recommend this program to anyone – well anyone who doesn’t care if they get dirty, sweat in the blazing sun, hike miles to see rare plants and come home exhausted and sore; In my opinion, its absolutely worth it!

Thanks to everyone who has helped me on my journey! Especially my mentor Stacy (she’s awesome – couldn’t have asked for a better mentor) and crew Shannon and Andy – wouldn’t be as fun without you guys. Cant wait to see where I will be next season!

Sienna M

Grants Pass, OR BLM

 

Congratulations!

Today is your day .

Your off to Great Places!

Your off and away!

You have brains in your head.

And feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know.

And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.  –Dr.Suess