Public Lands Stewards: “A Place, Sensed”


Joe Kobler

Perhaps it’s true that time, akin to Siddhartha’s eponymously patient river, ever flows in some boundless, ineffable cycle. Certainly, we find ourselves at a happy confluence, a coda in a different key, a second meeting made possible by the lambent glow of screens, the busy flurry of electrons, and the abstruse tangles of coding. Hello again, friends near, far, and yet unmet. I write to you as steam curls slowly upwards from a fresh cup of coffee and a steady October rain patters softly over Columbia National Wildlife Refuge outside Othello, Washington.


Here, under clouds of bruised pearl, sagebrush and stone form broad character strokes over a rugged canvas carved by the unfathomable wrath of the ancient Missoula floods. Bold umber buttes rise in sheer columns, looming over the golden grassed landscape yet dwarfed in turn by an unending arc of storm ridden horizon. The sky is its own country, fraught with cumulonimbus titans that billow and clash and swirl like the chaotic pallet of an artist in love with the color grey. The beauty of Columbia Refuge is in the severity of its features, in the stark lines of migrating birds, the lonesome song of coyotes calling through the canyons in the gathering dusk, and the broken bones of bare basalt that thrust forth from the earth.


With the dwindling days of the field season I plant native willows whose boughs will one-day bend to trail in the rippled rills that meander in the refuge low lands. The restoration of native trees and shrubs will improve habitat for the wealth of fauna that resides at Columbia; indeed, the lilting cries of marshland birds urge on excavations and swell in lullabies for roots newly nestled in silty soil. The labor is ongoing, but when completed, more than three thousand plants will have found new homes, each serving as a small benediction to the roughhewn grace of an ecosystem I have grown to cherish.


The native plant propagation program at Columbia is but one of several ecological projects and studies I have had the honor to participate in during my tenure with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Even as I write of it, my term as a Public Lands Steward with the Mt. Adams Institute is rapidly drawing to a close, the hours passing like so many autumn leaves falling from a wet black branch. I began my AmeriCorps position months ago with a simple idea, and should you attend to nothing else amidst my maudlin ramblings, faithful reader, mark this well, for it is important, and as close to the truth of things as I’m likely to come. The idea was a dream; and the dream was of a world made better, at least in some small way, by my service. I am proud to have begun a path towards that dream; proud of the sway of willows in the wind, the splash of Oregon Spotted frogs, and the ruffle of Greater Sandhill Crane feathers on a long flight South. I am also thankful; deeply thankful for my stalwart coworkers, for the support of Mt. Adams Institute, and above all for every single moment on this strange and wonderful earth.



VetsWork: “My Dream is a Dream No Longer”


In a strange series of fortunate events, my wife and I are moving off the Mt. Adams Ranger District after two incredible years in a 1932 Ranger Assistant cabin built by the very capable young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s a dream cabin without a doubt, but finding our own place has been a goal of ours knowing that we’d love to stay in the area after my last internship. We knew moving out of this Forest Service cabin would be bittersweet and have soaked up each day enjoying Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter in all their Cascadian majesty. 


After three years in the VetsWork program I’ve exhausted AmeriCorps’ 4 term limit, having also been a member of the Public Lands Stewards program in 2013. Through the Mt. Adams Institute I have served in the the Mt. Hood National Forest, Gifford Pinchot Headquarters and the Mt. Adams Ranger District. In each position I had the pleasure of exploring local hikes, getting to know the communities and creating great memories with my wife, coworkers and friends. This current position here in Trout Lake, Washington has been the luminous cherry on top of the mountain and now we hope to create our own place, although temporary, where we can continue to work & play in this valley of dreams. I’d say more about it, but I’d hate for people to have a romantic sense of this place without knowing the work required to be here. I love it for many lofty reasons, but also because of the hard work and the great people this environment creates. Its a trade off of struggles living so close to nature versus living in a city. There’s no traffic or buildings obscuring the open view of the horizon, but there’s also no public transportation, major stores, fast food, movie theaters or music venues (or lots of people). The solitude is wonderful, if you enjoy your own company. If you don’t, you could go a lil stir crazy, especially in the Winter.


To me, the hard work it takes to be in the forest year round is just too much fun and so rewarding, I don’t know how I could ever go back to a city. Thankfully we have been offered a very unique opportunity to reside in a stretch of land on the Washington side of the Columbia, just as close to both my wife and I’s workplaces.


So whats so special about this place? It’s almost completely off-grid; No power, century-old spring-fed water and no cell service at all! This can be daunting for some, but for me it makes me smile just thinking about it.


The past several months we have been preparing for this move in big ways. I purchased a sweet little 1997 red Mazda truck to haul wood and handle light amounts of snow. I didn’t think I would ever fall in love with a truck, but with a tape deck and the soundtrack from the movie Stand By Me, I feel like a time-traveler. If you haven’t seen the movie (and you should) it was filmed in a small town north of Eugene, called Brownsville (Castle Rock in the film). What Ive been feeling is a kind of nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, for an era not my own. Imagine crossing old bridges, hauling wood to an off-grid cabin and blasting this old tune. Good times.

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When I don’t have rainbows and unicorn filling my head with what the winter will be like, I imagine the complete opposite.


So I also now have an old snowmobile and am still piling up as much wood as possible. We have an old propane stove, a new propane fridge all with new gas lines, regulator, gauges and shut of valves. We’ll store lots of water, but the spring apparently works through Winter. Currently Ive been building our outhouse which about as happy as I can get working on a poop throne. Ive loved outhouses way before I started cleaning them for the Forest Service. In fact theres a great little book called The Vanishing American Outhouse which comically details all the problems of indoor plumbing (acoustical mainly) and how some of the best ideas came from sitting in outhouses! Ha!



All the materials for everything we build at this place have mainly come from the Rebuild-It Center in Hood River. They’ve got it all and its cheap! Otherwise there’s a lot of old lumber on the property that we are taking advantage of.


A huge bit of progress was getting a new phone line dug and connected, so now we are spoiled with that and limited internet. It took some patience and thankfully my supervisors allowed me to work my schedule around the installation.


Its a humble little cabin and while many think, “Wow, you’re going to live in there?!”… I am encouraged by so many who remind me that they have lived in cabins like this and even with a few kiddos!



Living with less, pulling myself through the eye of a needle, is exactly what most of my heroes have done or did through their best years.

One Mans Wilderness by Richard Proenneke is another inspiring read (The film adaptation is called Alone in the Wilderness). In it he journals his adventure of building a log cabin at the age of fifty in the Alaskan Wilderness and would go on to live there for 30 some-odd years in peace and harmony, only leaving when hauling water from a frozen lake became too difficult. From his writings you hear of the awesome beauty of his new home, the solitude, seasons, but also the effort put into being where your heart calls.


With this new home we’ll be steeped in nature and learning valuable practical skills that will not only benefit my work with the Forest Service, but as Richard Proennekke said, [quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]”(Our) dream is a dream no longer.”[/quote]

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Public Lands Stewards: “To Adventure Is To Find Yourself Whole”


Erica Bingham

Let me just come right out and say it—my time as a member of Mt. Adams Institute’s (MAI) Public Lands Stewards (PLS) program, hands down, has been the best experience of my life. There are still eight weeks left and every expectation I had has already been surpassed. I came here looking to discover a career path and ended up discovering things about myself I had never known. I have let go of my anxiety, stepped out of my comfort zone and allowed myself to become fully immersed in every aspect of this AmeriCorps program. I am finally living the life I have always wanted for myself. My time here has been such an incredible adventure, it is hard for me to put into words all of the different things I’ve experienced and learned. I am hoping that these pictures will allow you to get a glimpse of the extraordinary journey I have had the privilege of being on over the past four months.

This summer, I have been lucky to call the beautiful shrub-steppe of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge (CNWR) my home.


This is the first time positions as Refuge Technicians have been offered at CNWR, through the Public Lands Stewards program. Therefore, my fellow coworker Jack and I like to think of ourselves not as refuge technicians, but rather, refuge pioneers.


The Northern Leopard Frog is a threatened species in the West and will potentially be reintroduced to CNWR. In order to determine possible threats to the Northern Leopard Frog, a huge part of our time has been spent setting fyke nets in various ponds to establish which species are already living in the water systems on the refuge.

Deciding the locations for the nets allows us to explore and get to the know ins and outs of the refuge.


Each evening we set two nets in four locations.


In the morning we empty each net into a bucket and count and record every individual species that was caught. This is an example of what one of our net catches looks like.


Carp, pumpkinseed sunfish, yellow perch and bullfrogs are the most common non-native or invasive species that we catch. Just the other day, we caught over 5,000 pumpkinseed sunfish at one location! Tree frogs, painted turtles, sculpin, and tiger salamanders are among the native species that we often come across in our nets.




“Tiger Salamander”

Occasionally we get to travel down to Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge to work with two other PLS members, whose mission is to protect the endangered Oregon Spotted frog (like the one I am holding below) by using fyke nets to remove invasive species.



Several times throughout the summer, I had the opportunity to assist with environmental education programs. One week, the Hey Kids summer program came to CNWR and I was able to help children and young adults establish a connection with nature. I taught them how to properly use binoculars, bird watching techniques, how to identify native plants, and introduced them to some local species.




It’s funny, but spending time this summer mapping and terminating invasive plants and weeds, has actually sparked within me a newfound interest for plants. Since these experiences, I have developed a new hobby as I became fascinated with identifying and learning about various wildflowers, shrubs, and trees.


“Invasive plant mapping on Saddle Mountain using GIS systems”


“Invasive weed abatement along the White Salmon River”

Here, I am holding a species of Indigo Bush. This is considered invasive because native species are outcompeted by it as it forms dense thickets in prairies and along rivers.



This was one of our first assignments. The physical labor not only built character, it built muscles I would end up needing for future projects!



Often times people report an injured animal and either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will be called out to rescue the animal and transport it to a wildlife rehabilitation center. I had the opportunity to assist with the rescue of this Swainson’s Hawk pictured below.



This was definitely one of my favorite projects. Working that closely with such a majestic species gives you a very gratify feeling and I am just so thankful to have been included in such an amazing event.


Other opportunities I participated in, that I unfortunately have no pictures of to share with you, included: Washington ground squirrel monitoring, nighttime bullfrog hunts, a boat tour of the White Bluffs Scenic Area and Hanford Reach National Monument, and a ride-along with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service federal wildlife officer. I told you I have experienced A LOT!! And that isn’t even including all of the things I did during my free time on the weekends! Let’s see I’ve also: explored two major cities, Seattle and Portland; hiked to 5 different waterfalls throughout Washington and Oregon; cliff jumped into Punchbowl Falls; saw a concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre which overlooks the beautiful Columbia River; camped in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and along the Klickitat River; and, one of my greatest accomplishments, climbed Mt. Adams to about 10,200 ft. in elevation.


None of this could have been possible, however, without the encouragement and support from the MAI staff and my fellow PLS members, who I now am honored to call great friends. In just four short months, I have formed friendships and bonds that I know I will carry with me the rest of my life.


I’m not quite sure what the next chapter of my life will look like. I may land a job in a conservation related field. I may apply to a federal law enforcement academy to become a park ranger. I may even go back to school to pursue a Master’s degree. Whatever it is though, I am certain I will succeed. Mt. Adams Institute and AmeriCorps have given me all the experiences, tools, and confidence I need to achieve anything I set my mind to. They are an extraordinary organization that I am so incredibly grateful I got to be a part of. Thank you MAI!



VetsWork: Escaping the Rat Race & Heading to the Forest

Sonny Tamez

Most people know what they want to be when they grow up. As kids we think of careers such as a Fireman, Policeman, or a Doctor. I never really knew what I wanted to be and just let “future Sonny” worry about that. I never really had a job that I felt like I wanted to do for the rest of my life and spent a lot of time thinking about and searching for different career paths. It wasn’t until I moved to Portland that I started appreciating National Forests and started thinking about careers with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). I just needed to get my foot in the forest and then I found the Mt. Adams Institute (MAI) VetsWork program. After watching some videos and reading some of the past VetsWork member blogs I knew this was my way to escape the rat race and get a foot in the door with the Forest Service. Even though it was going to be a risky, tough road I knew if I didn’t jump at this chance instantly I might not have another.

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From the very start I felt as though this risky decision was filled with many opportunities and support from everyone. The Mt. Adams Institute, along with AmeriCorps and the USFS, has provided an abundant amount of support to help me work in my position and make an impact without the worry of failing. I have never had a job where I felt like work was not work, but a new adventure every day.

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Even though most of my work is office based it is still such an inspirational feeling knowing the work I do here has an impact on the Mt. Hood National Forest. Every day I continue to learn more about processes that preserve the beauty of the mountain. Working in the Special Uses & Recreation department was a great opportunity in itself. I am included in all types of current and future projects on the forest and I have been able to work and communicate with many different departments. For an extra bonus I am learning about all the different activities and places to go during my time off. Every day I look forward to getting up in the morning and making the 45 minute commute to work and I don’t know many people that can say that. I think the hardest part about this job is wanting to go do field work almost every day. I am glad that I took the chance and I look forward to applying all I learn to become successful in acquiring a position working with the USFS.

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VetsWork: “Winter Came Quick – As Did the End of this Internship.”

The transformation from summer to fall was perfect, winter came quick – as did the end of this internship.  I’ve appreciated the moments of solitude in my work and in my travels to/from work as well.  The extremes of big projects, planning, team work, collaborating and finishing vs. quietly working in the carpenter shop, walking through the forest looking for signs and clues to add up, on a trail, a house or in the dark in a crawl space with fiberglass and 6-legged wood-hungry friends is actually quite nice; its the variety that this internship has given me.  Thematically, MAI asks about and prods us to reflect upon ourselves and integrate this into our experience.  I’ve used this many times, to help center and strategically place myself along this sort of fairy tale experience I’ve been having.

  Through all of our POD meetings/trainings and discussions with the VetsWork group it is apparent that you get what you put into it.  I came into this program as apprehensive as the rest of you blank faces at Menucha, scratching our heads playing Laura’s F.A.I.s, Forced Awkward Interaction exercises.  My experiences have all been backed by total enthusiasm and meaningful intention on MAI’s part, positive support from my cohorts and supervisors and family.  MAI has had my back the entire way and I’m quite grateful for their support, the program and the good work they’re accomplishing.
For all of you future VetsWork members: do not let the job description fool you!  This is not a job, it is an experience and it is what you make it!  Fortunately the program was long enough for me to get my legs about me and make the most of what it is after a few months in.  I had my doubts and hesitations about continuing on. I’m sure glad I did when you get to do things like…

 checking in on the weather station at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl upper bowl past our historic warming hut. Had to make sure the carbs were working ok on the sleds (they were).

up the hill

 Up the mountain we go, hmm hmm

sled shed
ZZ Carp shop, fixing snow mobiles

99′ Yamaha 2-Stroke
warming shelter
Destination: weather station (air quality monitoring)
monitor station

Inside we have a series of 4 filtration systems monitoring/measuring and storing the data for different particulates and levels.  This is one of 110 aerosol visibility monitoring stations selected to provide regionally-representative coverage and data for 155 different Class I federally protected areas (Wilderness). This is part of an EPA program, stemming from the clean air act, called IMPROVE – Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments.

Fire Bldg Roof 2015
One of our roof jobs on the Fire Whs in Parkdale

tree on truck

One of the many casualties in the November wind storms

LaDee Flats Project

Running one of the many machines we’d rented for some OHV trail work up at Ladee Flats on the Clackamas River RD. This particular one is a CanyCom, essentially a tracked ride-on hydraulically tilted wheel barrow.

This trail and the entirety of the OHV area here is a great example of project follow through – this is/was a long time coming.  This project has exchanged “owners” a few times, been through many revisions, delays and various hold ups.  Tons of collaboration go into these types of projects: the public, NEPA, private contractors, FS employees and volunteers, local resources, grants/funding from multiple agencies, training opportunities…etc

The scope of simply “building a trail” is not so near-sighted and thanks to the good work and follow through from the USFS, these sorts of projects get done for the sole purpose of the public having a good time out there.

As a father and husband leaving a full time job to try this on for size was a pretty big leap; the back of my mind always occupied with the words “but what about a job”.  This, for me, was a great way to learn about how a forest is managed and how that is brought upon the districts themselves – and where in that picture I’d like to focus my own efforts on a career path.  On top of that, I can say that as a direct result of this program and what you put into it, myself (and many of the other VetsWork Interns) have some great job opportunities.  To any of you Vets out there considering getting involved with the USFS and/or another federal lands agency, you owe it to yourself to check out this program.  There are many benefits to a sanctioned program like this, personally as well as professionally and the good folks at the Mt. Adams Institute are as sincere and good natured as they come.  These sorts of partnerships are so beneficial to everyone involved I’d expect to see them grow quite a bit in the future; especially with a vested alumni base and the word continuing to get out there from the good work all of VetsWork is doing.  Oh and no one even offered me so much as a stick of gum to write this.

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Meet VetsWork Intern Tyler Walsh


I grew up in a small town in Connecticut where I have spent roughly 23 years of my life. As a kid I was always drawn to the outdoors and spent much of my time in the woods with my friends where we would constantly be exploring and finding ourselves. As I got older, the woods we used to romp around in became housing developments or the land was sold to private companies and with that, the time I would spend outdoors was limited to the sports I played. In high school I found myself more concerned with partying and my lacrosse team than I was with my studies and upon graduation realized that I could benefit from some structure, and the Marine Corps infantry seemed like the best option for me to receive this.

My training and deployments were pretty intense and after my last tour in Afghanistan I realized that a career in the service was not well suited for my personal life goals. Upon completion I moved to Colorado and completed my B.A. in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado. Living in Colorado I found myself once again drawn to the outdoors and began to pursue my childhood fascination and found it to be incredibly rewarding. I joined various clubs and volunteered at several conservation organizations. It did not take long for me to realize that this is the career path that I wanted to embark on.

During my senior year I joined the Veterans Green Corps where I joined 20 other veterans in the wildland fire corps program which provided us with the necessary certifications and experience required to become a wildland firefighter. Camping in the backcountry of Colorado, I found this experience to be very rewarding and was fortunate enough to receive the crew leader position about midway through the fire season.

I decided to join the Mt. Adams Institute VetsWork program because of the great experience I had previously with the Veterans Green Corps program in Colorado. It is a great opportunity to receive on the job training to develop the essential skills and knowledge of a full time permanent employee in the natural resource field. I am confident this year will provide me that while having the opportunity to explore the vast and beautiful wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. I look forward to making new connections, gaining further insight and learning how a person in the position I want operates in the field.


Columbia Gorge Youth Explorers Build Connections (and Trail) in Mosier

MAI board member Mike Gundlach spearheads the Columbia Gorge Youth Explorers program, which promotes the development of life skills through community service, outdoor recreation and strong connections to the social and natural landscape of the area.  Youth Explorer participants include the recently adjudicated, those in the foster care system and other young people that can benefit from interaction with positive role models like Mike.  Read about Mike’s latest adventure.

Recently, I have been partnering with the Next Door Inc. and Friends of Columbia Gorge (FOCG) to connect youth with a visionary project launched by FOCG. The project is dubbed “Towns to Trails.” It’s a 20 year vision to connect towns throughout the Columbia River Gorge with trails between each of them.

This past week youth from the Next Door Inc. helped break new trail on part of this historic project located on a beautiful plateau rising above the town of Mosier. FOCG purchased this property due in part to its proximity with another local trail that connects downtown Mosier with the Mosier Falls swimming hole. Eventually this trail will connect the town of Mosier with The Dalles.

This was the youth’s first introduction to FOCG. The manager of the Towns to Trails project, Renee Tkach, provided them with an outstanding opportunity to learn about the local area, hear about conservation efforts of FOCG, gain trail building skills, connect with the natural environment and sip hot chocolate during their lunch time break. In addition, the youth were able to connect with a representative from Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) and learn about summer opportunities and careers in the outdoors.

The group finished the day exploring the lower trail and the Mosier falls. As they walked down the trail joking around and tell stories one might envision them coming back to this trail 20 years from now with their kids to take a swim in the cool waters of the creek and hike up to the plateau to share their story of how they helped build this trail to pass on to future generations…

A big thanks goes out to those that made this day possible. Renee (FOCG), Livia (NDI) and Brian (NYC) – you guys are awesome!