VetsWork: Preserving the Integrity, Beauty, and Values of the Nation’s Largest Scenic Area

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area or “Scenic Area” exists as the largest scenic area in the country — a living souvenir of a vision manifested by a group of forward thinking land stewards.  As Muir and Pinchot before her, Nancy Russell foresaw the threat imposed by rapid encroachment from the Portland area on the unspoiled swath of beauty reaching east along the Columbia River from Sandy to the confluence with the Rogue River.  As a direct result of her vision, President Nixon signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act into existence in 1986.  This Act set forth a management plan, to be run by the Forest Service, to balance the need for conservation in the Gorge with a caveat allowing for economic use.  Thirty years later, the Gorge exists as a unique entity whose beauty is frozen in time yet financially feasible for the small towns dotting its pastoral landscape.

Ecologically speaking, the Scenic Area exists as a network of basalt columned hiking trails linking sea level rain forests adorned with copious waterfalls on the West end to the plateaued grasslands further East.  The area also acts as a bridge between two of my favorite volcanic peaks.  Mount Hood to the south compliments the namesake Mount Adams and the old growth forests of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the north.  In my hometowns in California and Colorado similar areas have fallen prey to the growth and expansion of human desire.  It is this unique nature of the area — the raw beauty of steep canyons flanked with old growth Western Red Cedar contrasted with a thriving recreational community — that originally pulled me from my other endeavors to work for the Forest Service in this area.

White River Sno-Park on the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Inside the Guler Ice Caves of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

This myriad of interests is managed by the special uses division of the Scenic Area.  My initial couple of weeks came with a steep learning curve, and I’ve come to find that the Scenic Area represents a nexus of challenges in the world of conservation.  The list of entities is daunting in the least — impossible at best.  We must tackle permits relating to everything from civil interests, hydroelectric power authorities, and county regulatory committees to Wild and Scenic river management, outfitter and guide uses, land owner interests, tribal concerns, and partner organization rights.  One entity that does not exist in the area is the logging and mining claims present on almost every forest in our country.  On this day, I look out my window to see the oldest form of management — resource extraction — roll by in the form of lumber harvested from the nearby Mount Hood district. 

View from the Scenic Area office.

What I find most interesting is that the special uses department accounts for a greater financial income with a far smaller staff than timber sales on all National Forests in the country.  In either instance, I’ve come to find that those who use the National Forests for either recreation or resource extraction do so at an incredible value, whether they recognize it or not, and I hope to increase the perception of recreational value during my tenure here.

Central to all government oversight is the foundation in public law.  I started my experience by learning the overall legal authorities from which all policies are written.  Public laws such as NEPA, FLPMA, and a half dozen other laws set the bounds from which all decisions are made concerning permit writing.  Between those bounds exists a grey area from which experience and an artistic touch must be used to communicate the needs of the land to those wishing to benefit from its recreational and commercial use.

During my first month, my experiences have met my expectations concerning variability and complexity.  I met with local whitewater and fly-fishing guides to amend an issue with their permits for the current year to reflect their anticipated use.  I was afforded a particular weeklong opportunity to attend a training on SUDS, a program used to track all of the permits, in Sandy, Oregon with the savants of the special uses world.  Back in the office, I’ve worked on other permits ranging from power line access and maintenance to a rather comical noncommercial gathering of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts for a one hour bagpipe serenading session at Multnomah Falls — costumes mandatory.  To ensure continuity of quality I’ve attended annual inspections of concessionaires and power authorities.  I’ve answered questions from prospective brides-to-be concerning legitimacy of their future ceremony to drone use logistics by major motion picture companies at iconic waterfalls.  In short, it’s been an all-encompassing jump into the world of special uses permitting.

Performing a site inspection at Multnomah Falls.

Besides the work, my supervisor and the other employees in the office have provided inspiration through the work they do day in and day out to maintain the scenic integrity of what I consider one of the most beautiful places in the our country.  In an office in downtown Hood River, 40 employees, mostly of GS-11 and above, work extremely hard to process and meet the needs of the millions of visitors and thousands of residents whom live within the 284,000-acre Scenic Area boundary.  They do all of this on an incredibly limited budget — one that is only going to decrease by a significant percentage as the upcoming national plan for force shaping unrolls itself.  Most of the employees have a workload equivalent to two or three times what I’ve seen in the private sector — and they do it for less pay.  It’s been a humbling realization that our government provides an incredible service for far less a financial commitment than is perceived by the general public, or myself for that matter, before this experience.  I look forward to learning more about the Forest Service and how this work, this service, translates value and properly manages the vision set forth by those before me.

Public Lands Stewards: And So… A New Adventure Begins!

I’m going to start this blog off by telling you a little story. Last May, I moved from Maryland to the Pacific Northwest (PNW) to serve a 6-month AmeriCorps term with the Mt. Adams Institute (MAI). I worked as a refuge technician with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Columbia and Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuges. After two months of living in the state of Washington, I had this overwhelming feeling that I was where I was meant to be. But, because I hadn’t been there long, I was a little apprehensive about officially claiming this new place as my forever home. One day, I was hiking in the beautiful Gifford Pinchot National Forest in July; everything was lush, green, and full of life. I was taking everything in—the harsh chirp of the Steller’s Jays flying above, the sweet scent of the Ponderosa pines, and the endless emerald blanket of moss and ferns that covered the forest floor. As I was blissfully walking along a trail, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye—a cluster of white in a sea of green. As I got closer to it, I realized it was a patch of wildflowers. These were not your ordinary wildflowers, though; they didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before. Being the avid wildflower hobbyist that I was, this flower definitely intrigued me. But it was more than that; I was drawn to it. So, I snapped a few pictures and couldn’t wait to look them up when I got back home.

Consumed with curiosity, I researched the flowers as soon as I got service on my phone; I couldn’t wait. What I discovered was remarkable and a tad bit creepy. The mystery flowers were a rare species called monotropa uniflora, more commonly known as the ghost plant or corpse plant. Just a side note for those of you who don’t know me, I love scary movies and my favorite holiday is Halloween. So, it was no surprise that I was drawn to something so eerily named; I had found my spirit flower. But the correlation didn’t stop there. As I continued to read about them, I had a “there is no way this can be true” moment. Not only were they so appropriately named for a horror loving nerd such as myself, the scientific family they belong to is called, wait for it . . . ericaceae. ERICACEAE! I am not joking; look it up. I don’t think I could have gotten a more obvious sign that I belonged in the PNW. I truly was meant to be there and had to figure out a way to stay once my term ended.

Fast forward to present day, I am back in the PNW and loving life. I found my way back by applying to serve a second AmeriCorps term with the Mt. Adams Institute in Trout Lake, WA. This time I will be working in an 11-month position, spending half of my time as an outreach coordinator with MAI, and the other half as a Wilderness volunteer coordinator with the U.S. Forest Service. I have been in this position for almost 3 months now, and my connection to this place couldn’t be stronger. Through work projects, community events, and personal explorations, I have continued my journey of finding myself while doing work I believe to be extremely valuable and rewarding. The following photos highlight some of my experiences thus far.

In February, one of my first assignments was to accompany the MAI staff to the PNW VetsWork orientation in Corbett, OR. VetsWork is an AmeriCorps program of the Mt. Adams Institute that places military veterans into public lands management positions across the country. A huge part of my position is helping tell the story of MAI AmeriCorps members through social media outreach. Spending the week with them was such an awesome and insightful experience. It allowed me to get to know the group on a more personal level and helped me understand their motivations for joining the program.

Greeting the new 2017 PNW VetsWork crew as they come to their first day of orientation at the Menucha Retreat Center

Working as a team to solve a puzzle during Game Night

Another piece of my position is designing and creating outreach images for projects and events throughout my service term. I wouldn’t call myself an expert just yet, but I am thoroughly enjoying learning new skills such as photography, WordPress, and Photoshop.

Taking headshots of the VetsWork members at Multnomah Falls during orientation week

Having a blast working in Photoshop on an outreach flyer for Cascade Mountain School

 

I am lucky to have two amazing Forest Service supervisors: one from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the other from the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Most of my time with them has been spent developing lesson plans for the 2017 Wilderness Stewardship Skills Training weekend. On a sunny day last week, however, I was able to go out and conduct trail work in the Badger Creek Wilderness on the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Badger Creek Wilderness Trailhead

During my free time on the weekends I try to volunteer as much time as I can, working on conservation projects related to wildlife and plant biology. It is important for me to keep that specific skillset up to date so that I have the option of applying to jobs within the fish and wildlife sector at the end of this internship.

Planting native tree species with the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council at Beaver Creek in Troutdale, OR

Teaching kids about the importance of bird banding at the 2017 Sandhill Crane Festival

I am grateful for this amazing opportunity and I am excited for all of the new adventures and experiences that this year will bring!!