VetsWork: The Mission Continues

As my blog due dates approach, I welcome the internal evaluation. Most of my weeks seem to pass as a blurred, slurry of work projects: eel shocking, wilderness training, crop tree release marking and inspection, trail maintenance collaborations, migratory bird surveys, Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) crew projects, saw training, old-growth forest monitoring, invertebrate water sample collection, etc. Continue Reading…

VetsWork: A Glimpse Through the Trees

Mornings seem to always come to soon, and sunrises usually conjure up flashbacks to early sunrises after grueling nights in the desert. But today is different, there are no war zones and the surroundings remind me that I’m in a much peaceful place, one filled with a connection to nature and tranquility. The birds are singing their relaxing rhythms as the sounds of the nearby creek whisper in my ear. The morning ritual is a great reminder that life can be challenging but there is always a ray of light to propel me forward. This is how I’m greeted most mornings as I prep for another day as an AmeriCorps natural resource intern with the Forest Service on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.

Arriving at the office early gives me a chance to collect my thoughts before the buzz of voices fills the office walls. First task is to catch up on work emails from the following day. The scope of the natural resource intern thus far has encompassed an array of information. To stay caught up many of my coworkers carbon copy emails my way. To say my mind is inundated with Forest Service information would be an understatement but I welcome the challenge with an optimistic mindset. The first month has been a crash course in forestry, recreation, roads, wildlife, volunteer programs, and fire. Additionally, there are the administrative obstacles of becoming certified in basic training necessary for all Forest Service employees i.e. defensive driving, computer access, chainsaw training, wilderness training, and forest familiarization to name a few items. Sounds exhausting and it can be, but snippets of the AmeriCorps motto pass through my synapses, “I will get things done for America.”

Spring brings the forest into a slow reawakening as the migratory birds began to arrive and the trees release their buds to the crisp open air. Sounds delightful and it is, the forest begins to burst into life and so does the office.

Silene Virginica or “Fire Pink”

Trout Lilies spring into bloom!

Old beer bottle turned terrarium by nature.

Encounter with a red salamander during timber marking.

Should be collecting data but the conversation with slimy salamander was more exciting, (click the link to see the video)

For the Forest Service spring also brings a commotion of work. The winter freeze thaw cycles have left Forest Service roads in a state of disrepair and they must be maintained before the public has access to them. Timber sale plots need preparation as the loggers ramp up their efforts for the workable seasons. As the sun’s direct rays begin to shine on the northern hemisphere the public also senses the warmer weather and this draws them to the outdoors. As a result, the Forest Service office hears a constant ring of phones calls. Most of the calls are inquiries to forest access “is this campground closed? When will Wild Life Road open?” The fire section begins its prescribed burn plans and is at the mercy of the finicky weather.

Fire seems to take precedence in the forest and as the eastern fire resources seem scarce other sections of the office put their work on pause to assist fire as the Fire Militia. A term that is new to me but a common resource on the east coast. This balancing act of weather and resources causes the work plans for all sections of the office to become very tentative. In this environment flexibility is key. Thanks to my military experience I welcome the challenge and metaphorically stay light on my feet.

Thus, far I’m been introduced to a wide range of deciduous tree species (trees that lose their leaves with the change of seasons). I’m becoming familiar with the most common forms i.e. sycamore, walnut, locust, oak, ash, hickory, cucumber, cherry, poplar, maples, dogwoods, and countless others. Most of the species are unfamiliar to this westerner and I do everything in my power to learn the nuisances of each tree species. Whether on the clock or not, every trip into the forests brings an opportunity to learn about my new friends.

In the first month, I’ve spent a large portion of time with the foresters and as such have been given a glimpse into their responsibilities and mission. Like every new subject the theory behind it is unclear but as I’ve worked with the crew the big picture begins to unfold. The Eastern Divide Ranger District covers 11 counties and is spread widely. As such, travel to work sites can be an average 45-minute drive. For me, most of the drive time is spent gathering intel, familiarizing myself with the district, and asking massive amounts of questions.

What follows is a glimpse into the forester aka “Timber” section of the office. As a district, there is a set plan for the forest which lays out guidelines for all sections within the office. With this the foresters have an outline of what is available for harvest, the plots are chosen and sale prep work begins. Simple enough, right? Not quite. Once the plots are selected the proper procedures must be determined before approval for sale is granted. What does this look like? Well it varies depending on the plot in question but can involve extensive analysis, data collection, and reporting. In an effort to spare the reader an arduous blog filled with definitions of terms like the National Environmental Policy Act, categorical exclusions, environmental assessments, and environmental impact statements; I’ll need a little trust when I say the process can become quite lengthy.

So, where were we? Ah yes, an area of the forest has been selected and approved for sale. The lot is marked for boundaries, roads, and equipment landings. The crew then follows suit and begins to mark trees based on allowable basal area (spacing between trees that will leave a total mass of wood in the designated plot) or the area can be clear cut but that requires additional requirements.

Painting and tallying marked trees is where I began the forestry adventure. A handheld device was my tool and for every tree marked a count must be made. Once a predetermined number of trees is hit, for example 40 trees marked, a sample measurement must be taken to collect data about the average trees mass, height, defect, and species. Certain equipment is needed i.e. forester tape measure, clinometer, calculation charts, additionally tree identification. Tricky tricky. The information is later collected and added with additional data for reporting. So, the plot is ready for sale.

Once the plot is sold and loggers are cutting, additional resources are needed to inspect the plot on a regular basis. This process assures the logging company is adhering to forest regulation and protocols.

The plot has been harvested, now what? You guessed it, final inspections and rehabilitation plans commence. Undesirable trees maples, invasive trees are sprayed before desirable species are planted. For our forest this is usually oak species and based on the initial forest plan for the district.

Once the plot is ready for tree planting augers and saplings are brought in to plot, again this is where I come in to the story.

Boring holes with the auger to plant native trees.

The auger demands respect

Planting trees with good company.

Today the forester crew and some fire resources are planting red, white, and chestnut oak and I am pleased to be part of the crew. We drive through the oak forest and on creek roads, where fishermen cast their early morning lines. Upon arrival, the crew readies the gear and the job hazard analysis form is read aloud as a reminder of the potential dangers the work entails. The refreshing aromas of spring try to distract my mind of the briefing. And we are off, gear loaded we hike to timber sales of previous years and begin to plant trees. The work can be taxing at times but a brief pause and awareness of my location brings a large grin to my sweaty face. There are not very many jobs that bring satisfaction of this unique level. The scenery is amazing as we work mid slope on some of the most iconic mountains this nation offers. A break in the days’ work affords further exploration and yet another satisfying surprise. Eureka! It appears we have stumbled across some tasty morel mushrooms. The excitement propels my workday forward and I begin to make mushroom hunting plans for my days off.

Morel Mushrooms

Mission accomplished, trees planted, equipment loaded, and the crew departs the forest but the job doesn’t end. The timber guys will continue to check the progress of these sapling trees. From timber prep, to sale, rehabilitation, and continuous monitoring the job is never done but this is one way the Forest Service stewards the natural resources of the forest. Assuring that these public lands maintain their healthy aesthetic for generations that follow.