U.S. Forest Service firefighter recruiting video
I came to graduate school because of a deep desire to better understand the increasingly adverse impacts humans have on our planet. What truly spurred this desire was back in 2007 when I still worked as a forest firefighter on the Baker River Hotshots crew.
The fire we’d been assigned to, on the border of Washington State and British Columbia, Canada, spread violently, presenting the need for us to cross the border. The criminal background of some of my crew mates, however, prevented us from making the crossing legally. Rather than pursuing any legal measures to cross, like leaving our ‘criminals’ in base camp, those in charge decided to bulldoze a road. So, being in the business of moving mountains on command, we built that road in a day.
In the morning we tore Red Alder out of a stream bank, progressed to ripping fir trees off the mountain by noon, and ended across the border at dark after stopping all flow of a stream by filling it with soil from bank to bank. I’ve been part of many destructive operations for fire control and will stand behind almost all of them, but that operation was done because we physically could do it. All too literally, I saw this action as taking “the road we have long been traveling….a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.” (from Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring).
In our case, the smooth superhighway was in fact quite bumpy, and at its end I found not just the disaster of 30,000 acres claimed by fire, but also the disaster of our arrogance.
I have thousands of fire stories; someday I’ll find the voice to articulate all of them. In the meantime, I am trying to find the voice to articulate my research, which is why I want to be a Carson Fellow. Today I study the riparian ecosystems we destroyed bulldozing our way into Canada. More specifically, I study the water balance and population dynamics of riparian areas of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin where introduced tamarisk and Russian olive trees grow, and the effects of the purposefully introduced tamarisk leaf beetle (PDF file) on those environments.Egyptian lore calls tamarisk the ‘Tree of Life’ because its trunk cradled Osiris’s casket after he was killed by Set, and kept him safe there until Isis found him. Today, some claim tamarisk and Russian olive are as destructive to a landscape as a fleet of bulldozers. Amidst these contradictions, for me, the irony is that of all the havoc these trees get accused of wrecking on an ecosystem, increasing fire severity is one of the few valid claims. In many places the nitrogen fixing Russian olive grows with tamarisk and could replace tamarisk as stands are weakened by the tamarisk leaf beetle. Here, I am assessing Russian olive’s contribution of nitrogen to the soil. Since Russian olive is also on the removal list of invasive plant managers – sometimes above tamarisk – it is important to know if other non-native plants have a competitive advantage due to higher soil nitrogen levels. This work will provide a major contribution for understanding biotic interactions and potential ecologic effects of Russian olive establishment and subsequent removal.
The introduction of the leaf beetle by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not ‘a disaster of our arrogance’. The disaster, however, could come in the form of the plants that replace tamarisk and their effects to the environment. Little time was spent on understanding the pre-release tamarisk ecosystems, so in 2010 I helped initiate baseline studies on the lower Virgin River to obtain this important information before the beetles arrived there in 2011. This data is of significant value for identifying future impacts of the beetle on tamarisk physiology, foliage phenology and ecohydrology as a whole, aiding large-scale water management decisions in semi-arid and arid areas in the southwestern United States.
Being located in southern Arizona, the hotbed for tamarisk-Russian olive research, and an area where humans and climate change are having immense impacts on the ecosystems, makes it all the more important to cultivate researchers like me to become better adept at independently communicating their science to a multitude of audiences. I currently work part time as an Ecologist with the U. S. Geological Survey, an organization that focuses on science, not the communication of that science to the public. I hope to continue to work at USGS but am committed to getting my research ‘out there’ in a more dynamic form than a yearly report. The avenues I am pursuing to do this are avenues like this fellowship, participating in Julia Cole’s and Christopher Cokinos’s Clearing the Air Workshop, presenting in March at the SEES EarthWeek Conference at the University of Arizona, and choreographing a dance of my research for a short video for the world renowned ‘Dance Your PhD!‘ contest, (which exposes thousands of lay people to the work of graduate students around the globe). Elevator speeches are hard, but try dancing one!
My graduate work is not penance for the trees I felled in my past or the many roads I helped build into our forests. I am the same person who did those things but my interests have shifted. Instead of selfishly asking ‘How tough am I?’ or ‘How far can I walk with broken toes?” today my questions are ‘Why does this plant grow here?’ and “How is this environment affected by humans, how is this environment affecting humans?” I identify strongly with my fire background, at times struggling to view it in an intellectual framework, yet, my current work is in pursuit of “the other fork of the road — the one less traveled …(that) offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth” (Carson, 1962). Being a Carson Earth Graduate Fellow will provide a necessary framework for me to convey my research effectively and collaborate with and learn from other scientists with this same goal.