It’s time to include, for anyone who might be interested, just how exactly this awesome summer job has fulfilled the requirements of an environmental science internship. It is a requirement of my program at WWU to complete an internship related to my field of study; it’s a fairly open ended requirement which is great because it’s allowed me to have this experience working for the Forest Service.
Although I’m not in the field each day collecting water quality samples and analyzing species in the lab, what I do as a wildland firefighter (or ‘forestry technician,’ my Forest Service employee title) is actually quite involved in the world of environmental science (which isn’t too surprising I hope). Whether my daily duties include suppressing or managing a fire for multiple objectives, or thinning and digging line in a unit to prepare for a prescribed burn, I’m helping to make an impact regarding the overall health of the Wenatchee National Forest.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with one of the chief forest managers, as well as another fire management officer from our forest. For my internship I’ll be writing a paper about prescription burns (the topic of my choice), and I had the great fortune to meet with these two professionals working in this region to learn more about how prescription burns are managed, to learn more about the history of the technique, as well as to learn about the purpose and benefit of prescribed burns. It was quite an interesting meeting and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to meet with them.
A ‘brief’ overview of what I learned: when the FS was being established forest boundaries were designated, and the land was allocated for a variety of objectives- wilderness, matrix, roadless, recreation, scenic- which were ultimately decided through the input of the public. As the FS was being established the thought behind the agency was focused on conservation, and use, of the land- which was a thought system led by Gifford Pinchot (opposed to the thoughts of Muir who focused on preservation with the Parks Service). Different political and social influences throughout the 40s (depression era), 50s & 60s (timber era), and the 70s (environmental era), impacted the allocations and the overall Land Management Plans. For example, Region Six encompasses 19 forests, one of which being the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest. The LMPs have been amended throughout time as needed; R-6 changed the NW Forest Plan when there were concerns regarding the habitat of the Spotted Owl. Influential people throughout each era of the Forest Service’s history have led to different management actions, for example Jack Ward Thomas’ involvement helped to establish the use of Environmental Impact Statements (which is what my capstone (final senior class) will focus on this winter). As each forest was established, it was required to provide a 5 year action plan which would describe the restoration strategies of each ranger district, including fire exclusion, fire reintroduction, and land management. The land has been managed a variety of ways throughout history, including a struggle between beliefs of ‘let it burn’ and to put all fires out (especially after the Big Burn of 1910). Forest management now aims to reintroduce fire to systems which are naturally fire driven, they do this with prescription burning. The burns are designed to enhance natural burn conditions, and to mimic the characteristics of the land’s fire regime. Problems do exist with the reintroduction of fire- due to the long era of fire suppression many species (plants and animals) have adapted to the lack of fire on the land, this can lead to difficulty when trying to restore the land to the old ‘natural’ system. The reason for the reintroduction of the fire regime is to help: restore species diversity-which can be decreased without fire acting as the final step to many fire tolerance species life histories (many species rely on fire to open the seeds and complete germination), and to sustain a natural range of variability for species-fire helps to enhance species’ tolerance ranges, to allow the environment to continue to operate on a wobble, with the necessary natural disturbance. I also learned a bit about the timber side of prescribe burns, as well as a bit of the finances side of burning.
What I was most surprised to learn was the way in which prescribed burns are used as an act of restoration to the forest. I’d always thought of it as a detrimental process, and was pleased to have my ‘west sider’ views changed. Being so unfamiliar with fire, I saw burning and timber sales as negative management; I’m glad to now know of the positive restorative processes that are really taking place. I also received a few recommendations of influential environmental scientists and policy makers to learn about; Jerry Franklin, Aldo Leopold, Jim Agee, Paul Hesberg, and Chad Oliver.
Quite exciting to see all that is ahead of me in my pursuit of knowledge; the opportunities are seemingly endless at this point. I head back to Bellingham on Saturday (it’s been raining here, fire suppression season is pretty much over), then start classes a few weeks later. I graduate in March (2011, so soon!), and who knows where I’ll go next!