There’s No Highway to This Danger Zone

Conservation Begins Here — at a Ford F350 XL Super Duty with a Power Stroke Diesel V8 engine, manual transmission, and a patina of fine Idaho dust coating everything inside and out. Built with the capacity to tow a small village at speeds of up to 100 mph, the F350 was instead rocketing its two nonchalant passengers up Spring Creek Road towards the border of Montana.<p>Inside, the cassette deck was blaring the Top Gun soundtrack at full volume from Forest Service speakers. Katie jammed the stick shift into third gear as we whipped around the pitted curves of the Danger Zone. I was enjoying my morning coffee, studying a stack of topographic maps freckled with plot points. Spring Creek Road was doing its darndest to slow us down, throwing blowout rocks and washboard ruts in the F350’s path. This monstrosity of a truck may seem excessive, but her mile-high clearance and elephant tires are necessary for the rough roads of Idaho, placating obstacles that would have left lesser vehicles’ tires flaccid in the dust. Onward, I say!<p>We pulled over to let an oncoming truck pass and I prepared myself to perform the obligatory head-nod and half-wave, a standard among the passing drivers of Idaho. But as the driver crept into view, we saw his face change slowly from curiosity to concern. It was his look of apprehension that forced me to fully realize our appearance: at just beyond daybreak, we had the Top Gun soundtrack blasting through our open windows. Neither of us had showered in days. We were sunburnt, our faces swollen with mosquito bites and shadowed with the ash that coated our worksites. My hair was sticking out in all directions and at odd angles, held in place by a gel only achievable through days of sweat and sebaceous secretions. Our crooked smiles and frantic waving certainly didn’t help defend our sanity.<p>While camping with one other person for days on end, having nothing except Kenny Loggins and a thundering Diesel engine to keep you company, it becomes difficult to put yourself in context with the rest of the world. In these instances, a weird look from a stranger can make the whole veneer of sensibility and higher purpose come crashing down, forcing you to ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing?” <p>Welcome to the SCA Idaho AmeriCorps program, where I’ve found myself marveling at the answer to that question on a near-daily basis. Since early May my home has been Moyer Helibase — an old Forest Service compound nestled in the Idaho hills. Myself and the 19 other SCA interns are an hour and a half of rough dirt road away from any town in all directions. Between the Salmon-Challis National Forest and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, we live on the brink of the largest uninterrupted swath of protected land in the lower 48.<p>As non-specific interns for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, we’ve been deployed across Idaho and have been tasked with a wide range of jobs I never thought I’d be asked to do. One week I’m setting up camp underneath the towering Sawtooths for a hitch of smashing rocks with sledgehammers, the next I’m identifying plant species and studying their ecology. Our program provided us with an intense month of training, during which we received everything from defensive driver training to Wilderness First Responder certifications. Three months into my SCA experience, I find I know how to do strange things like patch bullet wounds and pull traction on midline femur fractures using improvised tools in the backcountry.<p>Most exciting is the ability to work outdoors in ever-changing locales. For the last two and a half months, I’ve spent more time working and living outside than being indoors. Even better, this blog post is the longest I’ve had to stare at a screen since I arrived in Idaho.<p>For this week’s hitch, Katie and I were charged with searching for the mysterious and endangered White Bark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) due to its important ecological role. Most of interest to us was the symbiotic relationship between White Barks and Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). White Bark Pines depend on these birds’ ability to open their cones and extract their nutrient-rich seeds. Clark’s Nutcracker has a sublingual pouch that can store over a hundred seeds at once, which allows them to transport and cache the seeds around the forest.<p>The reason for the Forest Service’s interest is that the area up Spring Creek Road was a White Bark Pine stand that was overrun with Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta). It was also the site of a recent burn. Fire suppression has encouraged the rampant growth of Lodgepole, which is especially susceptible to Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), a major reason for the decline of White Barks throughout Idaho. The surplus of Lodgepoles allows the Pine Beetle to flourish and spread to higher elevations, where they attack our sensitive White Barks.

Burnt Trees

Many of the Lodgepoles were cleared out by the fire, leaving the more fire-resistant White Barks as survivors. Even if the White Barks are still being killed by the ever-present bark beetle, the hope is that the fire opened up new places for seed caches from Clark’s Nutcracker, which may provide the right conditions for saplings of the shade-intolerant White Bark Pine to thrive. Ideally, some of these new trees would be resistant to bark beetles as well. Katie and I were tasked by the Forest Service to keep an eye out for Clark’s Nutcracker while performing stand exams to measure the relative biomass of the present tree species. If a healthy number of White Barks exist, and Clark’s Nutcracker is present in the area, then it serves as an indication that the White Bark population could rebound to good health. If not, the Forest Service may have to think of a way to mitigate their decline. We were outfitted with the cutting edge of Forest Service technology. Hard hats, designed specifically to protect our valuable brains from the deadly branches dangling precariously from the trees overhead. For our measurements we had a $75 tape measure that was invented for loggers nearly 100 years ago. Logically divided into tenths of a foot, the value of the $75 Logger’s tape is apparently increased exponentially by its multi-facetedness — one side dedicated to length and another cleverly adjusted to find diameter from circumference (i.e. divide by pi). Conveniently, it is also cylindrical, a shape that future experience will prove to be most suited for careening down hills at speeds even the F350 would have to respect.

Measuring tree height

Most advanced of our arsenal was the Relaskop. I have yet to discern all of its functions, but this extremely expensive hunk of Austrian metal packs a wallop, scientifically speaking. The ol’ rely-o-scope can figure the height of a tree, its Basal Area Factor, and has a dizzying number of bars, meters, and strange looking symbols that indicate it can do things inconceivable to my hard-hatted noggin. I thought iPods were cool — this thing was invented in the 1960s and is still worth $1500. And so, armed with thousands of dollars worth of delicate equipment admirably entrusted to two unpaid interns during a budget sequester, Katie and I were slowly completing plot after plot. We took measurements on steep slopes, got caught in windstorms of ash and dust, and hiked miles upon miles between sites. Without any mirrors or showers, it’s easy to forget that your work makes you look like a chimney sweep. If the slackened looks of horror from the occasional passerby indicated anything, it’s that we were doing our job. There are few occupations that are as feral and varied as being an SCA Intern. As Katie popped the F350 back into first and left the curious onlookers in our wake, jetting us rapidly towards our first plot point of the day, I counted myself lucky to have no idea what I’d be doing next week.