Student Experiences: Interdisciplinary workings in the Superior National Forest, by Emily Carlson ’20

Posted on November 27th, 2019 by

Born and raised in the suburbs on Minneapolis, I was eager for the opportunity to explore my own backyard in the Superior National Forest this summer. One of two national forests in Minnesota, SUF makes up 3 million acres of the Northern border including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I was hired along with one other student as a Soil Conservation Intern, and while we learned a tremendous amount about soil health and forest productivity, we also learned how to work together and how the multitude of departments within the Forest Service work together.

My efforts as a soil conservation intern were concentrated on conducting soil surveys under the Forest Soil Disturbance Monitoring Protocol (FSDMP). The goal of this procedure is to survey, understand, and report the impacts of timber harvesting on soil health. Parameters for impacted soil health were confined to a quick visual survey of a small hole: Forest floor depth, evidence of burning, compaction, erosion, rutting by equipment wheels or tracks, and platy or massive soil structure. Ideally, these surveys are conducted before and after a timber harvest to note the impacts of heavy machinery and to add this data to a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) report. These reports are then made available for public review. The results of our surveys were also used to assist silviculturists and timber sales administrators in determining how to best manage timber stands that lie in very different landscapes across the forest.

This role was initially challenging for me, as a hard-rock-focused geologist with little soil science background. I was surprised by how much ecology and botany were required, and how much they are interconnected with soil science. I quickly learned my trees, shrubs, and forbs, as well as how different combinations of these plants indicated what the soil type might be before we even dug a hole.

Beyond technical knowledge, this position and experience stretched my ability to be flexible in completing several new and different tasks. When we weren’t surveying soil, we were able to try our hands at bird-banding, bat-surveying, oak-blueberry habitat monitoring, trail maintenance in the BWCAW, as well as several ArcGIS-related projects. We decided on the motto: “Best day ever,” which we said every day, meaning, every day has a chance to be the best day ever, so why not go into it with that attitude? What resulted was a work environment where we rolled with whatever came our way, whether it be climbing over waist-deep slash piles, losing our boots in a bog (Photo 1), or the very special days in late August when the shrubs hung heavy with every type of berry. Best day ever.

Photo 1: Bog snags a boot

Our tasks kept us relatively hidden from the public eye. We were often an hour’s drive or more into the forest followed by another hour of bushwhacking. When we did encounter the public, they were typically friendly and just wanted to know more about what we were doing. On our first encounter with an ATV rider we were nervous and decided the best option was to hide in some nearby bushes. But by the end of the summer we were confident enough to discuss our role with landowners and visitors to the forest.

Once during our trail maintenance trip into the boundary waters, a visitor using the portage asked for my thoughts on the nearby (and intensely controversial) copper sulfide mining proposal. He, visibly frustrated by the issue, and exclaimed, “I just hate it.” I was torn in how to reply. Since starting my position, I had come to understand and respect the Forest Service’s role as both a provider of recreational opportunities as well as economic opportunity. I had also witnessed in our host-town of Ely, Minnesota, how much the local people rely on mining as an income. I decided that it was easy for myself, and this man, to come from the city to the seemingly pristine wilderness of the BWCA and feel the need to protect it so that our vacations can continue on as normal, untouched. But there is a more complex set of perspectives that I think we should try to understand. People rely on this land to make a living, and who are we to say that our tourist uses are more important? I spent several hours pondering this in my tent while we waited out a storm, but I have yet to come up with a very good solution…

By the end of the summer, we had come to understand how the roles of soil scientists and timber sales administrators work together to protect forest productivity while managing timber as a needed natural resource. Ultimately the experience was incredibly valuable as a way to see the Forest Service mission in action: doing the most good for the most people. This meant treasuring the forest both as a recreational destination and way to get the public involved in exploration, as well as putting the forest to work, as a timber and paper pulp source.

As I look toward graduation, two short semesters away, I am inspired to ask more questions of ourselves and our management plans. I am thankful for my mentors at the Superior National Forest for encouraging the art of pushing for better: What is and isn’t working? What can we improve on? How can my role inform the work of others? How can we work together to come up with solutions to outdated management plans? Environmental work is a team activity, and I am excited to find my own team, whether it be in natural resources or beyond.

 

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