TNCC: Citizen Scientists on the Uncompahgre Plateau

TNCC: Citizen Scientists on the Uncompahgre Plateau

by Kris Holstrom

Citizen Scientists It was a trip down memory lane for me last week when I participated in the U.S. Forest Service ‘citizen scientists’ training on the Uncompahgre Plateau. I have a degree in Forest Management from Utah State University from many, many years ago. It is a field I’ve always loved and actually worked in for several summers before moving into horticultural pursuits, organic farming and sustainability coordinating. This experience was a wonderful renewal of those memories.

The Forest Service is embarking on an interesting project aimed at restoring healthy forest conditions on the UP. They will be doing treatments on about 17,000 acres and need to monitor the results. The goal is to restore the more natural open meadow and widely spaced ponderosa pines in some areas – and reduce fuel loads so natural wildfires can occur without devasting effects in other areas (more frequent, low intensity burns rather than occasionally high intensity burns).

Citizen Scientists -2 As you know, in science it is important to monitor and measure to determine success. The Forest Service needed to put in monitoring plots in the treatment areas and in control areas to do just that. It takes a great deal of staffing time to get the plots designed and laid out for semi-permanent monitoring. Working in coordination with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute they’ve initiated a citizen scientists program to train volunteers like you and me to help do the work.

My co-worker and forest health enthusiast Colleen Trout and my daughter Kelsey came along for the two day trip. We spent the first few hours getting an update on the project, what was happening and how we were going to layout the plots. Science is often an ongoing process and the folks in charge were finalizing a new plot layout strategy right then and there. Once we had a bit of a clue what we would be doing we packed up from the Delta office and headed to the UP.

Our first plots were in fairly open Ponderosa pine stands. We set up transects aligned with true North, South and East, West. Along those lines we laid out a line for a fuels inventory. Twigs, sticks, branches, logs – any potential fuel had to be counted and characterized by size and type, and whether sound or rotten. We also mapped out any shrubs intersecting the line and counted the number and types of seedlings and saplings within a 6’9” radius of our starting point.

Another important aspect is measuring the diversity and health of the plants in the plot. We put in Daubenmire plots – sounds fancy, but consists of a rectangle made of pvc pipe and painted to help us estimate the percent cover of the different plants found within the rectangle. These needed to be characterized by grass, forbes (non-grasses) and shrubs. We also noted ground conditions – whether bare mineral soil, duff, rock, etc.

Lastly we had to count, measure and map each adult tree on the plot. This wasn’t too hard in the open ponderosa pine setting, but the next day when we were in a thick mixed conifer forest it was a different scene entirely! The group of about 20 volunteers and 12 staff and researchers spent the evening camped at the nearby ranger station with food provided and a lovely sunset to boot. The next day our more experienced groups did the same routine in a different part of the forest.  A total of 18 monitoring plots will need to be set up between now and next summer.

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