By the end of the summer I will be UM’s foremost expert on southwest Idaho plant identification.
I arrived in Boise, Idaho a week early and had a chance to explore the city. Boise is a very cute city. After living in Washington, DC and near San Francisco, I appreciate how very friendly people are here and also how outdoor-friendly the city is. You can see the mountains when walking down Capitol and the Boise River is currently a roaring monstrosity with spring snow melt – one of my current favorite hobbies is walking out of my apartment to the river and watching the ducks. There are a million parks and a cute art museum and zoo right next to each other 10 minutes walking from where I live. The food is also great and Boise has many unique restaurants. But I came to Idaho and accepted my 12-week internship with the Student Conservation Association at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in order to gain some field research experience, and by the end of the week I was very excited to start my internship and meet my fellow interns.
A common issue I’ve run into (at least to me) with doing scientific research is not fully understanding my larger purpose in the research. I usually just feel like a grunt and don’t fully understand what I’m doing. I like my current internship because I think I’ve got a pretty clear handle on exactly what I’m doing and why, and I’ve learned that through hands-on work with great people. The week started off in the office doing paperwork, but on the second day we drove 1.5 hours out to Reynold’s Creek, Idaho and the ARS’ scientific outpost: the Reynold’s Creek Experimental Watershed. The place looks like an abandoned WWII outpost and I have zero cell service but a lot of important agricultural research goes on there. At the outpost, we load up for the day, switch out our 1997 government-issued Ford Aerostar for a heavy duty truck, and drive to our field site deep in the sagebrush hills. Cows and sagebrush are the only things for 20 miles in any direction at this point.
So far, a typical day has been: we forgot something crucial to our operation and wait around for an indeterminate amount of time until the boss shows up and fixes our issues, and then we finally get started. The team (6 additional people) and I are working on identifying plant species in the region by sampling select plots of land. This can range from 10mx10m plots to .25x.25 plots, and we sample for different plants depending on the size of the plot. This involves using GPS to track where the plots were established years ago and learning many, many species codes based on the plants’ scientific names that make data collection easier. And getting quick at that.
This plot sampling is preceded by a fly-over with a drone that takes pictures to record the landscape, which is pretty cool. Another way we sample the vegetation of the area is by doing point-frames, which are unwieldy contraptions that allow us to record the vegetation in a 1mx1m area at specific transects. This week we did the above in the snow, and the day after I got a nasty sunburn – the weather in the hills is unpredictable. But, I know the data we are collecting is important to monitor how the landscape is changing over years and years and is important for future conservation efforts. Many, many agencies and scientists will be using this data for all types of soil and climate research, and I think that’s important and interesting.