By horse, by boat, by foot
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Some of us are fortunate to visit Yellowstone National Park in our lifetime, to experience its iconic geothermal features, scenery and wildlife. Far fewer of us are ever paid to explore the park – let alone gain research access to its off-trail backcountry settings.
In August, a group of Colorado State University staff and students did just that. The 24-member team of Colorado State Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) staff, volunteers and U.S. Forest Service staff fanned out through the country’s oldest national park for two weeks, gathering forest data at more than 30 sites throughout the park.
This was no small endeavor. Accessing the more remote sites required unique transportation options, said Wilfred Previant, Colorado’s FIA program manager and Warner College of Natural Resources professor. His crews’ 2019 efforts required going “by horse, by boat and by foot,” he said.
Split into groups, some of the team crossed Yellowstone Lake by motorboat, others backpacked more than 60 miles, and some even travelled with outfitters by horseback, following ridgelines and valleys into undisturbed landscapes well beyond where people normally set foot.
“Probably the best FIA memories come out of Yellowstone,” said Previant. “There you’re challenged unlike anything else.”
The annual effort is part of the region’s FIA program. The CSFS, a service and outreach agency of the Warner College of Natural Resources, leads the Colorado and Wyoming branch of this national U.S. Forest Service program. As part of ongoing research to monitor the health of forests on public and private lands, each year CSFS foresters and a handful of lucky volunteers visit Yellowstone. The trek offers a way to gather data to track forest conditions long into the future.
What is FIA?
For more than three decades, the FIA annual inventory has captured how forests change over time and provided scientific data on the extent, condition, volume, growth and health of the nation’s forests. Information on long-term trends helps researchers, policymakers, landowners and natural resource professionals better understand current forest conditions and significant changes across Colorado and the U.S.
“One thing we’ve been looking at recently is regeneration,” Previant said. “Thousands of small trees should often replace fewer dead larger trees, but we’re not seeing that pulse in some stands and forest types. That’s a concern.”
Using various tools, FIA crews measure forest components on randomly selected two-and-a-half-acre plots. They record everything from soils and dead branches on the forest floor to understory vegetation, regeneration following wildfire and the health of standing trees. All Colorado data are compiled and stored at the Interior West FIA Office in Ogden, Utah, which also publishes notable findings.
Because the FIA program is so extensive, in many cases the U.S. Forest Service collaborates with state agencies and private contractors to gather information locally. Since the late 1990s, the agency has partnered with the CSFS to continuously update a comprehensive inventory and analysis of forest and rangeland conditions in Colorado and Wyoming. Colorado’s FIA program also does work in several other Western states.
In Colorado alone, the FIA program has established 4,500 permanent forest inventory plots statewide; approximately 10 percent of these plots are examined annually. Because many of the plots are on private land, crewmembers work with not just the USFS, National Park Service and other federal or state landowners, but also with tribal nations, homeowners, HOAs, ranchers and other private entities.
Colorado’s current FIA crews and volunteers have strong ties to CSU. Between Previant and his crewmembers, 10 are university alumni. Four are also in the silviculture graduate program, and one is finishing his master’s degree – on post-mountain pine beetle recovery – through Warner College.
Additionally, two former crewmembers are collaborating with the program to utilize FIA data.
While working as an FIA forester offers many obvious benefits for outdoorsy types, the job also brings many challenges. The state’s FIA crews collectively visit approximately 700 regional plots every year, including plots in urban forest settings, with fieldwork occurring from April through November.
On average, each plot contains around 100 to 150 standing trees that require measurement, in addition to sampling downed trees, brush and other vegetation and material on the forest floor. Adding to this challenge, the majority of the time crews are off-trail, and crewmembers can hike 300 or more miles annually and travel 10 to 16 weeks of the year, which can impact their personal lives.
“If you have a spouse, or pets, or a partner, or a social life, or even a house plant, well, you don’t have a summer,” Previant said, “…outside of having the greatest summer ever.”
Working in Yellowstone
Colorado’s FIA crews started working plots in Yellowstone National Park in 2014. Initially, only a few crews went, but staff numbers on the trip have grown, and hardy volunteers now join them. Previant said it offers a great training opportunity and a chance for the FIA team to get together for comradery and also address safety and communications strategies. These are vital when working in the Yellowstone backcountry, which represents the most remote location in the Lower 48.
“You’re going to go where nobody has gone before,” said Previant.
These efforts also allow for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for volunteers- but they must come ready to work. Previant says a typical daypack for FIA crews is about 40 pounds, but for multi-night backcountry trips in Yellowstone, packs can weigh up to 90 pounds.
In addition, each crew hikes 50 to 100 miles over the two weeks, with 12-hour days common.
The added weight and distance are reasons horse packers and National Park Service boats are sometimes employed. Even crews going by foot run into obstacles, such as steep, off-trail slopes and dense stands of “jackstrawed” pines, where many dead trees have fallen and lodged into one another in haphazard fashion to complicate routes. In Yellowstone, these stands are a result of the 1988 wildfires.
The challenges at Yellowstone aren’t just related to transportation logistics. There’s the wildlife, including bison notable for park visitor gorings posted on YouTube, and the potential for close encounters with grizzly bears in the dense stands of trees in which FIA foresters work.
A major reason volunteers are needed for visiting Yellowstone’s backcountry plots is that the standard two-person crews aren’t large enough for adequate safety needs in grizzly bear country. (Grizzlies are less likely to pose a threat to larger groups, with experts recommending three or more in a group for enhanced safety.)
Crews try to mitigate the risk of bear encounters not just by having the larger group sizes, but also by going through bear training from a renowned University of Montana expert, making noise on the trail and carrying bear spray. Nonetheless, some bruins are undeterred. Previant recalled one year when a large grizzly walked through an FIA spike camp at first light, as everyone was waking up.
The crewmembers tried to scare it away to no avail. Thankfully, it was simply an indifferent bear, habituated to park visitors, and it ambled on its way.
Though Yellowstone’s bears may not appreciate FIA efforts, program data provide valuable information about widespread changes to one of their key food sources. Whitebark pines are important in the diet of not only grizzlies, but also black bears, squirrels and birds like Clark’s nutcracker and blue grouse.
Yet these pines are now considered endangered and have experienced widespread die-off because of factors including climate change, infection by white pine blister rust and mountain pine beetle infestations.
Highlights from 2019
Challenges pop up every year in Yellowstone, and this year they included wildfires. Pre-planned routes and plots had to be removed from the schedule due to active wildfires that ignited just before work began. And this year minor injuries and illness also took a toll.
One of two CSU student volunteers, Kelsey Austin, fell ill halfway through the trip and had to return after a week, with her safety and the safety of the crew being the top concern. Austin, an hourly employee of the CSFS Communications & Communities Division, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.
She was part of a three-person crew taking inventory of forested plots not accessible by official trails, with park permission to go by horseback and foot into the most remote areas of the park. Austin says despite her early and unfortunate departure, this experience was well worth it.
“It was so cool to be able to travel off-trail in a national park. We were able to see a lot of things that the regular person is not able to,” she said. “I was able to use information I’ve learned from my degree in a real-world situation, and would not hesitate to go again.”
For more information about the FIA program in Colorado, visit the CSFS FIA webpage.