Every summer, the Preserve America Youth Summit takes place in many states across the country. The Preserve America Youth Summit is a prestigious 4-day summer program creating opportunities for middle and high school students to learn about historical preservation out in the field. Students are given the opportunity to interact with community partners and present their ideas and suggestions for historical preservation in a culminating town hall with local leaders. This year, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was the host for Colorado’s Preserve America Youth Summit. As a host, much planning was needed and Whitney Masten, our Education Coordinator, along with other local leaders, did an incredible job putting the event together. Our job at the monument was to host opening day and closing day. The other two days, students took multiple trips along the Gold Belt Scenic Byway in central Colorado. I was lucky enough to have been asked to join Whitney in acting as liaisons for the National Park Service (NPS) the entire week.
On the opening day of the youth summit, Dr. Meyer (paleontologist at Florissant Fossil Beds) and I gave an introductory talk on the discovery of Florissant Fossil Beds and it’s geologic and paleontological significance. Later in the day, I gave the three rotating groups of students a virtual tour of the paleontology lab so that they could get a behind-the-scenes look into fossil preparation, research and museum collection techniques. The day ended with dinner and a concert put on by Jeff Wolin (Lead Interpreter at Florissant Fossil Beds) and I. We were shocked to see the students enjoying themselves so much, considering the songs are more elementary based. We even had a group of students personally ask us to do an encore!
The second day of the youth summit took place in Fremont County. As liaisons for NPS, Whitney and I were able to join in on tours of many historic buildings in the cities of Cañon City and Florence. The highlight of the second day, however, was riding on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad. The sights were just incredible! Dinner that night was quite spectacular as well. The youth summit was invited to eat at Colon Farms in the city of Florence. All the ingredients used in making of dinner came from the farm itself or other nearby farms.
The towns of Cripple Creek and Victor were the main focus on the third day of the youth summit. Here we joined in on a tour of the Newmont mine, where gold is the major mineral mined. Being able to witness the immensity of the Newmont mine was an unforgettable experience. After the mine, we received tours of many of the museums and historic buildings in the towns. Despite the persistent rain we received that day, we enjoyed learning about the history of the towns and their struggle in restoring many of the historic sites to attract more visitors to the area.
Finally, on closing day, Florissant Fossil Beds was again responsible for hosting and I was put in charge of setting up the PA system. It had been years since I last worked with a PA system. Regardless, I enjoyed the set up as it took me back to my rock’n’roll days when I was playing gigs with bands just about every weekend. More importantly, the students did a great job expressing their concerns regarding historical preservation along the Gold Belt Scenic Byway. The local community leaders that served on the panel at the town hall were obviously impressed with the students’ knowledge and commitment to historical preservation of Colorado’s history. I am very grateful I was given the opportunity to participate in the entire youth summit as I became much more knowledgeable in the history of the area I am living in. I believe the group of students of this year’s youth summit will go on to become aspiring leaders in our community in the near future.
It is always nice having a long weekend to wind down and go exploring. Especially when it involves family. Luckily, my family was able to stop by for a visit to Colorado this past weekend. I was able to spend a few days with them in Denver meeting other family members of ours, and show them around central Colorado and the Florissant valley.
The downside to having a long weekend is that the following work week is short and generally hectic. Such was the case here at the Florissant Fossil Beds. With meeting after meeting and visit after visit, there was never time to catch a break.
There was a lot of planning going on at the monument this past week. Most of us have been incredibly occupied with preparation for the Preserve America Youth Summit coming up next week. I was in charge of putting together a virtual tour of the paleontology lab, which will premier at the summit next week. Preparing a script, testing GoPro equipment and running several takes with the crew took up much more time than I expected. However, the end results were amazing and I am looking forward to running the tour this coming week.
Also in preparation for the Preserve America Youth Summit, my supervisor, Dr. Herb Meyer, and I worked together on putting together a PowerPoint presentation where he will be covering the incredibly intricate history of the Florissant valley and the vast array of fossils found here at the monument and the geologic processes responsible for creating an environment set up for fossils.
I think what counted for me as a “break” this week was the visiting Girl Scouts group from Kansas. Dr. Sarah Allen and I spoke to this group about how we came to work for the National Park Service and what steps we took to get here. After our brief introductions, we took the group on the Petrified Stump Loop trail and did an activity on stratigraphy. At the end of the hike, we had the group split into three small groups and discuss what they think happened in the Florissant valley 34 million years ago. The groups were able to draw very similar conclusions to what our scientists have concluded occurred in the valley during the Eocene. I believe this young and aspiring group of students are on the path to success. And I am confident many of them will go on to become scientists!
Yesterday, a day camp group came to visit the monument and we took them on a nature walk. I was able to snap some pictures of many of the flowers in bloom. I normally never take the time to admire the wildflowers in the monument but due to the frenetic environment we had this past week, it felt incredibly appropriate to stop for a moment and really take in the beauty the wildflowers add to our community here.
“You have the coolest gig!”
A teenage boy yelled this in my direction after I gave him and his friends directions on my morning rove in the Bear Lake corridor area. Roving has quickly become one of my favorite parts of this job. A rove, by definition, is “to travel constantly without a fixed destination; wander.” Yet, it is this wandering that is such an important part of my days here and role as a park interpreter.
Sometimes my job is to wander. That is crazy to type out; actual hours I spend hiking to beautiful destinations is of value to my division and the Park visitors, enough so that I get to do it multiple times a week. When I first began this internship and received my master schedule, I was unsure how fulfilling it would be, especially coming from New York and such a crazy, demanding and over stimulating work environment. Would I really be happy with this much “down-time?”
Roving to me has become more than “down-time” – it’s something I routinely look forward to, excited by the places I’ll go and the people I meet. It felt that almost out of nowhere, my roves have become something uniquely rewarding. Now when I speak to visitors of places in the Park, I know them on my own; not in the abstract, and not through photos. I can tell them that I love Sandbeach Lake because of the trickling waterfall that will convince you it’s a true ocean. I can warn them about the steep climb to Gem Lake or the spot I always catch a glimpse of marmot at Forest Canyon. When I send people to the tundra, the locations of my favorite blooming wildflowers guide me, not the road. In learning this Park, I’m becoming its ambassador, and hopefully, sharing some of my own emotional connections to it with the visitors.
When I walk, I stop and talk. I’m friendlier than I’ll ever be while I hike on my day off (I’m often trying to avoid visitors those days anyway), stopping and chatting, handing out extra park maps. I’ve gotten good at roving, which means I always have trail maps, junior ranger booklets and badges and golf pencils in my pack and a pencil and highlighter in my pocket. It feels extra but providing resources for visitors, informational or tangible, has been the best window into conversation. Suddenly, I’m engaging them in a deep conversation about what this place means to them or how the Park handles wildlife management or conducting an impromptu geology class for kids at the Alluvial Fan (I swear this happened). Or maybe I’m simply clarifying signage. Either way, somehow I know I’ve made an impact even if I don’t quite yet know what that will be.
It was hard for me to realize that regardless of the hours and research I’ve put into my educational and interpretive programming, not every visitor will want to stop by. I can’t reach everyone or be the best interpreter by staying at my scheduled post or my advertised programming – maybe, I’m doing the most I can when I do my “downtime.”
That boy is right – I do have the coolest gig.
In the broadest sense, nature is our world in the physical, material and natural form. It is everything not made by the human race. For me, nature serves as a place of tranquility, worship, culture and love. At the same time though, it can be frightening, intimidating and humbling. Nature is, hands down, a force to be reckoned with.
Our ancestors were far more in tune with nature than we are today. With so many distractions in the modern world, it has become increasingly more difficult to access nature. The more we become disconnected, the less attentive we will be. Therefore, I believe it is every individuals responsibility to make the effort to break away from mainstream society, at least once in their lifetime, and become one with nature.
I recently was able to reconnect with nature when a group of high school students from Texas stopped by the Florissant Fossil Beds for a visit. Whitney, my education partner, and I led the group of students and their chaperones into the woods on a nature walk with a specific exercise in mind. Upon reaching the most dense part of the forest, Whitney instructed the students to write down what nature is using their five senses. Given that the students were in the age range of 14-17 years old, I was expecting to hear laughter and gossip, and not see much writing going down. However, the students fully participated and even the chaperones were jotting down their thoughts.
At the end of the exercise, Whitney had the students recite their favorite interpretation of what nature is, however, replacing the “Nature is…” with “I am…”. As you can imagine, some were rather humorous, while others were incredibly poetic.
After the nature walk, I had the students and chaperones participate in the paleoclimatic reconstruction activity I put together for the Geo/Paleo Camp. It was incredible to witness the students draw their own conclusions on how the Florissant valley, during the Eocene, exhibited drastically different climatic conditions than today. The biggest take away for me, and I hope for the students and chaperones as well, is that in addition to making connections with nature on a mental and spiritual level, everyone is also capable of making scientific connections. There is no requirement of a masters or PhD to make that scientific connection. The only requirements are patience, curiosity and an open mind.
The days were already longer to begin with than what I was previously used to in Los Angeles. However, now that summer is here, I’m finding myself outside for longer periods of time as the days go by. Summer days in Colorado have so far proven themselves to be incredibly gorgeous and filled with good vibes. Although summer monsoon season is approaching, the past couple of weeks have been full of sun and blue skies with sprinkled clouds throughout.
This last week saw the first testing of activities for the Florissant Fossils Beds Geo/Paleo camp I am developing. On Friday, we had a group of teachers at the monument culminating their 5-day workshop on climate change. My supervisor and I thought it would be a good idea to experiment the activity I have on paleoclimate. The activity requires students to identify a set of fossil plants from the Florissant formation using a dichotomous key. Once the fossils plants are identified, students are given data of the temperature and precipitation ranges for modern plant species that are related to the plant fossils of Florissant. From there, students can narrow down a range for temperature and precipitation in which all plant species can thrive in. Once the students have calculated those ranges, I tell them the average annual temperature and precipitation of Florissant today. They are then able to make their own conclusions that during the Eocene, the climate of Florissant valley was much hotter and wetter. Even though the age range for the activity is intended for 3rd-5th grade, the teachers had a blast and were even requesting the activity be made available online so that teachers across the nation can access it.
As if the teachers’ enthusiasm and support for my camp development wasn’t enough excitement for one week, I also had visitors come through. On Thursday, I hosted Cristina Ramírez and Jennifer Orellana from the NPS regional offices in Lakewood, CO. Cristina and Jennifer are interns with the Latino Heritage Internship Program (LHIP), which is a partnership with the National Park Service, Environment for the Americas and Hispanic Access Foundation. It was great to show them around the Fossil Beds and introduce them to the Geo/Paleo camp I have been working on. Then on Friday afternoon, Lily Calderón and Chu-Yu of Environment for the Americas also stopped by for a visit. It was incredible meeting both of them and hearing Lily’s experience as a Mosaics In Science intern in 2016 served as inspiration and motivation. Needless to say, I feel incredibly
blessed to have met such beautiful and inspiring people this past week!
On a non-work related note, I finally was able to go rock climbing with some of the other interns at Florissant Fossil Beds. Shelf Road off the Gold Belt Byway in Central Colorado is notorious for world class sport climbing. My first time rock climbing in Colorado was a success!
I’ve always wondered if I had the patience to be a birder. On Thursday of this week, I found that with a bit more sunblock, I definitely did.
My supervisor here in the Interpretation Division has organized times for me to partner with another park department, Resource Management, once a week in what has already proven to be an incredibly enriching experience. Each Thursday I will be working on a different project in their division; an opportunity I hope will help me create a greater synthesis between the various facets of the Park and better inform my interpretive programs.
As the science education intern here at Rocky, I have a slightly different role than some of the other interpretive interns. In addition to my talks, hikes and roving, I don’t work in visitors centers, but rather have additional opportunities to engage with the scientific work and research being conducted in the park to integrate into my programming. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to work with these extra departments – and get extra time in the outdoors.
This week I assisted one of the head wildlife biologists on a raptor survey in the Fern Lake area of Moraine Park. We were looking for confirmation that a pair of Peregrine
falcons occupying the area along Arch Rocks at the ends of the trailhead had begun their nesting period.
Raptor surveying and field observations require infinite patience and a comfort with silence. For four hours, a timeline established by US Fish and Wildlife for observation periods, we sat in near silence, using our binoculars and spotting scopes to identify potential perches and nests. It can make one antsy, but seeing two peregrines – a truly remarkable bird – along with a slew of other raptors and a surprise eagle nest was incredibly rewarding in a way that I wouldn’t have expected bird-watching to be. Learning how to identify specific birds, their nesting patterns and the importance of this work to maintaining the ecological integrity of Rocky gave me exposure to and an appreciation of an often hidden side of Rocky for someone working in the public face of the Park.
Mycology and mycorrhizal networks. Exploring the ways in which fungi interact with and complicate forest networks and growth patterns has been one of the most complex intellectual endeavors I’ve ever attempted.
…And also one of the most fascinating. Expanding and destabilizing my own definitions of sentience, recognition and life as they applied to forest ecology has been one of the most important things I have ever done as someone studying sustainable development and environmental history. Challenging myself as an intellectual at the undergraduate level is something I didn’t initially know how to translate to my work with children. Yet, I knew I still needed to do it.
This weird meditation on how I’ve come to think about and consider forests as sentient, beyond any assertion of their “living” qualities brings us to (somehow) the completion of my very first Junior Ranger program here at our Jr. Ranger Headquarters at Hidden Valley at RMNP.
While I was developing my program outlines, I kept remembering one of the head researchers (with whom I was fortunate enough to have a conversation) tell me that too many interns in Interpretation (my division) are “afraid to let their programs have teeth.” His words stayed with me, even after two weeks of intensive training in which I was inundated with information.
Maybe I like a challenge (if you want to be nice) or I am a bit of a masochist (the truth is somewhere in between the two) but I resolved to imagine programming that was rooted in complex and interesting science, elevated kids rather than lowering them down or our expectations of them, and just somehow proved to be engaging. I worked and worked myself trying to imagine how I could accomplish this.
About a week before my first Junior Ranger programs were slated to begin, I had a bit of a breakthrough – which mostly involved cheering to my roommate and a host of flurried scribbling in my notebook. I wanted to take a huge risk and talk about something that was on the surface incredibly boring and in every other regard (to me at least) wickedly fascinating – mushrooms.
I spent the next week and a half scrambling – how was I going to get six year olds to relate to a complex, and hidden at that, ecological phenomenon that only I seem to care about? Was I going to cave and develop something average but well-attended and well-liked?
This week’s programming at Junior Ranger Headquarters was one of the most pleasant and validating surprises during my time here at Rocky Mountain – my program wasn’t too abstract or a flop! It was the highest attended afternoon program yet. Kids enjoyed it and were curiously asking me questions about mycorrhizae in greater detail. This kind of success is what makes working with children so rewarding – they have an ability and thirst for learning that far exceeds what people would imagine them to be capable of. There are smaller kinks a perfectionist like me will have to iron out in the program as I give it week to week but my most important critics have already spoken – the kids.
“Young people and their phones, ugh!”
“Excuse me, can you take a photo of us?”
“I don’t want to hike all of that.”
“Where is the closest wifi?”
These are some of the things my family and I heard while walking around the more touristy areas of Yosemite National Park. For my internship, I don’t spend too much time in the Valley, where about 95% of visitors to the park hang out. I wanted to see more of the views that you typically see in photos of Yosemite, and it would give us some time to do some shorter day hikes, since my family isn’t a big camping or backpacking family for backcountry trails.
As we passed and interacted with other park visitors, we saw people in flip flops, jeans, single use plastic water bottles, sodas, and everything else in between that you wouldn’t expect to see while hiking. Besides the fact that some of those things are unsafe for certain trails, it reminds me that people experience national parks in different ways. Some visitors see a visit to a national park as a place to shop and walk around the main areas. Others see it as a place to do some backpacking and backcountry camping. Others even see it as a place to exist without actually interacting with it. None of these experiences are better or worse than others. All of these experiences are valid and should be protected and available in our national parks.
There are differences in ways that generations experience national parks as well. There is a stereotype that young people are disconnected from the natural world and don’t stop to appreciate it, which I beg to differ considering the widespread use of hashtags during the park centennial celebration or varying environmental movements. Selfie culture is a thing, but it can spread the word of the awesomeness of our parks! On the other side, there’s a stereotype that older generations don’t have the drive or mobility to get close with nature, and only want to experience it from their RV or bus. From my time in the park, I’ve seen tons of people that live in these stereotypes and also tons that break outside of them. Either way, people are visiting and contributing to the park! As long as the park remains accessible to all of those different experiences, the national park is doing its duty to allow people to see nature at its best. That includes people with handicaps and disabilities, people from other cultures with different languages, people with children, and so on. At Yosemite, I believe they are doing just that!
Wilderness management, a term famed for its oxymoronic nature, is a constant conversation within Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the most controversial examples of human intervention into the wild landscape and ecological processes within the Park is the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan. A comprehensive study, representing the work of countless departments, stakeholder interactions and assessments and research money, the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan works to control the overabundant elk population within the Park and provide opportunities for habitat regeneration and riparian improvement, especially for species such as the beaver, aspen and willow. One of the most visible, and unpopular, pieces of the plan is the implementation of elk exclosures, large fenced in areas which exclude elk from certain grazing areas, giving opportunity to many other species who desperately need the regeneration of their habitats and growing areas to remain within the Park.
Rocky describes the plan as “[relying] on a variety of conservation tools including temporary fencing, vegetation restoration, redistribution and culling. The park may use additional management tools in the future using adaptive management principles.”
The plan, though arrived at through careful mediation with local groups, visitors and other important stakeholders, is nevertheless controversial to many park-goers, and is under constant need for interpretation. As part of seasonal staff training for the department of interpretation and education, this week I went out in the field to actually see one of these exclosures firsthand and process what this plan meant for the Park with my coworkers.
The results, even after only a few years since its implementation in 2014, are striking. Even at a distance the disparity between areas on either side of the exclosures is obvious, with lush, tall and thick vegetation within the exclosures and sparser, shorter growth to the exterior. Water tables within the exclosures have risen significantly, allowing the dry, flatter meadows created by home-steading within the Park for the last century to return to the marshy, wet and lush riparian lands they once were. Even as the results are tangible, and Park employee consensus is that it is wholly beneficial to the ecological integrity of the Park, it is still fraught with controversy.
What is the role of human intervention in wilderness management? Have we created a cycle of human intervention that we can never reverse? What truly constitutes wilderness? How mindful must we be of the urban-wild interface when we as a Park imagine solutions to our most pressing problems?
The fences will likely remain for the next ten years, to the dismay of many visitors, but how long will we see the mark of human impact in a Park that is 95% designated wilderness area?
It was a scorching 95 degrees Fahrenheit in Denver today! The Get Outdoors Colorado event was a success. I was able to connect with many people focused on accomplishing similar goals, to diversify audiences in outdoor settings. Meeting the Urban Rangers of Denver was definitely a highlight. For those who don’t know, the Urban Ranger program is a partnership between the National Park Service, Environmental Learning for Kids and Denver Parks and Rec. Urban Rangers are high school and college students that teach environmental education programs to underserved youth in the greater Denver area. Seeing these incredibly young folks working hard to complete their mission is inspiring!
On the way back home from Denver, my supervisor and I decided to take the scenic route. From Morrison, we took CO-67 S to Woodland Park. Although most of the drive had a speed limit of 30 mph, it was worth it. Views of the South Platte River off CO-67 are incredibly serene.
Back at the ranch, progress on the Geo/Paleo Camp is rolling along. My brown bag presentation on Friday was lengthy but productive. One of the most significant changes we are making to the schedule is to have the camp run from Tuesday to Saturday, as opposed to the traditional Monday through Friday format. The reason for this is we believe it is incredibly important to provide parents with the opportunity of attending the last day of camp. Not only would the parents be present at the graduation ceremony, but they would also be exposed to the mission of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and the National Park Service. Most of us can agree that parents serve as the role models for our youth. Therefore, if we can instill a sense of stewardship in our youth’s parents, they will, in return, pass it on to their children.