2021 Highlights

Will Tsai

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most visited national parks. With the growing impact of visitors, the park is is seeking to improve its resilience to the increasing number of hikers and campers. The Continental Divide Research Learning Center (CDRLC) helps these efforts by conducting and creating opportunities for research. The CDRLC gathers data to educate and engage the public in resource preservation. The work done by the CDRLC is crucial in resource preservation to ensure that the parks stay pristine in years to come.

As a new member of the CDRLC, Will studied visitor use in Rocky Mountain National Park to examine how visitor use impacts the trails and surrounding habitats. In the field, Will led a group of volunteers to collect and quantify visitor use data. The three types of impacts Will documented were trash, social trails and congregation areas. Trash includes litter and human waste, and social trails are any trails created by the public and not established by the park. Congregation areas are the places where people have gathered, often causing destruction of vegetation. All of these impacts are harmful to the environment.

Throughout his monitoring in the park, Will mapped many trails and documented the locations of the litter he found, giving each data point a severity value on a scale of one to five, where five is most severe. The results will be used to determine the impacts of human activity at various locations across the park. By the end of his internship, Will had found and mapped 5,934 meters of social trails and 231 points of litter.

Will’s work demonstrated the amount of visitor foot-traffic by time of day on 5 trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Jenna Aubrie Heckel

Monocacy National Battlefield, MD

The Department of the Interior preserves landscapes and structures in the Monocacy National Battlefield as their historic condition to commemorate significant battles. This battlefield also contains many streams and rivers across its terrain. Aubrie worked to preserve this significant environment to prevent damage to the historic conditions of the battlefields.

Aubrie worked at Monocacy National Battlefield as a hydrology assistant, focusing on assessments of stream health relative to the surrounding landscape. The focus of the work, Harding’s Run river, is about two miles long and borders agricultural fields and a four-lane highway. To guide management and mitigation strategies, Aubrie collected baseline data of the stream over a total of 11 survey spots. She focused on two sections of the stream by assessing sediment transportation through physical measurements of channel width, river curvature, elevation changes and sediment size to determine how the water shapes the river channel. In the future, the highways along the river are projected to widen so collecting these assessments can justify further preservation of these waterways.

One skill Aubrie learned during her internship was how to design and choose a stream survey site using methods that will be easy for future surveyors to replicate. Aubrie ontextualized her scientific project within the rich history of the battlefield, giving her a greater understanding of the importance of the landscape preservation.

Aubrie’s work provided information about stream morphology. The figure above illustrates the elevation and depth of the stream channel.


Sebastian Espinosa

North Coast and Cascades Monitoring Network, WA

The North Coast and Cascades Monitoring Network encompasses seven parks across the Pacific Northwest, including Mount Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park. The network works to achieve long-term monitoring of characteristics, statuses and trends across the multiple parks to inform management decisions and establish reference data. This helps monitor the health of the natural resources and identify any changes that occur. One change that is occurring throughout the network is the decreasing population of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis). This species plays a critical role in ecosystems, but is proposed to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

As a Biological Resource Assistant, Sebastian analyzed whitebark pine occurrence and distribution in national parks
in Washington State. He used a combination of statistical programing, spatial analysis, and fieldwork to analyze the climate and ecological forces that are threatening whitebark pine throughout the Pacific Northwest. One of these factors is blister rust, which is the swelling and resulting cankers in trees that prevents water and nutrient movement. He also examined annual precipitation and its relationship with whitebark pine occurrence.

Sebastian studied the relationship between vapor pressure, temperature, and aspect on the incidence of whitebark pine blister rust. His results suggest that as temperature and vapor pressure increase, the incidence of blister rust also rises. An increase in aspect may also positively impact the presence of blister rust.


Sasha Escamilla

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

The large elevation gain of 6,000 feet in the Grand Canyon supports a wide diversity of plants – around 1,700 known plant species have been identified in the park. However, only one endangered plant, the sentry milk-vetch (Astragalus cremnophylax or SMV) is found in Grand Canyon NP. This perennial herb grows within 25 feet of the rim and is only present in the cracks and crevices of the top layer. It is threatened by habitat loss, drought, competition, climate change, low reproduction rates and primarily from the activity of larger animals such as the increased population of bison in the park.

As a Botanical Resource Assistant, Sasha monitored this endangered species and collected data to further understand and prevent its decline. She recorded data on microhabitats, plant size, phenology, and the proximity of previous years’ plant locations. If new plants or seedlings were found, they were tagged for identification in future surveys and to follow their progress. Additionally, Sasha used habitat maps and GPS collar data from bison to determine if bison are impacting the SMV as well as other native plants. The seeds she gathered from wild populations of SMV and other native plants will be used for future restoration projects. Through her data collection, she found three new SMV populations and over 350 new SMV plants. However, more specifically, she found that where bison are present, fewer SMV plants were found. As bison populations increased, the SMV population decreased from 49 to 11 in the south location of the park.

While SMV is still not abundant, even with newly introduced populations, there are hopeful next steps for its recovery. This includes installing more fencing around populations, planting more SMV at reintroduction sites, and re-surveying and conducting more research. Sasha is appreciative of this opportunity to explore different fields of study and learning more about what occurs in the various parks.

This map shows sites where the New Sentry Milkvetch is present. Sasha gathered the data in the field and used mapping tools to prepare the results.