Fuels Reduction!

Western Forest Crew

When Monte Kawahara, an FES alum and forester for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) visited New Haven last fall to speak to the Fire Science and Policy class, his perspective on mitigating fire risk and battling wildfire on BLM lands in California sparked the interest of Leana Weissberg, a 2nd year Master of Environmental Science candidate. When Leana spoke with Monte after class, seeking advice on paving a career path in western forest ecology, Monte pitched an idea that would provide hands-on experience in western forest management issues: a month-long student-led trip to work on BLM lands in California.

FES students jumped at the chance to gain insight into western forest ecology issues and field experience within a federal land management agency. Four students, Emily Dolhansky (MFS ’18) Leonora Pepper (MF ’17), Benjamin Rifkin (MFS ’18), and Leana Weissberg (MESc ’17) worked with Monte throughout the fall to plan their trip and received generous funding for travel and expenses from an anonymous donor through the F&ES Office of Development and Alumni Services. The group headed off for California just as fall semester exams ended and quickly found themselves immersed in the complex issues and management challenges facing western public lands.

Winter in the Sierras Photo Credit Leana Weissberg

Winter in the Sierras
Photo Credit Leana Weissberg

This winter has seen dramatic rain and snowfall in the western United States which has, compounding upon years of steady and
burgeoning bark beetle populations, caused severe erosion and dangerous conditions in the forests around BLM’s Mother Lode Field Office in Northern California, where the group was based. Despite days of conditions keeping them out of the field, the group received plenty of training (including fire and chainsaw use). Once out in the field, the group worked on fuels reduction to prevent the spread of wildfire and had a chance to see first-hand the impacts of drought and climate change on the forests, as well as the push and pull of neighboring land management agency priorities and funding shortages. The group, in particular, found a lot of value in connecting with a private landowner on land neighboring BLM property. “He had lived there for some time,” said Leonora. “He sees the land every single day and getting his point of view, on changes in the land and subsequent management, was incredibly valuable.”

The Inaugural Western Forest Crew

The Inaugural Western Forest Crew

During their month out West, the Western Forest Crew (as Monte has dubbed them) had a chance to integrate their classroom into real management situations, experience the challenges of climate change confronting land management agencies like the BLM, and encountered a fair number of natural networking opportunities that will prove useful in job searches.

“The experience was a very unique one,” says Leana. “We got to focus entirely on just one issue—a month focused on learning about this one landscape. That really left an impression on me.”

What’s next? The 2017-2018 Western Forest Crew. The program’s inaugural cohort is already at work planning for next year, hoping to bring more students into this invaluable experience. And Leonora and Leana, who are graduating this spring, are already applying their connections and knowledge gained to their job searches.