A classroom without walls

6 FLC students kick off new public-lands internship program

For many of us, a college internship helped forge the direction we would follow in our professional careers. Six Fort Lewis College students received such inspiration this summer through the inaugural Four Corners Federal Lands Internship Program.

Their outdoor classrooms ranged from archaeological sites to alpine meadows and high mountains. Although similar internships have been available since 2008, a recent agreement between federal land agencies and local nonprofits now offers new opportunities.

“We selected the interns and coordinated their orientation, wilderness first-aid training and mid-term and final presentations,” said Emily Olson, education coordinator for Mountain Studies Institute.

Internships were administered by the Southwest Conservation Corps through AmeriCorps, a national service program which allows participants to be considered for federal positions in the future.

“Offering students a real-world experience has many benefits,” said Kevin Heiner, SCC regional director. “Valuable work gets done, while opportunity is created for those who need it most.”

Four interns were hosted by the U.S. Forest Service and two by the National Park Service. The agencies assigned employee mentors to oversee the professional development of each intern. Internships and training lasted 10 weeks and included a stipend.

“The goal is to better prepare the next generation of agency personnel,” said Ron Duvall, administrative officer for the San Juan National Forest, who was integral in setting up the program along with Cliff Spencer, superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park.

“The inaugural program was a smashing success,” Spencer said. “The students were enthusiastic and resourceful, and willing to venture outside their comfort zones in carrying out assignments.”

At Aztec Ruins

David Strawn, a recent graduate in anthropology, interned at Aztec Ruins National Monument. In addition to gathering interpretive data on its Heritage Garden and offering public tours of the Native Plant Trail, Strawn created a map and plant list, and he completed a riparian bird survey.

“David was able to accomplish things that have been on the back burner for a while,” said his mentor, Dana Hawkins with the Aztec Ruins Natural Resource Division. “Visitors, volunteers and staff all complimented him for his willingness to care for the resources, connect with the public and get things done.”

Also interning at Aztec Ruins was Emily Ciszek, a senior majoring in environmental studies with a minor in art, who provided orientation and interpretation to visitors.

“Emily went out of her way to spend time with children and swore hundreds of new junior rangers into a lifetime of national park stewardship,” said Lauren Blacik, chief of visitor services for the national monument. “She also created a comic book about formation of the monument to reach a youth audience.”

In the high country

Forest Service interns headed to the high country to learn data collection and other backcountry skills. The intent was to introduce them to a broad diversity of programs in remote locations. Many also received horsemanship training.

Chris Ridener, a sophomore in environmental studies, focused on recreation management with the San Juan National Forest Columbine District. He spent long days patrolling dispersed campsites, sprucing up campgrounds and talking with campers about bear and fire safety.

“I was excited to learn how federal agencies manage public lands,” Ridener said. “It was great to see how passionate Forest Service employees are about the land.”

Ridener also accompanied wilderness crews on multi-day trips into the rugged Weminuche Wilderness. On one trip, he covered 27 miles with elevation gains and losses of thousands of feet, while carrying a full pack and tools.

“Chris more than met our expectations of what we thought could be accomplished during his internship,” said his mentor, Jed Botsford, Columbine recreation staff member. “He was always ready for a challenge and succeeded at everything we asked of him.”

Sara Newman, who graduates this year with a degree in environmental studies, also worked on Columbine. She said the internship helped her find direction.

“You can learn only so much in the classroom,” she said. “This brought everything together and provided me with more motivation.”

Newman’s focus was learning how to manage for healthy grazing allotments.

“We exposed Sara to some diverse range programs,” said her mentor, Beth Jones, Columbine District botanist. “We gave her a little taste of riparian values, rangeland rest and rotation schedules, range permit administration and monitoring, and invasive species management.”

Newman also helped biologists electroshock fish and gather data on genetics and recruitment of native Colorado cutthroat trout. She is interested in seeking a seasonal federal job while studying ecological restoration in graduate school.

‘A wonderful experience’

Ryan Barton of the Navajo Nation, a recent graduate in environmental studies, interned at the Dolores Public Lands Office in visitor services. His long-range goal is to work with Native American tribes in natural-resource management.

“Ryan was a huge help during our busy summer season,” said his mentor, Tom Rice, recreation staff member for the Dolores Ranger District. “He quickly got up to speed on the missions of public land agencies and provided valuable information to visitors with a positive, fresh approach.”

To make sure Barton wasn’t always stuck in the office, the district also had him work on trails restoration and field data collection.

“The internship was a wonderful experience,” Barton said. “I learned how to secure wood planks to a mule using a basket hitch, participated in restoration work at a high-elevation fen and contributed my skills in collecting baseline forest-health data.”

The San Juan National Forest Pagosa District hosted intern Candice Jenkins, a senior in environmental studies. She traveled through forests and across mountains helping conduct field surveys for bighorn sheep, southwestern willow flycatchers and northern goshawks.

“I had fun working with many supportive people who provided me with thorough explanations and valuable advice,” she said. “This program gave me confidence that I will be able to find a career in natural resources with my upcoming college degree.”

Jenkins also helped conduct vegetation surveys and accompanied an interdisciplinary team on a field trip during project analysis for the proposed reroute of a hiking trail.

“Having Candice around was beneficial for our team, because she asked questions that sparked conversation within the group,” said her mentor, Brandy Richardson, a district wildlife biologist.

Hopes are that interns from San Juan College will participate next year and that the Four Corners Federal Lands internships will also be available with the Bureau of Land Management.

Ann Bond is the public affairs specialist for the San Juan National Forest.