Local high school students monitor stream health for Forest Service
Ryan Summerlin August 5, 2014
Thanks to ongoing support from the National Forest Foundation and Vail Resorts’ Ski Conservation Fund, 12 local high school students are participating in the third summer of the Walking Mountains Natural Resource Internship. The interns are working under the supervision of Matt Grove, fisheries biologist on the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest, to monitor stream and wetland health throughout the valley. The interns have searched for endangered boreal toads to identify sites where they are still breeding in the area, but most of the students’ work focuses on monitoring stream health.
The interns have learned two tried and true techniques for collecting information that helps the Forest Service gauge the health of waterways. The first is by collecting and measuring stream substrates. This involves plunging their hands into icy water to pull out rocks, pebbles and gravel to be measured. The size of the stones in a stream dictates what aquatic insects can live there because those stones provide a place for the insects to hide and a surface to cling to in the rushing stream.
The second way the interns are gathering valuable stream data is by collecting the macroinvertebrates themselves. What species of insects are living in a stream is a great indicator of how healthy that stream is. Some insects are tolerant of pollution while others are not. If only pollution-tolerant species are found, then we can tell a stream may not be very clean. On the other hand, if insects that require clean, clear water to survive are found in abundance, then we will have strong evidence that the stream is doing well. Samples of insects are netted and collected by the interns in each stream they visit and then are preserved in ethanol so they can be sent to a lab for DNA identification.
The 12 Walking Mountains interns have mastered these data-collection techniques with training and supervision from U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologists and seasonal fisheries technicians. In addition to providing valuable information to the U.S. Forest Service, the interns are gaining experience in field ecology and exposure to careers in science and natural resource management. The high school students also earn four environmental science credits from Colorado Mountain College, giving them a chance to connect their observations in nature to broader concepts in ecology and biology.
The internship demands a lot of time and energy from its participants. In addition to working 40 hours a week, the interns have reading assignments, essays, homework and tests. In spite of the commitment, the students who participate appreciate the value of their work to themselves and to the community. Kyle Jordan, who will begin his sophomore year at Eagle Valley High School in the fall, says, “This internship has helped me gain important skills in field research to prepare me for future jobs. I’m excited for a new adventure each and every day. It has truly made my summer memorable.”
True to the model of programming offered by Walking Mountains Science Center, these high school students are learning about environmental science both through traditional book learning and through hands-on experience. Concepts taught in the classroom are reinforced by observing them in the field. Students often observe a pattern in the field before it comes up in class, allowing them to effectively discover the concept for themselves. Isaac Yoder, a rising junior at Eagle Valley High School, recognizes the value of this type of learning saying, “Through this internship, I gain experience relevant to real life jobs and collect information that affects the community instead of just seeing it in a classroom.”
Pete Wadden is a field science educator at Walking Mountains Science Center.