by Carrie Walter, '06
When I applied for SCA internships last year, my biggest concern was that nobody would think me fit for the job: my BSc was in economics and environmental policy, after which I’d gone straight to law school. This might just have qualified me for an environmental education position, but that wasn’t what I was after.
Having spent more nights in law libraries than can be good for anyone, I wanted to do something physical, outdoors, and I wanted to be working with scientists studying the natural world, not teachers trying to convey ideas about the natural world.
Environmental economists, social scientists, and certainly lawyers inhabit roles in the regulatory process that require them to take most environmental data as given – numbers to crunch or expert evidence to evaluate – without ever understanding in detail how that data is collected, and therefore what the results really represent (or don’t). Interested in environmental policy but so far unable to study its concerns with the tools of a natural scientist, I thought an SCA internship would be a great opportunity to gain some hands-on experience. It would also entail watching some serious people at work in a different field, which is always fun.
My complete lack of plant taxonomy skills, for example, or knowledge of herpetology and population demography, or the maintenance of trucks and other field experience proved no bar in the end. After some delay, I secured an internship with the US Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division in Nevada. The research focus of the scientists I was working for was the desert tortoise (gopherus agassizii), presently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act and indigenous to areas in the Southwestern United States.
My first assignment, along with a group of junior scientists and other SCA interns, was to walk dense transects on randomly assigned plots in an area of the Mojave desert several hours’ drive north of Las Vegas, where some of the vegetation had recently been burned. The concepts seemed pretty straight-forward (to record signs of tortoises, eventually in order to compare burned and unburned areas as tortoise habitat), the task clear, and I was looking forward to walking out in the desert. I’d checked off most of the items on a long list of useful equipment that had been sent me in advance.
I was used to being confident about my physical abilities, which had compared quite favorably back in the tamer climes. However, nothing can prepare the first-time visitor for 106 degrees and that extreme desert aridity. It seems to evaporate your very eyes just as you’re pouring water into your mouth.
My heavy alpine hiking boots soon became hard to lift while trudging up and down steep, gravely slopes in serpentines under the glaring sun. My eyes burned from looking for signs that I couldn’t yet read. Instead of mixing electrolyte powder with my water and sipping the stuff from a camelback, I’d been talked into getting cubes of gelatinous goo that I couldn’t swallow without a good swig from the water bottle in the back of my pack, which I had to stop to retrieve. After a whole day of this (with only a 15 minute lunch break), I was pretty exhausted. People grabbed their cots in near silence and set them up in the dark desert, so I followed their example.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. For one thing, I drank about a gallon of water, thirst returning every time almost as soon as I’d finished my bottle. Then I’d agonize about whether I could dare walk to the truck to fill it up (we’d seen a rattle snake and a tarantula that day – how common were they? What about scorpions? Was the desert floor crawling with them right beneath my cot? Would they avoid approaching footsteps?), until thirst drove me.
But it was also strangely exhilarating to lie there, under the open sky in that vast expanse of rock and low shrubs, facing space with not even a tree or a mountain at my back. A full moon rose and sank, a storm rumbled and flickered on the horizon, and finally the stars shone with their legendary desert clarity.
We got ready before dawn and started walking transects at first light. I drank about ten liters that day, but by the late afternoon I was starting to feel dizzy, and halfway through the last transect my head was pounding and I was unable to keep down water. Great I thought. Just great. The academic tourist has worn thin after two days, this looks good….
I spent the rest of the week at the office, cleaning equipment and cutting drift fences for lizard traps. The next week, I joined the others again, and managed to keep up without a problem. No day in the following four months was nearly so hard. In fact, I really enjoyed most of it, especially being in the field.
It is difficult for me to summarize what I learned during those months. Quite a bit about collecting ecological data. Also, some insights into the wranglings of individual scientists and institutions for grants, influence, exclusivity and the Truth. In my supervisors, I met some very dedicated, professional individuals, whose reverence for the scientific method seems only to be surpassed by a true passion for their subject matter. I also met some less scrupulous persons, and saw at close-hand how legislation “to monitor” can result primarily in niches for consultancy, which are quickly saturated by careers (this is taken for granted in most sectors, in Conservation for some reason it was a bit of a surprise).
But most of all, I have come away with a sense of having glimpsed another world. I went to the desert without the concepts or vocabulary to distinguish between most of the things I saw there. I left with a new awareness not only of the specific landscape, plants and animals of the Mohave and Sonoran deserts, but also with some sense of the basic problems, trade-offs and solutions that define an ecosystem. And, importantly, with an idea of how very hard it is to clearly and quantitatively establish relationships between its components. This realization is key to seeing the limits to “environmental management” – that there are countless unknowns, and unimagined unknowns.
It is not possible to tinker with such a system in the mechanical way that economists and resource planners would like to prescribe. Nor does non-native American culture have the millennia of experience and co-evolutionary history it takes to know what human activity is really sustainable in a given place. And this is where the uniquely American idea of wilderness conservation comes in, of “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Often, awe is the only tool we have to grasp the intricate beauties of nature.
Based on my experience (and I hope also that of my co-workers), I think that both applicants and institutions can benefit from working together even when the intern is not obviously a candidate for the job. The intern will experience something quite out of the ordinary and gain valuable perspectives. The institution can expect a motivated worker who isn’t primarily in it for CV or academic credit purposes, and whose outsider’s viewpoint might sometimes be valuable.
If conservation is to be a serious objective in our society, then the nuts and bolts of its rationale must permeate a wider spectrum of professions, so that some understanding of the crucial minutiae can inform those who make policy decisions.
Use these buttons to share this with your friends and help SCA put more students in the field.