Gertschen Interview: Talking about conservation and education with Lance Craighead

Gertschen Interview: Talking about conservation and education with Lance Craighead

lancebookInterview by Chris Gertschen

Lance Craighead is the Executive Director of the Craighead Institute, an applied science and research organization that builds conservation solutions for people and wildlife in changing landscapes. Its mission is to maintain healthy populations of native plants, wildlife, and people as part of sustainable, functioning ecosystems.

Since its founding by renowned grizzly bear researcher Dr. Frank C. Craighead in 1964, the Craighead Institute has pioneered the fields of conservation and wildlife research. Over the past four decades the Institute has conducted ecological research on grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park, genetic research on grizzly bears in Alaska, conventional and satellite radio-telemetry of wildlife, and the use of remote sensing to map vegetation and wildlife habitat. (more…)

Chris Gertschen talks with conservationists

Chris Gertschen talks with conservationists

Gertschenpicby Chris Gertschen

For the past three decades, I have been an activist, a volunteer, a student and a teacher of conservation.  My activist years gave me an advocacy perspective but I quickly saw a great need to expand my own natural science education – to give some foundation and balance to my life and love of the earth.  My studies of biology as an undergrad were focused singularly on human biology and physiology.  The word “ecology” was not then part of the curriculum.  As a graduate student, I was introduced to a whole new world.  In the natural history interdisciplinary program that I designed for myself at Boise State University, I studied geology, zoology, ecology and public affairs.  And, I began to learn about conservation biology. (more…)

The Case for the Earth

The Case for the Earth

earth-spaceWe need new strategies to preserve the habitability of the planet.

by David Orr

TRADING STORIES one day about smart animals, I heard from an old farmer who described a wily fox that appeared at the edge of a clearing in which his dog was tethered to a pole in the yard. Inferring from the pattern of tracks, the empty dog dish, and the fact that the dog was bound up to the pole, he deduced that the fox had run in circles just outside the radius of the dog’s tether until he had tied the dog up, at which point he strutted in to devour the dog’s food while the helpless mutt looked on.

Something like that has happened to all of us who believe nature and ecosystems to be worth preserving and that this is a matter of obligation, spirit, true economy, and common sense. Someone or something has run us in circles, tied us up, and is eating our lunch. It is time to ask who, why, and how we might respond. (more…)

The Forests of Lewis & Clark:  Lessons from Dynamic Nature

The Forests of Lewis & Clark: Lessons from Dynamic Nature

L&C View Oceanalt

by Jeremy Solin

Standing next to a monstrous 300-year old Sitka spruce near Clark’s Point of View on the Oregon coast, I try to imagine what the forests in this area were like when Captain Clark and crew passed through here in 1806.  Many of us have romantic notions of the halcyon days of the “sea of old growth forests” that existed before European settlement in the Pacific Northwest.  I image hemlocks so tall and straight that I can’t see the tops. Sitka spruce so large you could drive a car through them if you could possibly navigate the maze of large downed logs, rotting and returning their nutrients to the soil and providing seedbeds for other spruce and hemlock.

This picture is, in many places, as errant as Clark’s exultation, “Ocian in View! O! the Joy” at seeing the Columbia’s estuary — not the Pacific.  A little math will demonstrate why.  If this tree, among the largest in the area, is 300 years old, that means that it was only 100 years old during the time of Clark’s hike over Tillamook Head.  A 100-year old spruce can be a large tree, but it is far from indicative of old growth.  Sure, there were extensive areas of old growth forests that Lewis & Clark saw and passed through, but the “sea of old growth” is as much a romantic fairy tale as “Goldie Locks and the Three Bears.”

Ecola State Park Forest History
These forests and other forests throughout the Pacific Northwest, North America and the world, have always changed, have always been dynamic.  The coastal forest of Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach, Oregon provides a good example of the forces that shape forests and the extent of old-growth forests at the time of Lewis & Clark.

Forests of one type or another have existed here for millennia.  In a recent study at Ecola State Park, Dr. James Agee found evidence of forests that grew here 45,000 years ago (and possibly between 73,000 and 123,000 years ago) in which the trees were destroyed by inundation or massive debris flows.  Between 17,000 and 10,500 years ago forests of varying species existed as the climate warmed and the glaciers retreated.  The Sitka spruce and western hemlock forests have existed in the part of the Oregon coast (and much of the Oregon and Washington coast) since the end of the last ice age, about 10,500 years ago.

Since then, the composition of the forest has remained relatively constant, but numerous events have changed the species and age of trees present at a local and regional level.  Periods of warm, dry weather between 10,500 and 7,000 years ago encouraged low severity fires that kept the forest more open and favored trees that prefer full sunlight.  From 7,000 to 4,000 years ago, a cooler, moister climate (similar to today’s) decreased fire frequency.  However, when fires burned, they were very intense and consumed large areas of forest.

The most recent major disturbance in this area occurred approximately 100 years before Capt. Clark stood on the current day Tillamook Head.  Through a variety of evidence (including Japanese oral history), it is believed that a very large earthquake struck the Oregon and Washington coast in 1700.  The quake likely leveled large areas of forest, possibly including those at Ecola, setting the stage for a massive wildfire the following summer.  This story is contained in beach deposits at Indian beach and charcoaled remains in the forest.  Results of ongoing disturbance are still visible in the park.  From the upturned roots and snapped off trunks of windblown trees to the stumps of a trees cleared from trails, we know that “change is the constant companion of the forest of Ecola State Park.  They are forests of change now; they were forests of change during the time of Lewis & Clark; and they were forests of change millennia before Lewis & Clark.” (Agee 2000).

Forests Today
When Lewis & Clark visited the Pacific Northwest, approximately 40 — 70% of the total forest area was old-growth.  On going disturbances from wind, lightning ignited fire, extensive human (Native American) burning, volcanoes and earthquakes ensured that there was always some young forest.  Today these same disturbances continue with the addition of more human caused events such as clearing land for residential, urban and agriculture and logging.  These account for the manor differences that Lewis & Clark would notice in our forests.  Some of the areas once “thickly timbered with Pine Spruce Cotton and a kind of maple” have been converted to houses, streets, malls and fields while the amount of old-growth forests now makes up about 10% of the forestland.

Lessons from the forests Lewis & Clark encountered
We now know that forests develop in a particular manner and that disturbance is an important, if unpredictable, part of this process.  Forests are dynamic.  Understanding past forest conditions and the processes that shaped those forests will help us make decisions about the forests of the future.

We can’t go back — nature is too dynamic (Where would we go back to anyway?  The forests of 1900 were different from those of 1806, which were different from those of 1492, …).  However, we are moving ahead and the choices we make today will influence the forests for the next 200 years or longer.  This quote from Wells and Anzinger (p. 194, 2001) summarizes this idea nicely:

An understanding of the dynamic nature suggests that forests are neither completely malleable nor completely beyond our beneficial influence.  Understanding dynamic nature encourages us to take our stewardship seriously, managing actively, but in the fullest possible awareness of the land’s history and likely consequences of our action.

As such, I hope you begin your own “voyage of discovery” whether it is in an old-growth coastal forest, a second-growth Ponderosa pine forest or the urban forest of your school or backyard.  The more we understand about the processes that shaped the forests encountered by Lewis & Clark and influence our forests today the better prepared we will be to make the decisions about tomorrow’s forests.


Agee, J.  2000.  “Historic Forest Disturbance at Ecola State Park, Oregon: Opportunities for Interpreting Forest Ecology and Conditions at the Time of Lewis and Clark.”  Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Portland, OR.

Wells, G. and D. Anzinger.  2001.  Lewis and Clark Meet Oregon’s Forests:  Lessons from Dynamic Nature.  Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Portland, OR.

Burning  Issues: Integrating the Curriculum With a Fire Ecology Unit

Burning Issues: Integrating the Curriculum With a Fire Ecology Unit


Burning Issues: Integrating the Curriculum With a Fire Ecology Unit

Two Idaho classroom teachers share their strategies for integrating fire into the curriculum and meeting state mandated learning goals.


Fire is Elementary

by Kathy Comstock

The new school year is off to a blazing start in the fourth grade here at Andrus Elementary in Meridian, Idaho.

Thanks to my participation this summer in Project Learning Tree’s Burning Issues: Fire Ecology workshop, my students are fully immersed in our Earth Patrol reading unit.  While I have always enjoyed teaching this particular unit in the past, never before has my class been so actively involved with the story.  The FireWorks curriculum presented at the workshop has provided me with wonderful new hands-on, minds-on experiments and investigations that are enriching each and every one of my students as I integrate the content areas of Science, Math, and Reading.

YellowcvrOur opening story, The Great Yellowstone Fire, by Carole G. Vogel and Kathryn A. Goldner, is of particular interest to us, as we share the distinction and privilege of holding a small portion of Yellowstone National Park within our state’s border.  Combine this with the fact that Idaho plays host to a fair share of the West’s summer wildfires, and one can easily see the relevance of fire ecology awareness for my students.

We began our explorations with some pre-reading activities to build background and activate prior knowledge.  The Mystery Tree investigation allowed my students to become acquainted with many of the tree species that inhabit both Yellowstone and forests throughout Idaho that ultimately are affected by wildfires.  Students were involved in science and math skills such as measurement, making observations, recording facts, interpreting data, and drawing conclusions based on the gathered data.

As an introduction to the fire triangle, students participated in a little gumdrop geometry where they discovered the three-legged triangle is the strongest shape.  The knowledge gained from this exploration led us into a discussion of how fire requires three basic elements: fuel, oxygen, and heat to sustain itself.  Like a triangle, if one of the “legs” is removed, the fire will collapse and go out.  In order to prove this fact; we ventured into our first live fire experiment by testing the strength of the fire triangle.  Matches were set up in two different positions, one pointing up and one down.  After observing each one burn out, students were challenged to identify which basic element was missing from the fire triangle, causing the fire to go out.  During the experiment, students timed the length of each burn, measured the length of the flame, and determined which direction the heat went.  In addition, students recorded their findings as any good scientist would.  Proving that oxygen is a necessary element required a candle, plate, and jar.  Watching the candle burn uninhibited for awhile helped students see that with an abundant supply of oxygen, the fire will burn on and on.  After placing a jar over the candle, students observed the flame slowly go out, clearly illustrating that without oxygen; a fire will quickly die. It would be easy enough to feed these facts to my students with the expectation they will be memorized.  However, by engaging my students in experiments that allow them to observe and interact with real materials increases the likelihood they will remember and understand these important concepts.

Now as we begin our reading of the non-fiction piece, The Great Yellowstone Fire, which describes in vivid detail the events leading up to, during, and after the famous fires of 1988, my students are completely drawn into the story.  Our pre-reading activities have helped to make the story come alive and deepen each studentís understanding of how fire behavior affected one of our country’s most beloved national parks.  The reading material is helping us to see that while fire can have devastating effects, it can also be beneficial in ways we may not have known before.   Students are learning that the charred remains are adding minerals back to the soil.  With the canopy now more open, sunlight can get through to the forest floor, nurturing new plant growth.  Animals, large and small, find it easier to forage for food.

Our post reading activities will include the creation of several matchstick forests.  These live fire demonstrations will help students see first hand how the forest’s density, terrain’s slope, and weather conditions can influence fire behavior.  Each of the previous experiences leading up to this grand finale, should enhance my students’ ability to analyze the outcome of each demonstration.

To further tie all these activities and experiences together, our Meridian School District fourth grade curriculum encourages us to explore the global concepts of change, perspective, properties, and interactions throughout the year.   This highly interactive, integrated unit certainly gives us a wonderful opportunity to jump start our explorations and blaze our way into fourth grade.

Kathy Comstock is a 4th Grade Teacher at Cecil D. Andrus Elementary, Meridian Joint School District #2 in Idaho.

Fire in the Junior High Classroom

by Kris Stone

Junior high students are intrigued by fire and easily engage in learning about wildfires.  I taught a fire ecology unit in eighth grade Earth Science.  Students learned to apply concepts they had learned earlier such as weather, climate, maps, and topography to predicting the behavior of wildfires and prescribed burns.  The unit took about two weeks and included modifications of activities from Project Learning Tree (PLT) and “Wildfires:  Feel the Heat” (produced by Discovery Communications).

Students were introduced to wildfires using the Project Learning Tree Activity titled “I’d Like to Visit a Place Where…”    Students described their favorite recreation place and how they would feel if it was burned by wildfire which was followed by a three-minute National Geographic video clip describing what it is like to fight wildfires.

Next, students completed two activities involving the fire triangle.  The first activity “Living with Fire”  (PLT) was modified to include two demonstrations showing how oxygen affects fire.  The first demonstration involved placing a burning splint placed in a test tube filled with carbon dioxide produced by using baking soda and vinegar.  The splint went out due to the lack of oxygen.  The second demonstration involved placing a glowing splint placed into a test tube filled with oxygen produced by using manganese dioxide and hydrogen peroxide.  The splint burst into flames due to the increase in oxygen.  In another demonstration, students were asked to observed how long it took for three different types of matches to burn and determine how fuels affect burning.  Finally, students observed a candle being put out by water to show how heat affects burning.
After the demonstrations, students were divided into five groups and each group was given the same number of matches but different types of materials to burn.  Each group’s task was to burn as much of the material they could with the matches they had.  Some groups had only large fuels to burn while others had damp or wet materials.  Only one group had materials that burned easily.  At the end of the activity, we discussed how oxygen, heat, and/or fuels affected whether or not the materials they were given burned.

Next, students learned about wildfire behavior by building models of forests using stick matches, clay and cake pans (Wildfire:  Feel the Heat).  Students were divided into teams.  The teams built forests that varied in match density, match size, slope, topography, litter, and moisture.  Each group recorded how long it took for their match forest to burn and noted the percent of matches that burned before the fire when out.  Students then tried to determine the affect of density, slope, topography, and moisture by comparing the burn times of each forest.

In the final activity, students used the interactive “Burning Issues” CD produced by the BLM and Florida State University.  They learned to identify the proper environmental conditions for conducting a prescribed burn; measure and control environmental variables such as time of year, moisture and wind speed in test plots; compare a successful and unsuccessful burns; and describe problems and benefits of prescribed burning.

Students enjoyed learning about fire because they find it fascinating plus they were able to participate in a variety of activities.  I liked this unit because it allowed students to apply some of the concepts they learned previously in Earth Science by participating in activities that grabbed and held their attention!

Kris Stone teaches at Riverglen Junior High in Boise, Idaho. In 2002 she was named Idaho Environmental Education Teacher of the Year by the Idaho Environmental Education Association.