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Escalante Forestry and Fire Ecology Study

The students started with the study of the history of fire suppression starting with the Big Burn in 1910 in Idaho and Montana, which was a trigger for a change in fire policy across the country. This is when 100% fire suppression came to be. Tackling that discussion lead students to study more about present day forests through some case studies with Mountain Studies Institute; exploration topics such as bugs, drought and forest fires were explored deeper through the perspective of forest management and through hands-on field work. The students will continue their studies looking more closely at the future of forest management as an upcoming case study.
 
“I’ve been teaching forest ecology since 2003, but have never taught it in this way with case studies, so it is a work in progress,” says Boren.
 
Bugs
Students explored Molas Pass to look for signs of beetle kill in the forest. The goal of the classes field trips is to have a place kids could more easily go back to year after year to collect data. Mountain Studies Institute shared the area they have up near Molas Pass with the class, and using an ArcGIS survey allowed kids to look at the trees and look for signs of beetle infestation, such as pitch tubes, boring dust under the tree, exit holes coming from the bark and defoliation. There was not much in the plot in terms of bug damage, but the students downloaded the survey on their phones, which was used to access and input the data while in the field.
 
Soil
The students, with the help of MSI, went to Falls Creek to observe and look for signs of hydrophobic soils at edge of the 416. Hydrophobic soils are soils that are sealed up by the heat intensity of forest fires, which burns all the organic matter. Student compared soil types within and outside the burn area, and another ArcGIS survey was used to collect data. Hydrophobicity causes the water to run off in rainstorms and carries the soils away, leading to our current mudslide concerns. The students did find minimal signs of hydrophobic soils in the area, but since it was at the edge of the burn, the data they collected wasn’t as good at it would have been in the middle of the 416.
 
Water Quality
Lu Boren worked with another EMS science and language arts teacher, Tanya Kanning, to create some cross-curricular opportunities between the classes, and she prepared the ArcGIS survey for a water quality field study. Students took to the field to collect water in Hermosa Creek and the Animas River, respectfully, and specifically the water coming from the 416 burn area. With MSI staff, the samples were taken at the edge of Hermosa Creek where students observed and documented the pH levels of the water. All the ash running into the water makes the pH rise, and the students discovered this as they sampled water in Hermosa Creek, in the Animas River where Hermosa Creek meets, and in the Animas near Rotary Park. They also looked at macroinvertebrates in addition to the pH levels. Students did report that the pH level was much higher at Hermosa Creek before meeting the Animas River, but dropped significantly with the sampling from Rotary Park. Students will continue to observe macroinvertebrates ongoing into the spring to help wrap up this particular field study project.
 
Forest Management
On November 28, 2018, the students were able to participate in an exercise that was focused on current fire management, and various careers that exist within this realm of science. Thanks to Dennis Fogel, Superintendent of the USFS helitack crew, Durango Helitack came to the school for an in-person demonstration with the fire suppression helicopter, like those used to fight the 416 Fire. His crew completed a number of fire demonstrations, highlighting different retardant options and how backfires are started from the air. In the three days of classroom demonstrations, students were able to learn how much forest fire management has changed since the 100% suppression days, and new tactics used by firefighters to not only fight forest fires, but sometimes to fight fire with fire.
 
“It is really exciting when you have motivated and inspired staff, who can take that enthusiasm to their students and create amazing learning opportunities,” says Escalante Middle School Principal Jeremy Voss.
It is amazing to see this teacher create real-world learning opportunities, supporting and highlighting the many opportunities available in Career and Technical Education. Students were able to explore career options in the field of work through real-world, project-based applications.
 
The class together is coming up with ideas to look into the future of forestry, with a forest management focus. We can’t wait to see what their studies reveal next! Way to go, Escalante!
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