Out West Blog

Notes, photos and updates from the Center's student researchers and summer interns working at organizations across the region.


Living History



Image: Tyler McIntosh and Sean Baumgarten get excited during an archival research trip to the U.C. Berkeley Earth Sciences Library.

By Tyler McIntosh
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the San Francisco Estuary Institute

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

The day comes to a close with the furious ‘click-click’ of the camera and desperate yet muted riffling of yellowed archive pages. It’s 5 o’clock at the California Historical Society and our team of archival researchers from the San Francisco Estuary Institute is being booted out the door.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) is composed of three different programs: Clean Water, Environmental Informatics, and Resilient Landscapes. I am the intern for the Resilient Landscapes program, which works to create ecologically diverse landscapes that are resilient to climate change and human disturbance. Historical Ecology is perhaps the largest component of the program—the process of studying landscapes as they used to exist, intersect, and interact. The study of historical ecology, at least in the case of SFEI, involves the use of hundreds of first- and second-hand documents, compiled and cross-referenced in order to compose a vision of the historical landscape. Vision components include habitat, land use change, hydrology, geomorphology, and native species.

It is for one such study that I find myself suddenly standing outside the California Historical Society’s doors, blinking against the sunlight and San Francisco’s bubbling flow.

The society is but one of many treasure-troves of information that SFEI digs through for information on the numerous projects that the organization constantly juggles. An NGO known throughout the Bay Area for quality science at a landscape scale, SFEI works to define environmental problems, provide sound scientific research and analysis, and connect information with those in planning, management, and policy-making positions.

Just like SFEI itself, over the past few weeks I’ve juggled work on a number of different projects. From GIS data entry and copy editing reports to researching the Pacific pocket mouse (an endangered species historically found in the lower Tijuana Valley in San Diego County) and continued historical ecology database searches and archive visits, I’ve gotten a chance to experience many of SFEI’s modes of communication and research. It’s been fascinating to see the massive scale of research outside of a strictly academic context.

I’ve also greatly appreciated the opportunities I’ve been given to learn about NGO functioning, project coordination, and the work that different organizations are doing in the Bay Area; between brown-bag lunches from partner organizations, sitting in on meetings, and being involved in and around the office, it’s nearly impossible NOT to learn something new.

Although my heart, lungs, and legs yearn for the open air of the mountains where I grew up, I’ve taken it upon myself to explore the Bay Area as best I can with what free time I’ve been able to squeeze from my busy days. My few short weeks of living in Berkeley have already shown me parts of California that I hadn’t seen before: the mirror of the bay cradled between golden-grassed hillsides, Mt. Diablo’s skin-frying sunbeams and sweeping vistas, San Francisco’s delights, Berkeley’s many hidden nooks and crannies, and so much more.

I look forward to continuing my summer with SFEI, learning more about the company’s internal workings and analysis process, and getting a chance to work on a variety of projects; in particular, historical ecology research on the Walnut Creek watershed and Mission Bay in Southern California.

Discharge and Diversions in a Dry Spring



Image: This is a graph I created demonstrating water flow and agricultural usage for the Fall River in the Henry’s Fork Watershed. The top panel shows daily flow for water year 2015 in comparison to statistical summaries for all water years in the 1978-2015 period. Bottom panel shows daily diversions.

By Christina Morrisett
B.S. Earth Systems, 2015
Environmental Modeling Intern, The Henry’s Fork Foundation

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

As the Environmental Modeling Intern for the Henry’s Fork Foundation, my time is split between field work and programming in R (a statistical computing language and software environment… think Excel but more powerful and with a lot more user-driven direction). The first half of my summer has primarily consisted of using R to create graphs comparing the current water year to those of the past. When I was first given this task, my R skills were limited and the pressure was on. Before I had even arrived at the office my first day, the Foundation had received several phone calls concerning high discharge from a reservoir in the upper watershed and low streamflow in the lower watershed. Angler success and satisfaction is dependent on streamflow and, needless to say, many were displeased. In order to inform communication efforts with the public, I was asked to generate graphs using historical data to contextualize the current year’s stream flow.

Over the next few weeks, I created graphs that demonstrated how water storage, agricultural diversions, and runoff from snowmelt contribute to the greater story of what’s happening in the Henry’s Fork Watershed. Overall, we learned that runoff this spring was the third driest since the Dust Bowl era, putting the current water year (October 1, 2014-September 30, 2015) on track to be one of the driest on record. Runoff this year also occurred three weeks earlier than usual, creating a three-week shift in water usage. With earlier runoff, farmers planted earlier and thus diverted water ahead of schedule. Usage was typical, but the timing of that usage was not (refer to image). The Foundation communicated this information over the phone, online via blog, and in the quarterly newsletter. It was incredibly rewarding to be an integral part of a project so immediately relevant. If you’d like to learn more, please read the comprehensive report (with graphs by yours truly!).

Overall, I have gained an appreciation for the Henry’s Fork Foundation’s communication efforts. Working in a dynamic system reliant on natural processes can create conflict between water users and it is important to know how and what to communicate. I have not only improved my R skills these past few weeks, but have also learned how to use graphics to communicate effectively and tell a story. Additionally, I have learned more about water rights and the history of the watershed throughout the process – increasing my environmental literacy in a time when drought is more than just a buzzword in the West.

Moving forward, I have extended my commitment with the Foundation until the end of the year. This corner of the world has really stolen my heart and I am excited to continue contributing to the Foundation’s efforts to improve wild trout habitat while also maintaining angler satisfaction. I am grateful for the opportunity to hike more mountains, eat more huckleberries, and, of course, catch more fish on the fly. To continue reading posts about my experience at the Henry's Fork Foundation.

Searching for Alcatraz's Forgotten Towers



Image: Left, the Road Tower (demolished 1972) located on the western side of Alcatraz island. It was manned 24/7 over the 30 years the prison was in operation. Right, a 2011 photograph of the Dock Tower.

By Maya Lorey
Historic Preservation Intern, Alcatraz, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

I am interning for the National Park Service at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) which is one of the 18 recreation areas in the country. Specifically, I work in the Cultural Resources division, which is in charge of preserving and conserving the historically significant features of the GGNRA. This is no small task when you consider that the GGNRA manages over 700 historic buildings, five of which are historic landmarks, in addition to many military fortifications and installments. Cultural Resources is also dedicated to making sure that the rich and diverse history of the GGNRA is readily available to park visitors. Alcatraz Island, now an incredibly popular tourist attraction, was the first unit added to the GGNRA when it was formed in 1972. My specific job this summer is writing a Special Resource Study on the Guard Towers of Alcatraz island. Before explaining what that is, it is probably necessary to provide a brief history of what the towers were.

In 1933, the Justice Department decided to convert the military prison on Alcatraz Island to a federal penitentiary that would hold the nation’s most dangerous, “irredeemable,” and influential criminals, from storied men like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Dock Barker, and Alvin Karpis, to “problematic” prisoners from other maximum security prisons. Before Alcatraz could open as a maximum security penitentiary, however, many changes, improvements, and additions had to be made to the existing infrastructure. This is where the guard towers I have been studying come into the story. The first four guard towers were installed in 1934, and two more were added in 1936 and 1937. Heavily armed officers stationed in the towers were made responsible for preventing escapes from the island, as well as for deterring non-government boats from crossing the 200-yard deadline surrounding it. The individual guard towers functioned as unique posts endowed with specific duties stemming from their geographic location on the island. Taken together, the towers comprised a holistic system of surveillance, and were essential for maintaining the prison’s security throughout its 30 years of operation. Unfortunately, when the prison closed in 1963, the steel towers were left entirely unattended in the harsh environmental conditions on the island. By the time the GGNRA was formed in 1972, and tours to the public opened in 1973, only two of the original six towers remained. The extensive and utterly unique catwalk system that had connected 3 of the towers had also collapsed and been removed. Today, the striking 60 foot Dock Tower still “greets” every visitor that steps off the ferry onto the Island. It is probably one of the most photographed attributes on Alcatraz. However, very little material on the architectural and operational history of the Dock Tower, and the other historic towers, exists.

I have spent my summer pouring over collections in the Park Archives in the Presidio and the National Archives in San Bruno, collecting historical photographs, studying existing secondary source material on Alcatraz, and basically hunting down anything and everything I can find that pertains to the “story” of the towers. One of my most memorable days was spent interviewing former Correctional Officer George DeVincenzi, who worked on the Island from 1950 to 1956. His account provided invaluable information on the operational history of the towers, corroborating, enriching, and adding to information I had already discovered or things I had assumed but did not exactly know. My report provides some architectural history (there are no extant shop drawings for 5/6 of the towers so most of the analysis is based on historical photographs) but mostly focuses on the untold “human” story of the towers. This includes the duties of tower officers, the way they were armed, what it was like to work in the towers, as well as information about escape attempts that involved various towers. The NPS is planning on reconstructing two of the towers, the Road and Hill Tower, as soon as possible. My report will provide historical information for the reconstruction and include treatment recommendations for the tower system on the whole, as well as for the individual towers and their extant or missing features. It will also be used by rangers on the island and converted into educational materials for the public.

A Picture-Perfect Summer: Inspired by Ansel Adams



Image: While on our way to a field tour of Wawona, my supervisor and I stopped by Glacier Point for this breathtaking view of Half Dome, Vernal Falls, and other beautiful sites of Yosemite.

By Savannah Pham
Prospective B.A. Psychology, Class of 2018

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

Coming into this summer, I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. I knew I was going to work in Yosemite, a beautiful place I had once visited as a child; I knew I was going to do archival work of some sort, work I looked forward to. What I didn’t expect was how much I would truly enjoy the experience. I tend to be pretty introverted and have never been the most outdoorsy person. I didn’t expect to meet so many genuinely nice and friendly people. I didn’t expect to befriend some amazing girls who would take me on my first camping trip. I didn’t expect those girls to push me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to attend Sal’s Night (the infamous taco truck hangout for Yosemite employees) and go on hikes that I would normally be afraid of. I also didn’t expect to enjoy my work so much. It might not sound too exhilarating to the average person, but I truly enjoyed looking through and organizing the copious amounts of documents I was presented with. I was able to learn so much about the legalities, controversies, and expectations that go along with everyday park functions.

I’m grateful to have worked and lived in Yosemite so close to the Centennial Anniversary of the National Park Service. One of the big focuses is the “Find Your Park” (http://findyourpark.com/) campaign that hopes to attract not only more visitors, but youth who have the potential to be future park rangers and employees. Most of the time when people visit Yosemite or other national parks, I know I used to be this way, they don’t think about the functions that go into maintaining the park or the people who maintain the park. They see a park ranger at the entrance station and that’s about it. The beauty of the park is taken for granted. The fact that people, like infamous photographer Ansel Adams, were passionate enough about the wonders of nature to lobby for legislation that would protect it and keep it out of the hands of private corporations so it could be accessible to all, is incredible.

When I was processing the Merced Canyon Committee Collection (a collection from a grassroots organization that fought to protect the Merced River) in the Archives, I found some correspondence from Ansel Adams. One specific letter was from 1983 and it was sent to a California congressman; it urged him to continue working hard to preserve the Merced River and have it classified as a “Wild and Scenic” River. I later found a document in the collection noting that this letter may have been the last letter he wrote on behalf of any nature preservation campaign before he passed away. I was awestruck at how hard Adams worked to keep nature pure; he truly cared and worked until he died because he was so passionate. I may not be as zealous about preserving nature, but I am inspired to work for a worthy cause that I am passionate about until the end of my days.

Rediscovering Archaeology – and the Scenery Ain’t Too Bad, Either



Image: Left to right, Peter Salazar, Staffan Peterson, Laura Cannon, and John Reynolds

By Peter Salazar
B.A., History, 2015
Summer Intern at the Archeology Department, Yellowstone National Park

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

“C’mon, pal. You’re not the only one who uses the road in the mornings. Some of us have a job to get to, you know. I’m already ten minutes late, and this isn’t helping.”

It’s 6:50 am on a crisp, cool Monday morning. To the right of my stalled Ford Focus, the sun begins to peek over the flat profile of Mt. Everts, and to my left, the otherworldly cauldrons of the Mammoth Hot Springs bubble and froth, spewing steam into the pale morning. In front of me stands the delay. But it is no sunscreen-slathered, Nikon-touting tourist that impedes my forward progress. Nor is it the typical afternoon brigade of flustered visitors casting about for a nonexistent parking space. Nothing quite so pedestrian disrupts my routine this morning.

No, on this particular day, the obstacle in question is a very self-important looking bull elk, antlers still soft as hobby-store felt, breath steaming from its nostrils in a vigorous mist. He considers my little tin box on wheels with a quizzical, patronizing gaze.

“Truthfully,” the look says, “I don’t give a damn about your schedule”.

And with that, after another long minute, he strides gracefully off the road. It’s like he thinks he owns the place, or something.

Such is the typical commute on the way to my job as an intern in the archaeology department at Yellowstone National Park. It can be equal parts frustrating and refreshing to know that nature could care less about where anyone wants to be on any given day, and after all wildlife, mudslides, and bear-, elk-, or sheep-jams have been navigated, I finally arrive at the Heritage and Resources Center to begin my day. After greeting my coworkers and grabbing a cup of coffee, I sit down to my desk to begin another day’s work. Currently, I’m engaged in organizing and updating all of the files – over 2,000 of them, in all – for every archaeological site in Yellowstone.

It’s quite a daunting task, and couldn’t be more different from my other archaeological experience participating in excavations with the Stanford Field School in Chavin de Huantar, Peru, last summer. And yet, this sort of office task is in its own way fascinating. It’s an exposure to all of the extensive work that goes on in the administration and preservation of the cultural heritage of a national park. Archaeology, I’m learning, is far more than an erudite academic discipline, and is much more than just digging up old bones and artifacts for display in a dusty museum basement somewhere. I’ve been able to intensively study the past and current archaeological research in the park, from compliance surveys that take place alongside road maintenance and construction, to academic research into paleoindian lifeways, to current projects mapping sites associated with the 1877 Nez Perce War. In addition to office work, I’ve had the opportunity to accompany a committee of natural resource, cultural resource, and maintenance professionals in an excursion to figure out what to do with the badly decayed (but historic) Fishing Bridge. And the other day, I accompanied the Park Archaeologist to the Old Faithful Ranger Station in order to evaluate a set of lithic materials that had been illegally collected. Field excavation, I have come to learn, is little more than the most visible and recognizable tip of the massive iceberg that is known in common parlance as “archaeology” – with a vast amount of unseen but vital work going on underneath the surface. This internship has allowed me an insider look at all of the little-appreciated work that goes on behind the scenes of cultural management, all against the backdrop of one of the most splendid landscapes in the nation. I hope and expect that the coming weeks hold more lessons and challenges in store.

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