Out West student blog

Fire and Festuca

Ocean landscape vista from the SLC
The view from Trapper's Loop, on the Preserve.

By Julia Goolsby
B.S., Earth Systems, 2018
Adaptive Management and Conservation Ecology Intern at the Santa Lucia Conservancy

From afar, zooming down Highway 101, the California hills seem velvety and rolling. Unfortunately, up close, the California hills are neither soft nor smooth. They’re diverse and pointy and interspersed with some monstrous canyons. And yet, after spending all summer cursing the Italian thistle for ever escaping the Mediterranean, I still really like these hills. (I’m not gonna say I love them, because they destroyed my favorite pair of hiking boots.) In those grasslands, I became a skilled compass navigator, and a proficient plant identifier. Or, a somewhat proficient plant identifier. There are so many grass species.

Exiting this summer, I’ll take with me two sets of experiences. The first one, I expected: the Conservancy gave me a really good feel for what it is to work as an ecologist. I studied grasslands, wetlands, woodlands, and worked with a huge range of animals. It was especially exciting to learn how to use ArcGIS software to create geographical representations of the data we collected on tricolored blackbird nesting habitats. Helping with research gave me insight into the role I’d like to play in the scientific community. There’s something deeply satisfying, and really fun, about knowing the stories behind an excel table full of numbers. For example, I know that one short comment, “vegetation location inaccessible,” belies a two-mile trek down a steep canyon, and a near-death experience with (what really seemed like at the time) a rattlesnake. However, the fact that I spent my summer fascinated by ‘the story behind’ the numbers helped me realize that I’d much rather spend my time explaining research, than actually conducting it. So, as I head back into Stanford for the year, I’ve decided to focus on science communication.

The second set of experiences was a little different. About three weeks before the end of the summer, the Soberanes fire broke out and reached our nature preserve. It started as a non-threatening plume of smoke in the distance. Almost overnight, it exploded into an emergency. You couldn’t stand in the middle of the Preserve without coughing. Fire trucks from Arizona zoomed past our little office. And in the middle of this chaos, I had the opportunity to watch the Conservancy employees swing into action. Working with firefighters and other local nature park representatives, they blitzed in and out of the office, working to save the Preserve. In such a high-stress situation, their cohesiveness taught me the importance of communication and prioritization in achieving goals.

As I drive back up the 101 toward Stanford, I have a whole new set of ideas on my mind. I view the beautiful hills with the battle-hardened knowledge that they’re probably very spiky and would ruin my socks. I think about all of the colors and types of plants you can’t see from the distance. And most importantly, I’ve made it a definite goal to write about what I learned this summer.

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