Out West student blog

Prescribed burns and project maps: summer as a geospatial intern

Hannah young (center) and colleagues during a site visit to Stanislaus National Forest in Sonora, California.

Hannah Young (she/her)
Hometown: Spearfish, SD
Major: Earth Systems ‘23
Internship: Blue Forest Conservation

Hannah Young reflects on all she has learned through her internship with Blue Forest Conservation

As I drove over Sonora Pass, admiring the vibrant alpine meadows emerging from the snow fields, a faint smell of smoke began to fill my car. Having spent much of my recent life in the Mountain West, this odor evoked countless moments defined by wildfire. As my brain panned through the memories of orange skies and evacuations, I reminded myself that today was different. This smoke was signaling a chance to see firsthand how fire can be used as a tool to promote forest health, rather than a force of forest destruction.

I was on my way to Stanislaus National Forest for a field site visit on my third day on the job. Along with a handful of coworkers, I was to spend the day with Forest Service employees touring sites that had been burned (via prescribed burns) over the last month. Throughout the day, we saw how these low-intensity burns varied in behavior with vegetation type, terrain, and seasonal timing. As an Earth Systems major, I had learned about prescribed burning strategies in the classroom, but seeing it with my own eyes made everything click. In just a few hours, I gained a more nuanced and grounded understanding of this critical forest management practice. Experiencing real-world applications of classroom learning by immersing myself in the field has been a throughline of this summer at Blue Forest Conservation. 

In both my undergraduate and master’s programs, I focused on building a geospatial analysis skillset -- working on maps and satellite imagery -- along with an ecological one. This internship provided me with my first opportunity to take a deep dive into the world of geospatial analysis outside of the classroom, and I’m learning so much! Maybe most importantly, I’ve learned that I get most excited about this type of work when it is a piece of a bigger, interdisciplinary puzzle. Don’t get me wrong --I can still nerd out about maps for hours. But I have learned that I feel most excited when I have an understanding of the people and places between the lines on the map. 

My big project for the summer is putting together a one-stop-shop type of platform for the organization to view their projects and track how they’re trending. The platform includes maps of the project boundaries that help identify the main goals of each project as well as the organization’s progress toward those goals. The platform will also allow the team to see these projects in a broader context, highlighting where potential project boundaries intersect with environmental, cultural, or infrastructural resources. Outside of this platform, I’ve been creating workflows to improve efficiency in cross-team collaboration and developing materials (mostly maps!) to communicate with external partners.

All in all, I have learned so much this summer! I have a deep sense of gratitude for the Bill Lane Center and Blue Forest Conservation for making this opportunity possible. In large part due to what I’ve learned from this summer, I’ll be starting a job this fall that integrates both GIS and project management to help land managers make informed decisions throughout the West. 

Recent Center News

A keystone species slowly disappears from the Yukon; Cuyama Valley, California farmers boycott Big Carrot; a pond turns pink in Maui; environmentalists oppose an Alaskan Arctic oil drilling project; direct-air carbon capture arrives in the Central Valley; pikas return to the Columbia Gorge; and other environmental news from around the American West.
Advisory Council Member Nancy Pfund and colleagues author a new paper exploring the benefits of prescribed burns, highlighting how new technologies in wildfire mitigation, vegetation management, and forestry can help prevent catastrophic fire. The paper also investigates how a variety of innovative funding models could be harnessed to dramatically scale the ability to use prescribed burns safely and effectively in the future.

Photo courtesy of Brandon Kapelow

Every year, the Bill Lane Center awards a $5,000 fellowship to support a journalist illuminating crucial issues about the American West. We are proud to announce Brandon Kapelow as our 2023-2024 Western Media Fellow, and the publication of new work by last year's fellow, Janet Wilson.