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Out West student blog

Small Steps for Steep Slopes

South Sister summit inspires new perspectives on climbing mountains of all sorts. (photo credit: Sophie Boyd-Fliegel)

By Sophie Boyd-Fliegel '21
Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Major: Human Biology
Conservation Intern, Deschutes Land Trust

A few minutes into my first day at the Deschutes Land Trust I find myself squinting at what I’m told is an amazing feat of nature. Amanda, our stewardship director, scrolls eagerly through a series of blurry photos. She points to a smattering of brown pixels that loop off some bare bushes. “I’ve never seen so many J’s,” she exclaims. I tilt my head and she offers an explanation. “California Tortoiseshells, and they’ve eaten everything. It’s just amazing.”

A few days later I’m standing in the shallow grass of a preserve called Willow Springs with a handful of Land Trust tour program volunteers and stewardship staff. We’re supposed to learn a mapping application out here, but everyone is instead buzzing with news of a fish spotted along the property. One fish. It made the news, apparently.

A week into my internship and I’m already wondering if I belong in a job that requires such reverence for nature’s minutiae. Don’t get me wrong, I love an undeveloped scenic viewpoint as much as the next Patagonia-sporting Bend resident. But part of my job for the local Land Trust is to work on climate change strategy, an issue I’ve only ever considered global in nature.

Sweeping economic restructuring, technological leaps and international political cooperation-- I’ve been taught that grand scales are the only serious routes to lasting sustainability. Difficult, yes, but I’ve considered this mountain surmountable, if only our global powers manage to trailblaze the steepest, most dramatic way up.

A California Tortoiseshell butterfly will spend several weeks of its life hanging upside down, during which time it wraps itself in a tight ball of its own proteins, then thrashes and squirms until its sheds a fuzzy coat to reveal a tight chrysalis, the last stage before bursting into a newly winged-creature.

California Tortoiseshells in Central Oregon folded between caterpillar and butterfly. (photo credit: Sophie Boyd-Fliegel)


Chinook hatch in freshwater with a 1-10 in 1000 chance of surviving to adulthood. The lucky few follow environmental cues downriver to the Pacific Ocean where they try to survive up to eight years until somehow sniffing their way back to their natal stream where they mate. This process not only sounds miraculous to me, it isn’t completely understood by biologists either. Bringing Chinook back to the Upper Deschutes River after dam construction blocked their path fifty years ago has been a massive combined effort of the Land Trust, Portland General Electric, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Deschutes River Conservancy, and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.

This internship has surrounded me with people who care deeply for these creatures. The more I learn about the fascinating species at the center of conservation efforts, the more I’m drawn to ground-level problem solving. To witness a caterpillar bend into a vulnerable chrysalis, or the first return of Chinook Salmon to Whychus Creek in decades is to witness a resiliency of living beings. This resiliency inspires the genuine restoration and preservation of the lands that I’ve gotten to know here in Central Oregon.

The climate is already changing. The plants and animals in any given region will continue to adapt to these changes, but only if we give them the chance to do so. We may not yet have all the solutions for our own adaptation, but working at the Land Trust has taught me to prioritize the products of the systems we are trying to change--the bugs, fish, the people--before we forge a path up the mountain.

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