The old-growth western hemlocks tower over a hillside in the Olympic Experimental State Forest southeast of Forks. There’s not a cloud in the sky on the beautiful summer day – not that you would be able to see one through the lush, green canopy anyway.
Gingerly descending the steep hillside, a group of 10 citizen scientists follows the footsteps of DNR forest ecologist Daniel Donato toward a research plot.
There, they will spend the day assessing the habitat characteristics of this patch of forest as part of an ongoing experiment to determine how land management affects wildlife use in working forests.
From sociologists to software engineers, from schoolkids to senior citizens, these citizen scientists were just some of the nearly 50 people who got to explore the OESF and assist DNR scientists conducting research this summer through the environmental nonprofit Earthwatch.
Evan Williams made the trek to the Olympic Peninsula from Lawrence, Kansas, seeing the weeklong experience as both an opportunity to meet new people and to get outdoors. She was initially nervous about meeting the physical requirements – clambering over downed logs, climbing down hillsides, navigating through the thick rainforest undergrowth – but she realized she could keep up and quickly came to appreciate both what she was learning and the company of the other volunteers.
“I’m learning everything from flora and fauna to history – it’s fascinating,” she said. “There’s nothing like this where I’m from and I’ve never been to this part of the nation. It’s fabulous.”
That learning opportunity is one of the most important things that OESF Research and Monitoring Manager Teodora Minkova set out to provide to the Earthwatch volunteers. Minkova, the co-principal investigator of the experiment with Donato, said she saw an opportunity to expose people to the importance of sustainable forestry – “forest management with a clear objective of environmental wellbeing and human wellbeing.”
The experiment – which uses the activity of different birds to measure how habitat quality, diversity, and function change after different types of forest management – is a part of the 20,000-acre T3 Watershed Experiment in the OESF that DNR and University of Washington researchers are undertaking to examine new methods for sustainable forestry.
“Forestry isn’t about cutting every tree and leaving a moonscape, and it is not about leaving every tree. There are many ways to manage a forest, and many people do not know that there is a middle ground,” Minkova said. “I wanted to show people that DNR is doing an array of activities just in our standard forest management practices – and we’re experimenting with even more novel ideas.”
The volunteers took on several tasks in the field throughout the summer, performing habitat surveys to measure forest characteristics such as tree diameter and ground cover, as well as installing and retrieving audio recording units that allow researchers to determine what birds used the forest when people were not present.
The immersive experience went beyond the days of fieldwork, with staff and guest lecturers from the Makah Tribe and the University of Washington educating the volunteers about how forestry and ecology fit within the human geography of the Olympic Peninsula.
For Rohit Kothur of New York, he was drawn to Earthwatch after reading about the nonprofit in a memoir a friend had given him for Christmas.
“In one of the chapters, she described an Earthwatch project she did in Australia where she was basically tracking emus and I thought that sounded awesome, so I found the organization, looked around for projects, and this was the coolest one that I saw that was available,” he said.
Kothur quickly took to learning about the experiment and appreciated the guidance of Donato and field supervisors Lauren Kuehne and Laura Giannone. But spending a week in and around Forks also afforded the Queens resident an in-depth opportunity to learn about the contentious legacy of forestry and conservation throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“I actually didn’t know anything about any of the timber wars stuff – it was kind of before my time – so coming out here and learning about all this stuff and how it affected the people around here and the people’s attitudes toward preservationists and the owl and the preservationists’ attitude toward the logging industry, it’s super fascinating,” Kothur said. “It’s just really cool just seeing this side of the country, this very small – I mean, it’s not small, it’s huge – this huge part of the culture that I wasn’t exposed to before.”
Where Kothur had a surprise sociology lesson, Irene Fiala volunteered so that she could learn about things outside the field. The Ashtabula, Ohio, resident is a sociology professor when she’s not traveling the world, and she, too, had never been to the Olympic Peninsula.
“This is like heaven,” Fiala said.
For Fiala, the weeklong expedition was a “really enlightening experience” – in part from the diverse group of participants being brought together through common interests, and also because of the opportunity to help science better the world around us.
“I teach a course called ‘Animals and Society.’ We focus on the animal side of it and we talk a little bit about conservation versus preservation, but to actually be here and to see how the forests are being managed and what kind of research is going on has for me both professionally and personally been something I find very valuable,” Fiala said.
For many of the volunteers, the experiment was an opportunity to explore a part of the world they had never visited before, even if it meant the occasional slog across hills thick with head-high hemlock understories.
But for Jeannette Franks, the Olympic rainforests have been a part of her life forever.
The Bainbridge Island resident has volunteered with Earthwatch regularly since 1996, the first time as a present to celebrate the completion of her doctoral degree. But this tour provided her with a unique opportunity to learn more about how the public lands in her own backyard are managed.
“I’ve been all over the world doing Earthwatch or other service projects, and this was the first time it was really in my neighborhood – it was like, ‘Yes, of course I’ll do that,’” Franks said. “I didn’t have to get on an airplane during COVID, which was also a bonus, and I love the Olympic rainforests, which I’ve been coming to since I was a child, so it just seemed like a good combination of components.”
The gratification that the volunteers found in the Olympic Experimental State Forest is one Minkova shared in organizing the experience – one of the few Earthwatch projects able to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic – and she specifically noted the volunteers’ generosity, determination, curiosity, and passion for a common cause in donating nearly 1,800 hours of their time.
“It was challenging – it was a lot of work for the project staff,” Minkova said. “However, it turned out to be quite rewarding seeing the lightbulbs that go off with the volunteers as they go through the forest and learn what we do and why.”