Tuesday, September 25, 2012

From wilderness to development work: A Master's International student's journey

Vuya Village- view of the village where Brooke McDavid lives

Brooke McDavid having kava in her home with friends

Launching the mangrove nursery

By Brooke McDavid
SNRAS graduate student

I spent the first part of my twenties planning on going into wilderness management. Two summers ago you would have found me at least a day or two's walk from the nearest road on one side of a two-person crosscut saw, clearing trail. It is the time of year when summer in America is winding down and I can't help but miss the crisp mountain air. Now, you will find me in a rural Fijian village where the air is all but crisp. This is the quick and dirty of how I got from alpine to shoreline.


For people with an affinity for open spaces, wilderness is the humdinger. Protected by Congress from development, these areas are vast and wild chunks of the American landscape. The Wilderness Act describes these areas thus:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
It paints a pretty picture. Even people who have never gone, nor intend to go, into the backcountry can agree: Something about wilderness is wonderful; knowing there are some places where man is humbled, removed from the top of the food chain. Wild places make my heart sing. To head off the beaten track, rely on your own primitive skills, and be absorbed into the landscape is a worthwhile challenge. These places are gorgeous! Where else can you fall asleep under the stars after skinny dipping in a glacial lake and having dinner over a fire while wolves howl at the moon?

A Revelation

It was wonderful, those three seasons I spent “lost” in the woods. I'm pretty nostalgic about them. Wilderness was, and is, my escape. It is something I am passionate about and enjoy. However, at some point I had a revelation that although it was a great job, maybe my battle should be fought elsewhere. Looking across one alpine basin, I realized that area was already protected, someone had fought to protect it so that we, the public, could enjoy it. And I also realized that there are still plenty of other places in need of protection -- open places people need to use for purposes other than recreation, places people make their livelihoods. Indeed, nature has intrinsic value worth protecting, but it also has utilitarian value.

Additionally, I realized wilderness is kind of a silly “Western world” concept. We were so carried away on the H.M.S. Manifest Destiny that we had to do something to keep ourselves from destroying everything. Though I recognized I still wanted to work in land management, I wondered if there wasn't a way to do it differently -- a way in which people, landowners, communities have a healthy relationship with the environment in which, yes, humans are very much a natural part.

Sub-Arctic to the South Pacific

I decided to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks pursuing a master's of science in natural resources management (NRM). I had fallen in love with Alaska on a backpacking trip there during my undergraduate education, and UAF was one of the few schools with the Peace Corps Master's International program in NRM. Peace Corps was something I had always wanted to do, so why not combine graduate research with a real-world, enriching experience? It seemed like a unique opportunity.

After a year of classes and surviving my first Alaskan winter, I received an invitation to serve in Fiji as a PC Volunteer in the environment sector. Wow, universe! Could you not think of a more contrasting environment? I boxed up my parkas and, well, here I am!


I have been in Fiji for well over a year now. Indeed, parts of the transition were challenging. I am one of the more “remote” volunteers in my group, but it doesn't feel that way. There is a dirt road and a bus. I have a house and a sit-down toilet. My challenge has not been foregoing first world luxuries, but finding my place as a highly independent person in a communal society.

For a year it was roosters and drums with the sunrise, laundry by hand, no electricity. Barefoot dances and late night kava circles. It was grow your own food and share it with your neighbors. Day long bus rides, church on Sunday, and hot, hot sun. It was uncomfortable clothes, dreams of snow, and always standing out. Then one day I fell in love with it all. I was no longer living in a foreign place, I was at home.

It helps that I am doing work that I love. As a Peace Corps Volunteer my role has been to facilitate planning for community development and to build capacity among villagers in regard to sustainable management of terrestrial and marine resources. We're working on a variety of projects including creating a locally managed marine protected area, mangrove restoration, waste management, vegetable gardening, and small business development.

Coming Around Full Circle

As it turns out some of the same things I love about Alaska are the same things I love about Fiji. Both places have rugged and beautiful landscapes where people depend directly on natural resources for their health and livelihoods. This aside, in both places it appears to be a challenge for many to see the benefits of planning for development and land management. In my opinion, it seems desirable to work together to create united visions for the places we love, whether that be a wilderness area, a village, or a downtown. Planning does not restrict us, but provides a way to find practical solutions and consensus on contested issues. It can empower people to achieve their goals.

I have learned so much since spending my first season in the wilderness. I have left behind environmental idealism and adopted a view of conservation that, by default, cannot exclude people. I have been lucky to have my “First World bubble” popped. A few years ago I would have considered myself “anti-development,” but now a better description would be “champion for smart growth.” You cannot remain anti-development when you begin to understand the very real ramifications of poverty that the majority of the world faces.

We are all connected, from Fairbanks to Fiji to France. We all depend on each other and our earth whether we like to admit it or not. We can choose to focus on our differences or we can choose to seek common ground. We can choose to plow recklessly forward or we can strive for smart growth. We each need to challenge ourselves to step outside of our comfort zone and see the world from other perspectives. By working together we can find sustainable ways to create a future we desire.

Serving in the Peace Corps has been one of the best decisions of my life. It is true what they say, that it's the toughest job you'll ever love. It is amazing what you can learn when you just let yourself be open to new experiences. My heart is torn between the frozen tundra and the tropical shoreline, but these two places aren't as different as I expected.

Brooke McDavid carries an antique crosscut on top of Selden Pass (10,870 feet) in the John Muir Wilderness, Sierra National Forest (2008)

Brooke McDavid says goodbye to Alaska in Denali National Park before heading to Fiji, May 2011

Brooke McDavid in Alaska

Monday, September 24, 2012

Master's International student to speak about life in Honduras

Benjamin Rance in a classroom in Honduras.

Benjamin Rance, a SNRAS Master's International student, will present a talk Friday, Sept. 28 about his experiences serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras.

"I will describe and present my Peace Corps service in Honduras as a graduate student at UAF as it relates to the overall goals of the Master's International Program, the goals of Peace Corps and my own personal goals in life," Rance said. "I will give a brief description of the Master's International Program followed by an in-depth presentation of my Peace Corps service. Finally, the incorporation of my Peace Corps service into my graduate studies at UAF will be presented and there will be time for questions and general discussion on international community development."

The event is at 1 p.m. Friday in the International Arctic Research Center, room 401.

Further reading:

Report from Honduras: SNRAS student in Peace Corps, SNRAS Science & News, Feb. 1, 2011

Students leave classroom for Peace Corps, UAF Sun Star, Feb. 24, 2010, by Jeremia Schrock

Ben's PC Honduras Adventure, by Benjamin Rance

Lumberjacks sought for Forest Fest competition

James Ward competes in the 2011 Forest Sports Festival.

Woodsmen will be crawling out of the woodwork Saturday, Oct. 6 to compete in the 15th annual Farthest North Forest Sports Festival at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The itinerary includes log rolling, bow saw and crosscut sawing, ax throwing, fire building and more.

Everyone is welcome to participate as individuals or as teams of four to six. Observers are also invited to this free event. Awards will be granted to individuals, teams and the “Bull of the Woods” and “Belle of the Woods.”

Faculty members and students at UAF's Department of Forest Sciences developed the competition as a way to commemorate old-fashioned forest festivals. High-technology tools are the norm for forest professionals today, and the festival pays tribute to a time when traditional woods activities were the basis for work and play, survival and revival.

The event begin at 10 a.m. at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm fields (across from the Georgeson Botanical Garden). At 1 p.m. the games move to Ballaine Lake on Farmers Loop. A warming fire and hot drinks will be available at the lake. Participants are advised to dress warmly.

The festival is sponsored by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences Department of Forest Sciences and the Resource Management Society, a student organization.

Contact Professor David Valentine at 474-7188.

Karl Holt tries birling on Ballaine Lake in the 2011 Forest Sports Festival.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

SNRAS faculty publish article in Agronomy Journal

Two SNRAS faculty and a doctoral candidate recently published an article in Agronomy Journal. Following is the abstract:

Soil Nitrogen and Phosphorus Behavior in a Long-Term Fertilization Experiment
By Peter Anthony (SNRAS doctoral candidate), Gary Malzerb, Mingchu Zhang (SNRAS associate professor) and Stephen Sparrow (SNRAS professor and associate dean)

Accurate fertilizer recommendations rely on quantitative estimation of nutrients supplied by soil and fertilizer nutrients immobilized by soil. Understanding variation in these processes over space and time is critical for site-specific nutrient management. Our objective was to characterize spatial variability in N and P cycling for a corn [Zea mays L.]–soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.] rotation in southern Minnesota glacial-till soils. Soil samples and grain yield measurements were taken annually from 0.014-ha cells within two 16-ha fields. We determined effects of fertilizer P additions and crop P removal on soil test phosphorus (STP) and determined relationships between STP changes and soil variables. We also determined temporal stability of soil mineralizable N and inorganic N. The spatial patterns of mineralizable N were consistent over time. The spatial pattern of soil NO3–N was consistent with mineralizable N at a well-drained site, but not at a poorly-drained site. Change in STP per kg P net addition or removal exhibited spatial autocorrelation. Declines in STP under net P removal were directly related to initial STP values. Increases in STP under net P addition were significantly related to pH at both sites and mineralizable N at one site. Temporal stability in mineralizable N suggests that predictive approaches to site-specific N management may succeed when the environment for mineralization is uniform. Within-field variability in the relationship between STP and net P addition may substantially affect fertilizer P rates required to attain critical STP values and should be accounted for in variable-rate P applications.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Yes, you can grow grain in Interior Alaska

Bob Van Veldhuizen addresses attendees at a grain workshop held at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm in August. Behind him is his oat patch.
On a beautiful August evening, over 50 people showed up at a grain growing workshop held at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, testament to the fact that there is definitely interest in growing barley and oats in the Far North.

Bob Van Veldhuizen, research technician at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, told the crowd that when he first started working at the farm everything was done by hand. “We planted, maintained, harvested, dried, threshed and cleaned the seeds by hand,” Van Veldhuizen said.

He assured the attendees that growing grains on a small scale can be done the old-fashioned way. “A small combine costs $250,000 and a thresher $25,000,” he said, emphasizing the impracticality of gardeners purchasing such equipment.

For a 180-square foot plot, Van Veldhuizen plants a half-pound of seed, which is very easy to do. “It only takes 15 minutes,” he said. “To harvest takes a couple of hours.”

The yield depends on the weather, soil and location. Growers need a good seed bed and the seeds should be planted one to one and a half inches deep, then the soil must be sealed around the seed. “Moisture is key to a good planting,” Van Veldhuizen said.

Choosing the right variety is also crucial. “That’s the reason we do variety trials so you guys don’t have to,” Van Veldhuizen said. He worked on the development of Sunshine Barley for years and it has proven very popular with growers due to its hulless nature.

As sandhill cranes flew over, Van Veldhuizen said they are notorious for harvesting the grains before he can get to it. “And moose and grizzly bears love the oats,” he said.

Alaska seeds can be purchased from the Division of Agriculture’s Plant Materials Center in Palmer. A 50-pound bag is around $85.

Seeds can be frozen or kept in a burlap sack but they will lose their germination ability over time. “You must keep squirrels and voles out,” Van Veldhuizen cautioned.

He advises planting as early as possible in May. The latest he has planted is May 20. “I like to plant early, around May 10 or 12 if it’s dry enough to not get stuck.

“You can plant winter grains now and harvest in a year.” At least two feet of snow needs to cushion the seeds or they will rot. Winter grains will produce the same yields if nothing goes wrong. “I recommend spring planting,” Van Veldhuizen said.

He also likes row planting. “You could broadcast it but it’s a little more difficult to maintain.”

Then he turned to a topic dear to the hearts of growers—weeds. “It’s easy to maintain weeds beneath rows with a hoe but if you broadcast the seeds it is hard to weed.”

Grain seeds need temperatures of 40 or warmer to germinate but weeds can do so quicker, in about a week.

Wheat is difficult to grow in Alaska. “If there is a killing frost it’s done,” Van Veldhuizen said. “I’m lucky to get it to harvest once every five years; with barley we get it every year. Barley is just about always a success.”

Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang (left) and Bob Van Veldhuizen talk about growing grains.
Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang addressed the subject of soil. “Chemical fertilizers are easy,” he said. “But if it’s on the surface it’s not efficient. Phosphate is hard to get into the soil.”

Fish waste is a wonderful solution. “If you bury it too deep it will hurt the plant roots but if it’s too shallow dogs will dig it up,” Zhang said. He suggested filling a five-gallon bucket with half fish waste and half soil. Let it sit till the next growing season. “Over the years you will build up soil fertility,” Zhang said.

Steven Seefeldt addresses attendees at a grain workshop held at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm in August.
UAF Cooperative Extension Service Agent Steven Seefeldt, who hosted the event, said if growers plant the same thing year after year, diseases will come. “Planting wheat one year plays with the mind of fungi. It breaks the cycle,” he said.

Steve Sparrow, associate dean of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, tries barley bread baked by Kate Idzorek, UAF Cooperative Extension Service research kitchen coordinator.
Kate Idzorek, CES research kitchen coordinator, ended the evening explaining how to cook with barley. “You don’t have to go straight to flour,” she said. “You can use it in soups. You can pop it in air popcorn popper to make a really good snack.”

Barley flour is best for non-yeast baked goods such as banana bread, carrot cake and cornbread. “You can use 100 percent barley in quick breads. For yeast breads use only one-third barley flour.” Idzorek advised one-third barley flour, one-third whole wheat flour and one-third all-purpose flour. “You’ll be pretty happy,” she said.

For more information on growing grains, visit www.uaf.edu/snras and find “Growing Small Grains in Your Garden” in the publications list.

Barley recipes developed by UAF CES are available here.

Contact Seefeldt to purchase grain. He is taking orders for Sunshine barley seed, $1 a pound, which will cover 400 square feet. His phone number is 474-2423.

Friday, September 7, 2012

UAF SNRAS welcomes visiting KU professor for one year

At home in Lawrence, Kansas, Terry Slocum (pictured at right) frequently checks the Fairbanks winter weather conditions online. That didn’t stop him from selecting UAF as the location for his year-long sabbatical.

“My wife Arlene and I have always had an interest in Alaska,” he said. “We think the people are interesting and independent. It’s a unique place.”

It doesn’t hurt that his good friend Cary de Wit is a geography professor at UAF. Their friendship stems from de Wit’s graduate school days at KU, when Slocum was on his committee.

While here, Slocum is teaching introduction to statistics for fall semester and cartography in the spring. He is also writing the fourth edition of a textbook, “Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization.”

“We have to keep up with technology,” Slocum said. “My co-authors and I are analyzing spatial data and writing new chapters, revising the rest.” The last edition was published in 2009.

Another focus is a National Science Foundation-funded project that will examine the effectiveness of stereoscopic displays in the classroom. The method is thought to enhance geography studies through the use of stereo images presented via a pair of stacked computer projectors and viewed via specialized glasses.. “Do you learn more if you see in stereo is what we are asking,” Slocum explained.

The data has already been collected at KU and Haskell Indian Nations University but not analyzed. “It may turn out stereo does a poorer job,” Slocum said. “Certain images may not pop out immediately and sometimes they are reversed so that mountains are seen as valleys. As many as 10 to 15 percent of people can’t see in stereo at all; they are stereo blind.”

He had a related paper published in the Journal of Geography in 2007. The paper centers on a focus group analysis of faculty members' thoughts about the use of the GeoWall for teaching and is entitled "Evaluating the Potential of the GeoWall for Geographic Education."

Another area of research is analyzing change in thematic map design over the course of the 20th century. Slocum is studying maps in the .Geographical Review and the Geographical Journal to determine the effectiveness of map design. “I have found the best maps to be from the 1940s because professional cartographers were designing the maps,” Slocum said.

He has been intrigued with maps since childhood. “I would look at maps of Switzerland and think how attractive it was and I thought about travel.

‘I love maps because I can see the spatial distribution and wonder why things are located where they are,” Slocum said. “But I am definitely not an artist.”

Slocum grew up in Wellsboro, Pa., and Corning, N.Y. He earned a B.A. in geography and a master’s in cartography and quantitative methods at the State University of New York at Albany and a doctorate in cartography at KU. He has been on the KU faculty since 1981 and served as the Department of Geography chair from 2003 to 2012.

In his spare time, Slocum loves to run, bicycle, swim and play table tennis.