Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Alumni spotlight: Eric Straley finds his niche in the Alaska woods

Eric Straley on Zarembo Island. (Photo by Matt Sprau)
For the past eight years, Eric Straley, 34, has spent his summers researching the forests from Ketchikan to Kodiak.

He and 19 co-workers live on an 86-foot research vessel, the "Maritime Maid,’’ and access the woods via helicopter to conduct field studies on public, private and Native corporation land. During the winter his focus is getting landowner and managers’ permission to access the forests.

Straley grew up in southcentral Pennsylvania's farm country and earned an associate's degree in forest technology from Pennsylvania State in 2001. “I grew up in the forests,” he said. “I was raised hunting and fishing and I always liked that.”

He arrived in Anchorage in 2005 to work for the U.S. Forest Service. When the service gave him the opportunity to continue his education, he jumped for it, first majoring in natural resources management with a forest sciences option and then switching to a B.A. in geography. “My major interest was GIS and mapping,” Straley said.

He finished his degree in December and recently headed back south. As a crew leader for the U.S.F.S., Straley is in charge of a team of four to six who work 10 days on and four days off all summer. He is also the safety manager for helicopter flights.

A typical summer day finds the crew flying to plots at 8 a.m., measuring trees and plants and taking note of species mortality and forest health. “Think of it as the nation’s forest census,” Straley said. The crew works 10 to 12-hour days. “It’s pretty intense,” he said. “But we don’t have cell phones or internet so it’s nice to focus on our work.”

A wonderful perk of his job is that he gets to see things that most people never get to see. Of all the places he has traveled, Cordova is one of Straley’s favorite spots. He also likes areas east of Juneau, the Wrangell Mountains and Yakutat. The most remarkable thing he has seen is the way glaciers have changed. “From 2005 to now there is an amazing difference,” he said. “It’s sad but from summer to summer you can see the difference.”

One of the challenges is the mosquitoes. “I just wear lots of bug dope,” Straley said with a laugh. “I refuse to wear a head net.” Another difficulty is living in close quarters with other people. “We live on top of each other. We are lucky to have such good people who are able to adapt to change on the fly and tolerate change.” Evenings on the boat find the crew playing cribbage and cards or reading.
During the winters Straley lives in Fairbanks, where he enjoys cross-country skiing, photography and reading about history.

The Forest Service has sent him to Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Nevada in the fall. “It’s a totally different forest experience,” he said. “Working in the redwoods was awesome.”
Straley’s goals are to stay in Alaska. “I will work extra hard to stay here,” he said. “I love aviation and want to keep doing this.”

About his education with SNRAS, Straley said re-entering the academic world after being out of a while was “like going from zero to 60 but I adjusted well.” He had to get used to being with younger students. “I like the university atmosphere up here,” he said. “If you have a bonfire and a beer you can make a lot of friends.”

His advice to other students is to be diligent about getting a degree. “Figure out what you want to do and work as much as you can in the field you’re interested in,” he said. “Try to get summer jobs in your field. Do something you like.”

Eric Straley stares down at the stump of a 540-year-old yellow cedar on Zarembo Island. (Photo by Eric Straley)

No comments: