Thursday, October 29, 2015

SNRE profiles: Dave Verbyla specializes in GIS

SNRE Professor Dave Verbyla has made a career out of an interest that developed while he was earning his doctorate in forest resources at Utah State University.

Geographic information systems software had been around since the 1980s but there were few classes in GIS, which quickly evolved as the workstation computer became more powerful in the late 1980s.

Dave Verbyla
“I kind of learned it on my own,” said Verbyla. He taught a class in remote sensing while he was at Utah and then was hired at University of New Hampshire as an assistant professor of GIS. At UAF, he has specialized in using GIS and remote sensing to analyze historic trends, particularly in boreal forests. Remote sensing is the science of analyzing information about objects or areas from a distance, typically from aircraft or satellites. So far, he has used remote sensing to analyze and document trends associated with a changing climate, such shrinking boreal lakes, changing forest and tundra photosynthetic activity, and changes associated with wildfires.

Starting next summer, he will work with Todd Brinkman of the Institute of Arctic Biology and other scientists on a study funded by NASA that will look at the changing habitat of Dall sheep in Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon Territory. Dall sheep populations are considered an indicator of alpine ecosystem health.

His role will be to use remote sensing to investigate historical expansion of the alpine shrub zone and dynamics of snowpack from 2000 to present during critical points in sheep’s lives. These include spring lambing in May and the upper limits of snowpack in July 1, which correlates with sheep survival rates.
Verbyla is drawn to GIS and remote sensing, he says, because “it’s analytical and I’ve always been an analytical person.”

Verbyla grew up in central New Jersey and earned an undergraduate degree close to home, at Rutgers University. After earning a doctorate in 1988 and teaching in New Hampshire, he came to the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1993. He teaches Introduction to Geographic Information Systems, GIS Analysis, GIS Programming and Remote Sensing Applications in Natural Resources. His graduate courses in GIS and remote sensing are offered as eLearning distance-delivery classes.

His hobbies include training Labrador retrievers and hunting duck and moose. He didn’t get a moose this year but his partner did. He shot the moose in 10 feet in water, so retrieving it involved a towing and winching operation. Interestingly, Verbyla has an identical twin who works in the natural resources field, as a consulting forester in Virginia.

Monday, October 26, 2015

New SNRE recruiter starts work

In her first two weeks as the SNRE recruiter, Jori Welchans met with the school’s students and faculty and representatives from Admissions, Student Rural Services, Financial Aid and Residence Life. She also toured the Student Recreation Center and participated in Major Mania, the Inside Out recruiting event and another college fair attended by Interior high school students. 

Jori Welchans
“I’ve been busy,” she said.

Welchans wants to learn as much as possible about the School of Natural Resources and Extension and the University of Alaska Fairbanks so she can answer questions from prospective students and tell them about the natural resources management degree.

She will be based out of Kerttula Hall at the Matanuska Experiment Farm. Welchans will focus her recruiting efforts in Anchorage and the Mat-Su areas at first. She expects to attend college fairs and meet with high school students, maybe in biology and chemistry classes. Frequently, those are the kind of students that might be interested in natural resources management but probably don’t know about the interdisciplinary degree, she said. “It kind of combines all sciences and they really don’t think that way.”

Interestingly, she discovered that all the NRM students she talked to in Fairbanks transferred to the major after declaring another major at UAF. They did not know about the NRM degree when they started college.

Welchans hopes to make the degree more visible and to recruit more students. She believes her background will be an asset, since several of jobs she has had are the kind of jobs individuals with a natural resources management degree might get. Those include a nine-year stint as a seasonal park ranger at Denali National Park. She did interpretive programs for visitors and later trained and supervised other interpreters. She also worked as a science technician at the park, a sports and recreation coordinator for the City of Seward and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she received undergraduate degrees in anthropology and zoology from the University of Michigan. She later earned a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management and a master’s in recreation, sports and tourism from the University of Illinois. She has also worked as a substitute high school teacher and tutor for several Alaska school districts.

The recruiting job also seemed like a good fit because of her interest in the outdoors, conservation and natural resources, she said.  “I am passionate about natural resources and managing them in a sustainable manner.”

Her hobbies include hiking and playing hockey, which she learned as a child growing up in a Detroit suburb. She looks forward to making more connections with the university and trying to boost the school’s undergraduate and graduate numbers.

SNRE Professor Dave Valentine, who also serves as the SNRE director of academic programs, said he and other members of the hiring committee were impressed with Welchans and her positive attitude. “She really has a lot of enthusiasm for natural resources and our program,” he said. “We think we’ve got a great program. We’ve just got to get ourselves better known.”

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Harvest Wrap-up scheduled Friday in Delta Junction

The Delta Junction Extension office will host the annual Harvest Wrap-up from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. this Friday at the Delta Career Advancement Center.  The Harvest Wrap-up is an informal event in which producers hear about current and future research efforts and discuss the successes and challenges of the past season.

SNRE faculty and staff Steven Seefeldt, Mingchu Zhang and Bob Van Veldhuizen will participate, along with Lloyd Wilhelm, Mike Stephens and Meghan Lene, who will represent  the USDA Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Invasive species workshop hosted in Juneau

The Alaska Invasive Species Workshop Oct. 27-29 in Juneau will highlight invasive species management and issues in Southeast Alaska and around the state.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service will host the workshop at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall in downtown Juneau.

 The invasive plant, elodea, is shown in Badger Slough.
 U.S. Forest Service photo by Trish Wurtz
Keynote speaker John Hudson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Juneau, will offer a public lecture beforehand, at 6 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Mendenhall Valley Library. His talk is titled “Juneau’s Green Invasion: Non-Native Plants That Threaten Local Ecosystems.”

The workshop will address Southeast concerns, including cruise ship ballast water and management of garlic mustard, knotweed and Didemnum vexillum, a marine tunicate that has shown up in Sitka.

Several presentations will focus on elodea, a fast-growing aquatic plant that can reduce the quality of fish habitat and create difficulties for recreational boaters and for pilots landing on lakes. Discovering elodea at Lake Hood this past summer was a special concern, said workshop coordinator Gino Graziano, since the dense mats of elodea presented navigation challenges to pilots at the busy floatplane base. Planes also can easily transport the aquatic plant to other lakes.

Other presentations will cover developing an integrated strategy for the prevention and management of invasive species across international and domestic boundaries, the Alaska invasive weeds identification app, and other prevention and management efforts
The agenda and registration information are at The workshop was organized by the Alaska Committee for Noxious and Invasive Plant Management and the Alaska Invasive Species Group, informal groups composed of agencies and organizations statewide. For more information, contact the Anchorage Extension office at 907-786-6300 or Graziano at 907-786-6315 or

Monday, October 12, 2015

18th Forest Fest draws a spirited crowd

Victoria Smith earned the title of Belle of the Woods and, for the second year, Jason Buist was named Bull of the Woods.

More than 100 people turned out on a crisp Saturday morning to watch or to test their lumberjack skills at the 18th annual Farthest North Forest Festival.

Community members and UAF staff and students competed, including eight members of the UAF women’s basketball team.

Matthew Balacz, a geology graduate student who was competing for his fifth time, says he loves the competition, which took place in the field across from Georgeson Botanical Garden and at Ballaine Lake.

Zach Gordon, left, and Jon Hutchinson begin birling.
“We have a great time out here,” he said. “It’s the best day of the year.”

Balazs and his partner, Marc Oggier, won first place in the fire-starting competition, barely besting the father-son duo from the “Old Growth” team, Pete and Jason Buist. Teams must chop two large pieces of firewood into shavings and smaller pieces and then coax a pot of water to boil. Balazs and Oggier clocked in at 10 minutes and 10 seconds.

Jason Buist, however, prevailed as the top male competitor for the second year. The Fort Wainwright firefighter was named “Bull of the Woods” and Victoria Smith, an academic advisor at UAF, earned the title of “Belle of the Woods” as the top female finisher. Smith grew up in a logging town near Chehalis, Wash., which could have given her an edge.

The spirit was fun and newcomers were invited to try new events, such as tossing an axe at a target, wielding a bow saw and wrangling logs. Competition became fierce at times, especially fire starting in the Ballaine Lake parking lot. On most teams, one person tended the fire and the other person blew on the fire to encourage the flames.

“Do I have my eyebrows still?  Coleman Smith asked, after he leaned in a little too close to blow on the fire.

Smith, a junior studying petroleum engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, also really enjoyed the day.  “I think it’s pretty cool,” he said.  “There’s a lot of places in the world where this would have never happened.”

Birling requires two competitors to balance on a log and remain standing the longest as the log rolls. Since Ballaine Lake was frozen, about a quarter inch of ice had to be broken up around the spruce log before the competition began. Most of the competitors only dipped a little in the lake but some went in the water completely, requiring a change of clothes and some time by the warming fire.

The event is sponsored by the School of Natural Resources and Extension and the student group, Resource Management Society. 
Two competitors exert themselves on the double bucksaw.

And the winners are:

Top team: Old Growth team with Jason and Pete Buist, Alice Orlich, Paul Keech, Jennifer Yuhas and Kevin Meany.

Top female overall winners:
1. Victoria Smith
2. Genevieve Johnson
3. Alice Orlich

Top male finisher
1. Jason Buist
2. Pete Buist
3. Mark Oggier

Axe throw women: Genevieve Johnson
Axe throw men: Zach Gordan and Nelson Crone

Double bucksaw women:  Becky and Jen
Double bucksaw men: Jason Buist and Pete Buist
Jack and Jill: Victoria Smith and Nelson Crone

Bow saw women: Catherine Estus
Bow saw men: Jason Buist

Log rolling women: Jordan Wilson and Kaille Skjold
Log rolling men: Paul Keech and Jason Buist
Log rolling Jack and Jill: Katie Ott and Marc Oggier

Pulp toss: Jason Buist, Pete Buist and Paul Keech

Birling women: Alice Orlich
Birling men: Zach Gordan

Firebuilding: Matthew Balazs and Marc Oggier

Coleman Smith, left, and Josh McNeal operate the double bucksaw.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Forest Fest scheduled for Saturday

Competitors try birling at Ballaine Lake during the 2014 Forest Fest.

There is no entry fee and anyone 18 or older may compete. Expertise is not necessary, just a willingness to try. Events begin at 10 a.m. at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm fields, across from the Georgeson Botanical Garden. Events there include log rolling, pulp toss, bow saw and crosscut sawing and axe throwing.  The competition migrates to Ballaine Lake around 1 p.m. for campfire building and birling (staying upright on a log in the lake).

Competitors fan the flames at Ballaine Lake.
People may compete as individuals or teams of four to six. At the end of the day, the “Bull of the Woods” and the “Belle of the Woods” will be announced.

UAF forestry faculty members and students at UAF developed the competition as a way to commemorate old-fashioned forest festivals and traditional woods activities that were the basis for work and play.

A warming fire will be available at Ballaine Lake. Participants are advised to dress warmly. If competing in the birling, a towel and change of clothes are recommended.

The festival is sponsored by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension and the student Resource Management Society. For more information, call Pete Fix at 474-6926 or at

Thursday, October 1, 2015

SNRE profiles: Steven Seefeldt takes a new job

Steven Seefeldt speaks with humility about his new job assignment as the state horticultural specialist with oversight of the Georgeson Botanical Garden. He greatly respects his predecessor, horticulture Professor Pat Holloway, and her work with the botanical garden.

“Pat did amazing work, taking it where it was to where it is now,” he said. “A garden with an international reputation.”
Steven Seefeldt prepares to measure plant diversity in Delta.

Maintaining the garden will be a challenge because it now has just one permanent employee, Katie DiCristina, who has to do everything at the garden, he said. The garden relies on many dedicated volunteers and a declining number of seasonal workers who plant and tend the gardens. He and DiCristina plan to meet with the Georgeson Botanical Society, garden donors and other interested people to talk about how garden operations can best continue. Seefeldt hopes Georgeson will continue to be a demonstration garden where people can see how things grow. “I’m excited to help it evolve,” he said.

The assistant professor is already conducting horticultural research, including work on peonies. He is working with seven peony farms around the state to develop an integrated pest management plan for dealing with two peony pests, lygus bugs and thrips. Next year he is funded by a state Specialty Crop Grant to determine which pesticides and herbicides work best on insects and weeds that afflict peonies.

Over the long term, Seefeldt hopes to work with others to develop more information for peony growers that will take some of the risk out of growing the flower. “The potential is huge and so are the risks,” he said. “I want to reduce the risk.”

During the past year, one farmer on the Kenai lost thousands of peony plants. Seefeldt thinks guidelines for different areas of the state need to be developed for growing peonies, including soil remediation, fertilizer and watering recommendations, plant spacing, etc. But those studies are only beginning. He also hopes to provide more support to new farmers, possibly by setting up an incubator farm in which prospective farmers could rent a quarter-acre of land or more to get experience farming.

Seefeldt says Alaska has ag-quality land the size of Iowa, yet it lacks several key specialists, including plant breeders that could help develop varieties suitable to the state, plant physiologists and agricultural entomologists to name just a few. He hopes that by getting grants and additional funding, he can help build a team that includes some of this expertise.

Seefeldt is by training a weeds specialist. He earned a doctorate in crop science from Washington State University in 1995, after completing research on understanding resistance to herbicides in wild oats. He worked as a research agronomist for 25 years for the Agricultural Research Service in Pullman, Washington; Dubois, Idaho; and in Fairbanks, until the federal government stopped funding ARS in Alaska.

He became the agricultural and horticulture agent for the Tanana District Extension office in June 2012. He will continue some of that outreach work, handling phone and email consultations with gardeners and farmers. He will also continue to teach Master Gardener classes for now. He hopes that Master Gardeners will complete some of their required volunteer hours at the garden.

Seefeldt’s varied professional life has also included two years of agricultural research in New Zealand. Before going back to school to earn graduate degrees, Seefeldt served as a Peace Corps forestry volunteer in Niger, as an environmental scientist in Mauritania (west Africa), and a teacher of math, science and French for the Nezperce School District in Idaho.