Unleashing Your Inner Nature Lover: Volunteering With Our National Forests – Part 2

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This is the second update from PDSVISION’s Matt Sweitzer. Matt spent the summer working as a steward of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The National Forest’s 3.5 million acres of wilderness is the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 United States. Matt volunteered as a Wilderness Ambassador to educate hikers, campers, and visitors on leave-no-trace methodology, wildfire prevention, and wildlife preservation.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Bridger Teton National Forest, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, offer over a combined 20 million acres of wilderness. This area is considered one of the last intact temperate ecosystems on earth.

Without many other humans, authorities, or modern amenities, the wilderness provides an overwhelming sense of freedom to those who visit. But many people either forget or don’t know that visiting here also comes with a responsibility to care for this interconnected ecosystem. This forest brings out the best and the worst of humanity.

Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding wilderness areas has seen a visitor increase of almost 70% from July of 2022 to July of 2023, welcoming a massive 1 million visitors in the month of July alone. This huge number of human visitors puts tremendous pressure on the already understaffed Rangers and the park’s wildlife.

We have witnessed all kinds of behavior across the moral spectrum during our months here. From concerned citizens restoring historical structures on their own initiative, to people carelessly littering, starting fires, feeding wildlife, and illegally driving their vehicles through protected sage brush flats. These meadows provide habitats for hundreds of animals, like the huge American bison, to the tiny least chipmunks. The ecosystems humans visit are not always obviously visible.

People come here to enjoy the clean air, thriving wildlife, history, and breathtaking views. Our job here is to prevent human and animal conflicts. We are here to help visitors safely enjoy this wilderness, and help the wilderness safely endure the visitors. This balance is too often tipped out of favor of wildlife.

We get so caught up in the news of the day, or our deadlines at work that the existence of these majestic ecosystems lives in the back of our minds. We buy electric vehicles to reduce our carbon emissions, we use LED lights to reduce our electric consumption, we recycle, all to try and do our part to reduce the stresses on our macro ecosystem. But we so often overlook the importance of caring for the ecosystems in our back yards.

Corporate green initiatives follow those same trends, focusing marketing their macro level initiatives to “go green” by using less paper, using simulation tools to reduce prototype scrap, and going solar. While these initiatives absolutely help reduce emissions and waste into our atmosphere, there is an immense need for good old fashioned environmental project work and education.

Since we’ve been here, we’ve pulled invasive noxious plants, worked as wildlife crossing guards, restored historic structures, put out countless unattended fires, picked up copious amounts of litter, restored roads, and campsites, and put up “no camping” and “no vehicles” signs. No matter how much good work the Forest Service and Park Service do, somehow, the visitors undo it.

So, what’s next? It’s undeniable the Forest and Park Service need support. Corporate sponsorships and donations help, but I suggest companies take a page out of PDS’ book and organize more work trips to the Nation Forest and National Parks. Sheltered in our heated and AC controlled office buildings, most of the data we cite in the STEM field around climate change comes from statistics that someone else collected. By putting boots on the ground, we learn firsthand, and help mitigate, the impact humans have on the environment around us.

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