Natural resources science and stewardship

Oregon has some of the nation’s most diverse and productive ecosystems. Yet we are all feeling the very real health and economic impacts from a changing climate and more frequent and severe fires and droughts that challenge our ability to maintain and sustain our valuable working landscapes and natural resources – fisheries, forests, pollinators, wildlife, and water.

A Youth Environmental Educator (left) works on an activity with children in 2019.

Many youths in underserved communities must work to support their families. Yet, most internship opportunities for middle- and high-school age youth are unpaid, which is a disadvantage to those youth who must choose a paying job. Providing positive youth development internships with financial compensation offers job work-life skills, financial literacy, and support for the family.

In response, the regional government Metro, which serves Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, entered into a partnership with Oregon State University Extension’s 4-H Youth Development Program to reach youth in historically underserved and underrepresented communities through the Youth Environmental Educators Program. The program, formerly known as Blue Lake Young Rangers, was piloted in the summer of 2015 and has since expanded into what is now a year-long program. An aspect of the program was having the youth as paid employees provide hands-on activities at Blue Lake Regional Park in Fairview during the summer.

Those in-person activities were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But OSU Extension and Metro didn’t want to put on hold the valuable life skills the program offers. The partners prioritized the continuation of the program and staff worked to completely reorganize and shift to a virtual space.

As a result, 11 youth ranging in ages 12 to 17 participated in a nine-week virtual program alongside 4-H and Metro staff, working on activities such as making grab-and-go science kits and interactive self-guided garden activities. The interns focused on their own career-readiness skills by creating individual professional portfolios with two Metro Waste Prevention & Environmental Service Department Interns who attend college. The participants continue to regularly meet with Extension staff and volunteers throughout the year as they prepare to participate in the 2021 summer program.

This was the first paid work experience for all 11 of the participants. Eighty-two percent of the youth identified as people of color, and seven different languages were spoken by participants. Nearly all of the participants qualified for free- or reduced meals at their schools.

One of the students who had been involved in the program for five years was accepted by Stanford University and stated that the Youth Environmental Educator program “played a big part in [his] essays.”

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Screen shot from a Clackamas County 4-H science video in Spanish.

With peppy music and creative animation, Rodrigo Corona, 4-H faculty outreach coordinator in Clackamas County, made hands-on learning fun through two science videos he created in Spanish. The science videos came with activity kits that allowed students to follow along and remain academically engaged during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The videos – ¿Qué es el Suelo? and ¿Qué es la escala del pH? – were part of the group’s hand-on learning process about pH and soil. 4-H faculty assembled the science kits and delivered them to community centers for youth to pick up. The kits contained all the supplies and directions necessary for students to do the activities at home with their family. The videos helped students to have a better understanding of the results of the experiments.

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Summer field technician collecting insect samples.

The invasive annual grassy weed cheatgrass increases the threat of wildfire in greater sage-grouse habitat that spans much of eastern Oregon. Insect populations that are the foundation of early sage-grouse chick diet may be effected by cheatgrass-infected areas. Additionally, pollinator response to changes in sage steppe health also needs to be analyzed with time-sensitive trapping.

In 2018, Fara Brummer, faculty research assistant for Oregon State University Extension in Lake County, organized a research project in collaboration with U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Extension colleagues. She hired a summer field technician that focused on examining insect populations, as well as looking at grass or screening cover in sites that are in different stages of cheatgrass invasion.

A total of 107 range sites have been sampled since 2018. The Bureau of Land Management is using some of Brummer’s insect data, which allows the agency to correlate sagebrush steppe vegetation data and insect populations to better assess the condition of sage-grouse habitat.

Additional partners from the bureau and the OSU College of Forestry were added in 2020 to expand the program to include pollinator information. Two summer technicians will be hired in 2021 to collect field data. The bureau has committed additional funding and is supporting a request for funding at the local level.

This research will ultimately help the bureau and other land managers assess site potential restoration based on invasion level and corresponding metrics based on insect information.

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Archery is taught at OSU Get Outdoors Day.

An Oregon State University Extension Service survey showed underserved families and children in Benton County and other areas of the mid-Willamette Valley have limited opportunities to visit natural areas because they don’t have access to transportation and the atmosphere for first-time outdoor visitors is less than welcoming.

In response, OSU’s Get Outdoors Day gives kids and their families the opportunity to safely explore and learn about the natural world. The idea is to connect youth to the outdoors and support the ideals of sustainability, fitness and nutrition while strengthening the ties between Extension and communities in the mid-Willamette valley. OSU Extension, the College of Forestry and Benton County Health Department hold Get Outdoors Day each June in conjunction with National Get Outdoors Day.

“We really strived to connect kids and families with nature through a safe, healthful and family-fun event,” said Stephen Fitzgerald, professor and Extension specialist and director of College of Forestry Research Forests.

The 2019 event drew 598 youth and families and introduced participants to the wonders of nature at OSU’s Peavy Arboretum, a popular outdoor recreational site. Of the attendees, 90% indicated that Get Outdoors Day helped their families gain confidence in participating in outdoor activities. Extension reached out to a diverse audience, including underserved families in Albany, Corvallis and the OSU community, and provided transportation and interpreters in Spanish and Arabic and English. An estimated 35% reported Spanish as their first language. Volunteers were similarly diverse.

Some of the youth had never had an opportunity to explore in the outdoors. For one day, they got the chance to fall in love with nature and possibly continue their outdoor adventure.

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Extension's Dan Stark holds up a gypsy moth trap.

The gypsy moth, which is defoliating trees in the northeastern United States, hasn’t been found in Oregon – but it’s important to keep the moth out of the state. This invasive insect feeds on more than 300 tree species, including alder, aspen, cottonwood, willows and oaks.

In June 2020, the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Insect Pest Prevention and Management program needed help in distributing 9,000 traps by July 24. Because of COVID-19, it wasn’t possible to hire a usual seasonal crew of 22. Jake Bodart, IPPM manager, contacted the Oregon State University Extension Service for assistance in placing the bright green, triangular-shaped sticky traps in trees in Clatsop, Tillamook, Lincoln, Jackson, Curry and Josephine counties.

Sam Angima, associate dean for Extension in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, contacted Forestry and Natural Resources Extension (FNR) Program Leader Jim Johnson to mobilize FNR Extension agents and volunteers from the OSU Extension Master Woodland Manager, Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs to assist IPPM with the placement and collection of gypsy moth monitoring traps in their areas.

Dan Stark, FNR Extension agent, coordinated efforts with IPPM with the support of fellow FNR Extention agents Norma Kline and Max Bennett.

After being trained on trap placement and COVID-19 protocals, 60 volunteers helped FNR agents place traps and information cards that included date and location were filled out and mailed to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, all by the end of July. The traps were collected in early October, with COVID-19 orders still in place, and while the last of Oregon’s historic wildfires still hadn’t been fully contained.

FNR agents and volunteers deployed and collected 340 traps across western Oregon for the IPPM program. Only two gypsy moths were detected in Columbia and Multnomah counties. Because of OSU Extension, the agriculture department was able to meet its deadline and make headway into efforts to keep gypsy moths from establishing in the state.

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Trees in the forest.

More than 79,000 family forest owners in Oregon manage 3.6 million acres of private forestland, providing substantial economic, social and ecological value. Surveys show that landowner goals are diverse, as are the challenges they face in their forest stewardship.

The annual Oregon State University Extension Service Tree School is an important opportunity for landowners to gain knowledge and skills or find assistance. But COVID-19 forced cancellation of all three in-person Tree Schools in 2020.

After cancellation, the Tree School events were provided online in a series of 35 webinars hosted by OSU Extension in Clackamas County in collaboration with the Oregon Forest Resources Institute and the Oregon Partnership for Forestry Education. The classes provided comprehensive coverage of major subjects to support successful forestland stewardship to meet diverse landowner objectives. Topics were developed based on needs assessment surveys, focus groups and conversations and included reforestation, thinning, forest health, wildfire, safety and more.

The online Tree School webinars drew more than double the number of people than in-person events in 2019. Participation included 3,046 people on live webinars, 5,796 views of recorded webinars on YouTube and 4,019 views on Facebook. Though people missed in-person networking, the online format allowed many more participants compared to typical sessions that are limited by classroom size and geography. In post-program surveys with 1,420 responding, 98% said the classes were very useful or useful, and 97% of participants indicated they would use the information they learned.

Collaborators included the Oregon Department of Forestry, Forests Forever, Inc., Oregon Small Woodlands Association, Ecotrust, Clackamas Community College and Clackamas County.

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Participants in a free Warms Springs clinic to castrate wild horses on tribal lands.

Overpopulation of wild horses on Warm Springs tribal lands causes damage to the native ecosystem, primarily through overgrazing which contributes to increases in annual weeds that fuel more frequent wildfires. Additional problems include compacted soil that becomes hard and unable to produce plants, damage to wetland areas adjacent to rivers and streams, and reduction of native plants and animals.

To help reduce the wild horse population, the Oregon State University Extension Service offers free sterilization clinics to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Range and Agriculture Department, which gathers the wild horses several times a year.

Sterilization is costly. In response, for the last five years, OSU Extension has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) to conduct the clinics. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs provides the facility and round-up team and OSU Extension and the OSU Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine provide medications, a team of veterinary students and licensed veterinarians to do the surgeries.

More than 110 stallions have been sterilized, potentially resulting in hundreds of horses being eliminated from the tribal lands. Sterilizations normally cost $250-$500, depending on whether the veterinarian has to travel, or the horse is brought to them. Using $250 as the rate, the tribe has saved a minimum of $27,500 – and most likely more – in veterinarian services and fees and services.

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Oysters at the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

Ocean acidification is the change in ocean chemistry due to increasing concentrations of human-created carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One result of an increase in carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean is carbonate, used for shell building, becomes less available, leading to fewer and smaller shellfish. Over the next few decades, ocean acidification is predicted to significantly impact shellfish, marine ecosystems and the people who rely on them for food and income. One example is the near collapse of the oyster industry along the west coast of the United States from 2007-09.

Since 2008, over 90 teaching resources on ocean acidification have been published. However, few address solutions to the problem, and many imply that the main effect of ocean acidification will be dissolution of coral reefs and shelled organisms.

In response, Oregon Sea Grant Extension education staff worked with Oregon State University graduate student Brian Erickson to co-create an award-winning, solution-focused curriculum for high school students about ocean acidification and actions they can take to reduce it.

Oregon Sea Grant published the 140-page, five-lesson curriculum after the creators interviewed researchers, reviewed teaching resources and tested draft lessons with teachers and over 300 students. The curriculum explains how ocean acidification affects shellfish and other organisms, includes hands-on activities, has students use scientific data, and addresses common misconceptions about ocean acidification.

The authors have presented the curriculum to over 200 educators at several regional and national conferences, and it has been downloaded more than 200 times. The curriculum was featured in The Science Teacher, the journal of the National Science Teacher Association.

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Dustin Johnson, associate professor of practice and Extension livestock and rangeland field faculty

Invasive annual grasses are a threat to the Great Basin desert ecosystem that includes much of eastern Oregon. They compromise habitat diversity for important wildlife species such as the greater sage-grouse. They shorten the grazing season for livestock. And they increase the threat of wildfire.

Medusahead, cheatgrass and ventenata invade sagebrush rangelands by filling in bare ground that normally is occupied by perennial bunchgrasses. These invaders produce much more continuous plant cover compared to native bunchgrass plant communities which tend to have relatively large spaces between plants. More continuous fine fuel promotes increased risk of wildfire ignitions and spread. More frequent and larger wildfires degrade the ecosystem and allows more exotic plants to grow, creating negative ecological consequences.

Sage-grouse, whose population has been steadily declining in North America, relies on sagebrush for forage and nesting habitat. As the sagebrush plant cover declines due to exotic species and related increases in wildfire it is likely to also have negative effects for the sage-grouse. A long-term study counting male sage-grouse from 1890 to 2019 showed the fewest number of birds were counted in 2019.

In response, Oregon State University Extension Service faculty led by Dustin Johnson at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns helped develop a Medusahead Management Guide to limit further expansion of this exotic species and restore the ecological functions of the sagebrush steppe. Some strategies include preventing seed movement, how and when to apply herbicides, and grazing management.

This applied research priority has generated critical information concerning rangeland management factors and techniques that contribute to increased ecosystem resiliency and resistance to exotic annual grass invasion. Results of this work have been incorporated into a medusahead management guide for the intermountain west that is being used by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to guide their medusahead control and revegetation programs in southeast Oregon.

The research has also been incorporated into the Harney County Cooperative Weed Management Area, which will restore 20,000 acres that have been invaded by medusahead in western Harney County. The Baker County Soil and Water Conservation District is using the guidelines to restore sage-grouse habitat. The research is also being used in southeastern Oregon by the NRCS.

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Nineleaf biscuitroot (L. triternatum), an early spring-blooming plant that are an important host plant for pollinators such as swallowtail butterflies.

Each year, Rachel Werling, an instructor in the Oregon State University Forestry and Natural Resources Extension program, leads groups on hikes in in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley to teach them about natural history, fire safety, healthy streams, identifying plants and more.

When OSU Extension canceled in-person events in March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Werling decided to record two wildflower walks in Jackson County and post them to YouTube.

On her first video, Werling concentrated on shooting the biscuitroots, which are in the carrot family. She identifies fernleaf biscuitroot, rock parsnip, desert parsley and nine-leaf desert parsley. The video has been viewed 269 times.

Next Werling hiked the East Applegate Ridge trail (also called East Art). It’s spectacular now, she said, with lupins, California poppies, red bells and balsamroot in bloom and the vibrant green oak trees glowing in the sunshine with the snow-covered highlands of the Siskiyous in the background. The video has been viewed 417 times.

“Thank you. Thank you,” said one viewer. “I am disabled and cannot (yet) hike to see these and I am thrilled to see new and old flower friends. This means so much that when I saw the lupins, I cried!”

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A lady bug rests on a child's finger.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon not only resulted in the premature end of the 2019-20 school year, but also led to mass cancellations of in-person outdoor school programs. The cancellations came at a time when enrollment in Oregon State University Extension Service Outdoor School was increasing statewide. Nearly 38,000 students took part in Outdoor School in 2018-19, a 6% increase over the 2017-18 school year.

It was anticipated that figure would rise to 43,300 students in 2019-20 – before the spread of COVID-19 led Gov. Kate Brown to issue a statewide order to close schools in March.

In its strategic response to the pandemic, the Extension Outdoor School program created resources to engage children in learning about nature while adhering to Oregon’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order.

Outdoor School added a webpage – “Educational Resources for Stay Home, Save Lives” – to its website where parents, guardians and teachers can find links to resources to support outdoor learning experiences while schools are out of session.

The page, which can be translated to Spanish, was updated Fridays with weekly resource sets with nature observations, journal prompts, and online activities. Outdoor School linked to the resource sets on its Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Nearly 400 new users visited the webpage in its first two weeks. That created a ripple effect: Visits to the OSU Extension Outdoor School website more than doubled in a month.

It’s not just families who accessed the resources. In their first month, 17% of unique visits to the weekly resource sets come from Google Classroom, suggesting that teachers were directing parents and students to the resource sets as part of their distance learning, said Kristi Backe, Extension Outdoor School’s curriculum and professional development coordinator.

“We picked topics that are accessible to many students. Things that you can see out a window,” said Backe, who worked with the Extension Outdoor School’s team to develop in one week the educational resources webpage.

“We wanted to focus on curating these resources into manageable pieces so they’re not overwhelming families,” she said. “It only takes a couple of minutes to read through each topic.”

In 2016, Oregon voters passed Measure 99, mandating that all Oregon fifth- or sixth-grade students should have the opportunity to attend a week-long outdoor school program or comparable outdoor education program.

Measure 99 created an Outdoor School Education Fund and charged Oregon State University Extension Service with supporting, administering and funding an outdoor school program as set forth in Senate Bill 439, which approved $24 million for the program’s first two years. Last year, the Oregon Legislature approved $46 million for the next biennium for Extension Outdoor School.

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Using a woodland stick to measure tree size.

Professional foresters have access to myriad tools that measure tree size (height and diameter) and determine wood volume in individual or multiple trees. However, these tools can be expensive and complex for landowners who need only quick and rough estimates of their forest resources.

The Woodland Stick is a simple and cost-effective tool that forest landowners can easily use to obtain rough estimates of average tree size and wood volume on their properties. The stick has been used as an educational and measurement tool by Oregon State University and other university Extension programs for many years, but little information is known about its impact.

In 2017, OSU Extension revised the OSU Woodland Stick to aid master woodland manager volunteers in advising their peers on land management decisions. The stick was reprinted to include graphics and tables comprising forest health, canopy class, tree spacing, tree performance rating, fixed plot dimension, cross drainage spacing, and thinning information. The stick is 1¾ inches wide, one-fourth inch thick and three feet long.

The Woodland Stick is a forestry field tool that members in the Master Woodland Managers (MWM) volunteer training program can use while on site visits to advise fellow landowners on how to make land management decisions and understand tree volume.

OSU assistant professors and Forestry and Natural Resources (FNR) Extension foresters Lauren Grand and Alicia Christiansen and FNR Extension specialist Francisca Belart e-mailed a survey to 157 uses of the new stick. The survey included 20 questions that explored how often landowners used the Woodland Stick, which features of the stick they found most useful, whether they used the stick for making management decisions, whether MWMs used the stick while volunteering with other forestland owners, and which features of the stick needed improving.

The survey response rate was 43%, and 88% of survey respondents were MWM volunteers.

Grand, Christiansen and Belart published their survey results in the Journal of Extension.

Among the survey findings:

  • Over 60% of respondents strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that the Woodland Stick met their needs, has innovative features, and is enjoyable to use;
  • 28% reported using the stick when writing a forest management plan;
  • 54% reported using it when conducting a forest inventory;
  • 48% stated that they used the Woodland Stick at least once per year;
  • Of the respondents who identified as MWMs, 55% used the Woodland Stick while volunteering to assist other landowners like themselves, and 47% said they had recommended using the stick to someone else.

When asked to assess how the stick could be improved, survey respondents recommended that it be constructed in a way that would allow it to double as a walking stick. Respondents also recommended that a publication or user's manual addressing how to use the stick should be included with every stick purchased or acquired.

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