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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Whitman students tour Wallowa County’s diverse country

Whitman students tour Wallowa County’s diverse country

JOSEPH — Whitman College students and Wallowa County go together like jam and bread. This past weekend, members of the school’s regional biology class toured the county to get up close and personal with the topics they study.

The Walla Walla-based college offers a suite of environmental majors, and its professors find ample opportunities to bring their students to the forests, prairies and canyons of Northeast Oregon. Delbert Hutchison brought his students for the one-credit weekend campout course and tour of Wallowa County during the waning days of summer. 

Each student wrote a 750- word essay on individual topics that covered aspen decline, wolves, pine blister and Clark’s nutcrackers, the birds that feed on the seeds of whitebark pine. Student Louise Fix said, “We’ve come to see our study species.”

The students asked about the effect of wolves on ungulates and the subsequent impact on aspen. According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife annual counts, elk and mule deer numbers have not significantly changed since wolves moved into Wallowa County. Jenny Reinhardt, of Wallowa Resources, said locally, lack of fire has hampered the health of aspen.

“The lack of fire and disturbance have been proven to have an effect on aspen in the Imnaha drainage,” Reinhardt said.

She said photos of small aspen groves were used to monitor their growth after a burn. Initially, seedlings covered 100 square feet of the plot. After fire was introduced into the stand, seedlings spread out over two acres.

“Because of successful fire suppression, conifer encroachment is competing with the aspen for moisture,” Reinhardt said. “By removing the competing conifer we helped re-establish aspen and put them in exclosures to keep out elk and cattle. Aspen are the meal of meals for them — like ice cream.”

Friday afternoon, Reinhardt brought the class to the mid-slope of Mt. Howard to show them where root fungus, pine beetles and woolly adelgids, small wingless insects that infest and kill fir trees, have ravaged the forest. She told the Whitman students that concerns from the community parlayed into a collaborative process entered into by the county. The outcome was the Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

“Forty percent of the timber was standing dead,” Reinhardt said, “and the insects and disease were starting to move into the wilderness.”

Reinhardt said the stand was originally identified as a long fire return interval,  but after statistical survey plot data was collected it was found to be a more frequent fire return interval.

After the plan was completed, the U.S. Forest Service took steps to address the conditions in the urban interface.

Through thinning, hand piling and prescribed fire, the Forest Service worked to open up the stand and reduce the standing dead trees and their susceptibility to wildfire.

“Contractors fell all standing dead under 6 inches and all unhealthy subalpine fir,” Reinhardt said. “The contract added a community economic benefit.”

Reinhardt said Oregon Department offered a cost-sharing program to landowners and made grants available to do timber stand improvement work. That way the diseased trees could be treated across the public/private boundary. The state put $150,000 into the project, providing another economic benefit to the community.

Hutchison said the class spent Friday night camped out on Starvation Ridge. Saturday they walked up Hurricane Creek to Slick Rock Falls for a discussion on geology and natural history.

They then drove out to Hat Point, a lookout outside of the town of Imnaha, and visited with the fire tower lookout, Hutchison said. With a view of the Hells Canyon,they talked about the impacts of fires.

From there they went out to the Zumwalt Prairie to look at restoration efforts with aspen exclosures. “They kind of hit the major biomes of the county in the short amount of time we had,” Hutchison said. “Most people come to Wallowa County and head right to Joseph or the lake and don’t know anything about the other cool stuff like the Snake and Imnaha valleys and the Zumwalt Prairie.”

Hutchison said when instructing regional biology, the students visit a bioregion. “Biology is getting too cell oriented so we make a special effort to get these kids outside and get them dirty.”

Nils Christoffersen, Wallowa Resources executive director, said they have had a 12-year relationship with Whitman College.

“Our programs are field oriented, place-based, applied  and practical in order to help students understand the real complexities when it comes to natural resource — and the even more complex issues of trying to balance natural resource stewardship and community economics and vitality,” Christofferson said.

He said the professors agree on the benefit of getting the students out of the classroom. 

“They experience first- hand by seeing real issues on the ground, by talking to private landowners, county leadership and agencies about the real challenges being faced and real passion and commitment to stewardship that exists. We hope at the end of the day they come away with the notion that the community is pursuing good solutions,” Christoffersen said.

 
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