Hells Canyon Overlook is one of the sites where West Virginia natural resource students are surveying Wallowa-Whitman National Forest visitors this summer. (KATY NESBITT/WesCom News Service)
Surveys aimed at improving park experiences
HELLS CANYON OVERLOOK — Outfitted with a safety vest and a clipboard, Alex Wooding approaches an oncoming car leaving the parking lot at the Hells Canyon Overlook. He asks the occupants of the car if they’d like to do a survey.
Wooding is one of a team of students from the University of West Virginia hired by the U.S. Forest Service to survey visitors to national forests.
The college senior, originally from Morristown, N.J., said this is his first time West, outside of a trip to Laguna, Calif. His duty station, Ukiah, is a far cry from the beaches of Southern California.
The natural resources major said he is focusing on fisheries as a career. Last summer he worked in a lab for the university’s forestry division determining the diets of fish. This summer, when not asking forest visitors a barrage of questions, he said he’s catching fish instead of analyzing their digestive systems.
On a fishing expedition at Twin Ponds near Ukiah, he said he caught enough rainbow trout to contribute to a potluck with the firefighters stationed there; it’s no easy task to feed firefighters.
A car pulls up and Wooding pulls one of three different surveys. He asks questions like, “Is Hells Canyon Overlook your destination today? Are you staying on the forest? How much have you spent on this trip?”
At spots like the Overlook, visitors regularly comply to the survey. In general-use forest areas, he said he sometimes gets resentment.
“Most people are amenable and want to help enhance the forest visit experience, but some people don’t like the Forest Service and feel like the survey is big brother watching,” Wooding said.
At each of the sites a pneumatic tube is laid across the entrance to count the cars coming in. Wooding said in some places the tubes have been cut.
“Some tell me the survey is a way to close down roads in the general forest, but more go out of their way to take the survey,” Wooding said.
Wooding said students working on the Wallowa-Whitman have surveyed at the trailhead entrance to the Eagle Cap Wilderness at Wallowa Lake, at the Joseph Canyon Overlook, Pittsburg Landing and the Hells Canyon Dam on the Snake River and the Pomeroy Ranger District in Washington.
A couple on motorcycles from Canada stopped and happily completed a survey with Wooding. They asked about places to eat and camp near Joseph before they headed back home.
Wooding said the job has given him an opportunity to see a huge range of the different areas and geologies of the forest. On the rare chance he has four days off, he goes backpacking. During his off-time on the Snake River, he fished for small- mouth bass. He said he is enjoying being by himself after-hours and relaxing in the forest. And the visitors, for the most part, have been friendly. One even told him, “I want your job.”
Bret Hoffman-Dana oversees the program. He found out about the job while camping in the Olympic National Park. There he ran into a Forest Service employee who told him about the program.
Hoffman-Dana now lives in Bend, but said he spends most of the summer months working with the college kids, traveling to their various sites. In the off-season, he said he does the surveys himself.
“During the peak season we bring out college students to help with the increased workload,” Hoffman-Dana said. “During the off-season a couple local workers primarily survey snow parks and ski resorts.”
He said the Forest Service contracts with the University of West Virginia and the students fulfill internship and course requirements.
For the full story, see Friday's issue of The Observer
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