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My Experience as an Earth Team Volunteer

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Submitted By Nick Studebaker, Volunteer, Spokane

Photo of Nick Studebaker, Earth Team Volunteer.

Photo of Nick Studebaker, Earth Team Volunteer

It was the middle of February 2009. Trying to be as proactive as possible, I was looking ahead to see what additional courses I would need to fulfill my geography major requirements when the end of March, and another quarter, rolled around. To my surprise, there were few that were available to me in my particular situation, and in fact, none that were required. After sharing this information with my parents, my mother suggested that rather than essentially dropping out, per se, for a quarter before the summer, that I see if I could find an internship which might give me a direction as to how I might apply my geography degree (once I receive it in June 2010).

I sought the advice of our cartography lab director at Eastern Washington University, Jim Johnson. Jim told me about his prior experience with an agency called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Skeptical, I called soil conservationist veteran Steve Sprecher who informed me that although he was short on projects, he would pass my interest on. At this, I thanked him and promptly disregarded the whole idea of internship with anyone, as who would want to spend their time on a junior geography student?

One week later I received an e-mail from Peter Bautista, who proposed that I come to meet with him at the Spokane state office, as he and his Geotechnical Team might have some use for me after all! At the end of the “interview,” I was completely sold and could not wait to begin–and then, the paperwork began.  Regardless of government background check procedure, I was not at all deterred from pursuing this rare and exceptional opportunity.

During the month of April I worked under the wing of GIS guru Dave Brower, who not only over-filled my brain (more than once, though I only admitted it once), but made me feel as part of the NRCS state office as one could possibly be without actually working there! His hospitality and endless energy were a pleasure to work with. My first task was simple but enjoyable; using statewide USGS elevation data within ArcMap. I mosaic-ed and extrapolated hillshades at 10-meter intervals per each 8-digit hydrologic unit.

When May came, I was to work with June Johnson within Toolkit on various conservation plan maps. This was very different than making the hillshades, as Toolkit was unknown to me (not to mention all of the ACRONYMS of practices). Unfortunately, the plans which had been chosen contained unforeseen information anomalies to the point where both June and I agreed that we could not use them. Thankfully, due to the work of June and Ron Myhrum, I relocated to the Spokane field office to do some GIS work with Soil Scientist Tim Riebe on the up-and-coming soil survey. This task consisted of creating slope, aspect and elevation models using county-wide USGS data to help with the editing process of the new soil lines. Much to the surprise of my state office counterparts (not to mention my own), I was assigned an empty office, complete with a door, at the field office. I jokingly expressed this to certain persons, who kindly responded that I should enjoy it, as it might be the only “door” I’ll ever have (and they are probably correct)!

The first day of June, I had the opportunity to go out into the field with experienced Soil Conservation Technician, Dave Welk to investigate a landowner’s work in the Colbert area regarding tree planting as well as the unusual, but highly effective, practice of vegetation-removal via goats. Lastly, I enjoyed partial-attendance to a Toolkit training session which was led by June Johnson and Chas Scripter. This way, I was still able to get my hands on Toolkit.

The past two and a half months of afternoons have been highly valuable and enjoyable on a number of levels. EVERY NRCS employee that I encountered, regardless of their office or position, was not only kind to me, but seemed to fall over themselves to assist and/or provide for me. This reeeeally impressed me as interns are not always thought of as priorities. My roughly 140 hours of interaction have planted the seed of “Soil Conservationist” within me - we’ll see what happens! Regardless, I hope to be able to return to volunteer for the NRCS.

I would like to extend special thanks, in no particular order, to Kathy Dickerson and Eileen Jackson for handling all of my paperwork; Cheryle Miller for the Benadryl; Gerald Rouse, Jan Carlson, Chad Dunnahoo, Bela Espinoza, Suzanne Demaine, Georgia Sormun, Kathy Randazzo and Sherre Copeland for your consistent “hello’s;” Larry Johnson for your duties as the “hall monitor;” Joe Gasperi for your demonstration of ArcView; Ron Myhrum for your polling the soil scientists on projects for me; Brad Duncan for answering my questions; Joel Poore for your career suggestions and dry humor; June Johnson, Chas Scripter and Dave Brower for your kindness, hospitality, flexibility, experience shared and hours invested; Peter Bautista for your willingness to get and keep me on board with the NRCS; Roylene Ride at the Door for allowing interns in your office; Tim Riebe for your thorough explanations and for our discussions; Dave Welk for the field trip and related tips and Steve Sprecher for passing my interest for internship on throughout the NRCS, as without that I would have never experienced all of this!