In a partnership between the Chicago Botanic Garden and the United States Forest Service, two interns have spent five months working in Marlinton as part of a conservation effort for native plants and trees of West Virginia.
Caroline Hildebrand, of Colorado, and Ivy Makia, of Florida, came to Pocahontas County in July and after a two-week quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the two began their work to collect seeds for the project.
“The purpose of our job is to collect seeds and process them – meaning cleaning them and then sending them out to nurseries that will then grow them so that the forest service can buy them back to use for the ecological restoration of disturbed areas along the Monongahela Forest,” Makia said.
For Pocahontas County specifically, the interns are focusing on seeds to replenish the red spruce forests.
“So there are red spruce forests that have been mainly disturbed by mines from the 1960s and actually, the mining companies got some funding to restore their projects in the sixties and did it incorrectly,” Hildebrand said. “They actually put in the wrong species. They put a certain type of pine tree. So that has been torn up, and we’re trying to restore the actual forest that is supposed to be there which is red spruce.”
Through their collection, the interns have traveled to Dolly Sods Wilderness which boasts a pioneer species of red spruce trees.
Along with collecting red spruce seeds, they have collected a plethora of seeds which will help the forest renew itself and return to its original glory.
“Pollinators – that’s a lot of the seeds that we collected, too,” Makia said. “Just anything to get that first successional stage.”
“The pioneer stage,” Hildebrand added. “We take a lot of berries that birds love, and if birds eat the berries, they end up spreading it all around. Then other plants can start to grow, and it starts to reform the soils, too. It’s a neat process.”
Due to the pandemic, the internship started late and the pace of the project was slightly altered. It didn’t stop Hildebrand and Makia from not only having a successful gathering season, but they were also able to implement new practices that will be in place for future interns.
“We’ve had to start from scratch in a lot of different ways, like forming our own seed cleaning plant in the garage of the bunkhouse and figuring out what supply list we need and the interns will need up front in the future, too,” Hildebrand said. “We’ve been doing a lot of problem solving together.”
“It’s really awesome,” Makia said. “It almost feels like we’re rebuilding the program a little, just a little bit for future people.”
Both young ladies came into the internship with environmental and botany backgrounds, and were drawn to the project because they are helping to restore and maintain plant and tree growth.
“I’m a recent graduate from the University of Florida,” Makia said. “I was an animal science major for the first two and a half years of my time there, and then I took a gardening class, and I was like, ‘okay, I really love plants.’ So I switched over to biology and just focused on plant science and stuff like that.”
“I have a diverse background, I guess,” Hildebrand said. “I just finished my master’s in environmental science and GIS in Colorado, but I’m originally from Connecticut. I have a broad master’s degree that I’ve focused in on plants and fungi, mainly, in the research I was doing. That’s my main interest.”
While living in Colorado, Hildebrand was providing outdoor education and realized through that experience what she wanted to do in the future.
“I lead wilderness trips for five years after college and was doing a lot of outdoor education with young girls on backpacking trips all around the north,” she said. “I started to realize I wanted to have my own impact in science, outside of education. It’s been cool.”
Although they came to Pocahontas County with a purpose and job to do, the young ladies have also had time to enjoy the area and make milestones of their own.
For Makia, who is used to the hustle and bustle of Orlando, Florida, the internship has opened her eyes to a world of quiet and peace.
“It’s been really comforting for me, and it’s made the transition easy,” she said. “You wouldn’t expect that. I thought I would feel like I was missing out on something, but it feels really nice and homey. The people here are really nice.
“I’m super proud of myself because when I came here, I never hiked a day in my life,” she continued. “I was genuinely terrified to go into the woods by myself, so I’ve been able to go on trails by myself lately, and it’s been super empowering, and awesome. I’m proud of myself.”
Part of the reason the stay has been a fun experience, Makia said, is because she and Hildebrand had each other. The two first met when they came to Marlinton and became instant friends, which made the transition to small town living a bit easier.
“A lot has to do with Caroline, because she’s always encouraging me,” Makia said. “She took me on my first hike. That was really magical. I think the biggest part of this experience has been Caroline. She’s been a part of every memory.”
“We talk all the time about how lucky we are,” Hildebrand added. “We spend so much time together, and we don’t get sick of each other. We have really good communication.”
After the two complete their internships in December, they will move on to new jobs and will keep a piece of what they did here, and a piece of the county, with them.
For Makia, the stay in Pocahontas County has made her reconsider her plans to permanently return to her home state.
“I’m definitely going to go back to Florida for a couple of months,” she said. “I was so sure I was going to go back to Florida, work there, live there, but now, after living here for a few months, I don’t want to permanently go back to Florida. I definitely want to stay up in this region, for sure. It’s the weather and the beauty of everything, and the quiet. I really like that.”
Hildebrand plans to return to the west coast and stay in the botany field.
“I’m trying to find jobs in the forest service or the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] in northern California or Oregon,” she said. “The next step is being a biological science technician with an emphasis on plants – basically a botany technician.”
The seeds collected by the interns will go to the non-profit organization Appalachian Headwaters, which will clean and propagate the seeds. The propagated seeds will then be bought by the forest service to plant to restore the forest.
Appalachian Headwaters was founded by lawyers who won cases concerning environmental infractions. The money won from those lawsuits is used to fund conservation projects like this botany internship.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org