Having met the Dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources and the Vice President for Research of Colorado State University during their visits to Washington, DC, I decided to take advantage of their hospitality for a day during my Colorado trip.
Colorado State University, CSU, like my alma mater, Michigan State, is a land grant university, which to me means that they tend to include studies in agriculture and natural resources. My current policy portfolio is heavily biased toward natural resources, particularly water and forests, so I looked forward to an opportunity to talk with experts in these areas.
I confess that my DC staff colleagues appeared to be a little bewildered by this part of my visit. I don’t think they quite understood what I would possibly find to do for the day. It was at that point that I realized I was indulging my academic side, since hanging out and talking with other professors about research and ideas is a very typically faculty activity. I knew I would thoroughly enjoy it.
I started with the faculty who deal with forestry, and one of the biggest issues in forestry these days is wildfires. After decades of suppressing every fire that started, the forests in the West are burdened with huge amounts of undergrowth which provide unhealthy amounts of fuels for wildfires. The resulting fires tend to be enormous in scale and burn very hot with widespread destruction. In the past ten years, the costs of fighting big fires has escalated to the point where the Forest Service has money to do little else, much to the frustration of people would prefer to try to prevent fires or deal with other aspects of forest health.
When I asked what was the most recent big advance in forest fire science, the group identified the Wildland-Urban Interface, abbreviated WUI, and pronounced “woo-ey.” These are the houses that overlap with the forest land, and it is trying to protect these structures that actually consumes a huge amount of the fire suppression budget. Trying to find strategies to deal with the WUI is a very hot topic among all folks who deal with fire.
My next meeting was fun because the geologist couldn’t quite understand why I was interested in meeting with her. She has found a different way of dating rocks and especially oil fields using the radioactive decay of a rhenium isotope to its daughter osmium isotope. My life in DC has not exactly been filled with a lot of rhenium and osmium, much less molybdite, the molybdenum-based mineral that concentrates large amounts of rhenium, so I really couldn’t resist the chance to talk a little chemistry on the side. From this geologist, I learned that much of her funding comes from Norway, which is the third largest oil-producing country in the world, but she also receives samples from around the world for her dating technique.
Lunch was with the Dean and a faculty member who I believe is a fluvial geomorphologist. That is just so much more cool than being a chemist! Basically she works on rivers. The faculty member happens to be the Ph.D. advisor of one of my fellow Fellows, and I was thrilled that she was able to join us on short notice. I had enjoyed the Dean’s company when we met in DC, and indeed she felt like an old friend.
After lunch, I met with the Vice President of Research, and I was pleased to get an answer to my question of why so many federal labs have set up shop in Colorado. He suggested that some of it was the availability of a well-educated workforce. Another reason was that the infrastructure and supply chain was available for high tech research. Then, there is the not negligible draw of Colorado itself! With the six labs that I’ll be visiting in the next three days, I could easily spend another week nerding out without running out of opportunities.
I had been fascinated to learn that CSU has a Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, and I wanted to learn more about what they did. I had been aware that there was a push for military bases to become self-sufficient, meaning that they would be independent of energy and water infrastructure from the surrounding areas, but it turned out that one of the biggest environmental challenges facing military bases is endangered species. The bases are required to comply with all federal environmental regulations, and the consultants at CSU’s center help figure out the best approaches. There is also some chemistry involved cleaning up hazardous waste such as lead from munitions and trichloroethylene that used to be used to clean airplane engines that the center staff work on as well.
I met with two faculty from Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, and that conversation turned into a free-wheeling discussion of the status of endangered fish in the area and impacts of wildfires. After a very enjoyable half hour, they asked me if I had gotten what I wanted from the conversation. I explained that I felt a bit like I was doing a Richard Feynman imitation. When Feynman was appointed to the task force to investigate the Challenger shuttle explosion, he took himself to Cal Tech, sat down with the experts in the field and said, “Teach me.” So I had simply been absorbing everything that these experts were willing to share.
My last group of the day was the social scientists who deal with the human element of natural resource conservation. They seemed very surprised that I had a sense of humor, and I’m not sure if it was because I’m a chemist or because I am a Senate staffer, but our discussion was extremely lively. It included quite a bit of, “I wonder why people do…” I was very pleased to be able to toss in a piece of trivia I had learned about conserving agricultural land. It turns out that if a rancher bequeaths the family ranch to a son, the son will most likely sell it off to get the money. If the rancher really wants to the ranch to stay a working ranch, the wise move is to bequeath it to a daughter, who is much more likely to preserve it. Once again in this conversation there was no particular goal, but we had a great time just trading ideas and seeing where the conversation took us.
I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to think about a number of natural resource issues from a variety of perspectives. Because the Northeast is much more urban, we have fewer of those programs in my area, and I know I will miss those conversations at the end of my fellowship year.