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Glacier, Interpretation, Education, and Volunteers Directorate, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate, Climate Change Response Program

Headwaters is a show about how Glacier National Park is connected to everything else.


Season 5

Episode 1

Climate Interpretation with Diane Sine


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is brought to you by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Peri Sasnett: You're listening to Headwaters, a show about how Glacier National Park is connected to everything else. My name is Peri, and this episode is an interview that my co-host Daniel did with longtime park ranger and educator Diane Sine about telling stories about our glaciers to park visitors.

Peri: This is one in a series of conversations we've been having with a wide variety of climate change experts. They don't have to be listened to in any order. Each one stands on its own and they all focus on a particular aspect of the way the world is being altered by the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past century and a half, human activity has released enough greenhouse gases to warm the Earth's climate more than one degree Celsius, with only more warming on the way. Throughout 2023, Daniel sat down with experts to talk about how that warming is altering Glacier National Park, our lives, and our futures.

[Theme music fades in.]

Peri: This is one of my favorite interviews in a long time. Diane is an amazing person, a local legend, really. And I found her stories surprising and resonant. She's been visiting the park's glaciers for decades and has seen so much change firsthand. I think you'll really enjoy this conversation.

Daniel Lombardi: So, Diane Sine, welcome to the podcast, welcome back to the podcast.

Diane Sine: Thank you, Daniel.

Daniel: Will you remind people who you are, where you work, how long you've been doing it?

Diane: My name is Diane Signe and I work at Many Glacier. I'm the lead interpreter over there and I have been in the park for quite a while. I've been in interpretation pretty much all my adult life during the summers here and even before that, when I was a college student, I worked at the Many Glacier Hotel. So I've been hanging around Many Glacier since 1980.

Daniel: Wow. So maybe let's start with what is many glacier for someone who's, like, never been to Glacier. And then I am curious to hear about your first time visiting many Glacier.

Diane: So Many Glacier as a region of the park with a rather confusing name. Yes, we get the fact that it's improper English, "Many" is plural, "Glacier" is singular. So there's one of the first problems right there, but it's simply a region of the park. The Many Glacier Hotel is there. And the name came about in the early years of the park, simply referring to the fact that there were multiple glaciers at the head of the valleys, pretty much a glacier at the head of each one of the valleys.

Daniel: Yeah. Which is like four or five glaciers or something. It's not like many, many glaciers, right? A few, right? It's Many Glacier.

Diane: And it sort of sounds like "mini" glacier, as in "tiny glacier." So we get confusion about people thinking that it's "mini glacier." Sure. Hey, maybe that's an appropriate name in some ways.

[Music fades in and then concludes.]

Daniel: What is a glacier? What makes Grinnell Glacier actually a glacier?

Diane: Remember, I'm not a geologist. I'm an elementary teacher. So a glacier, whether we're talking about those massive ice age glaciers that were thousands of feet thick, that carved out these valleys in Glacier National Park, or whether we're talking about the comparatively small glaciers that were here. Well, are here today. And we're part of the Little Ice Age. Places such as Grinnell Glacier.

Diane: To have a glacier, you simply have to have a place where more snow falls every winter then can completely melt during the summers. So over the years, that snow builds up, it accumulates. It actually recrystallizes fairly quickly and it forms a dense ice. And once you have this thick, dense ice, you eventually get—and there are lots of variables—but say when it gets to 70 to 100 feet thick, there is so much mass or so much weight pressure that it actually starts to flow. And so the bottom of the glacier starts to flow and there's actually movement. So a glacier is a mass of a moving ice. And that confuses people sometimes. Sometimes they think, well, is it rolling down the valley? And in the case of all these glaciers in Glacier National Park, they're actually becoming smaller all the time. But there's movement within the mass of ice. There's more accumulation of ice at the upper elevation of the glacier, and then the ice flows through. So whether a glacier is growing or receding is simply a matter of economics. Is there is there more snow and ice being added to that mass every year or is there more melting happening? And the reality here is there's more melting happening.

Daniel: Right. Is there is your summer more intense? Or your winter more intense? And that that balance has shifted.

Diane: So one of the fascinating things you mentioned, the moraine, and of course, that's the end of the maintain trail today. And it's a very impressive mass of accumulation of unsorted material. We call it glacial, glacial till. So there are large rocks and boulders in there. And there also is a lot of just very small, almost sand and gravel. But it's it's fascinating to my brain to try to imagine how long the edge of Grinnell Glacier sat at one place for that amount of moraine material to pile up on top of itself in that one location. And the glacier still moves that moraine material. There's still there's still rocks and boulders and gravel and sand within the layers of the ice and being scraped from beneath and become part of the mass of moving ice. But throughout my lifetime, the glacier has been receding so quickly that the modern, quote, marine material is just sort of smeared across the limestone ledges up there. There's no accumulation compared to what created that moraine. That was the edge of the ice when George Bird Grinnell was up there.

Daniel: So it's a mass of ice that moves.

Diane: That's right. The ice within the glacier moves.

Daniel: How did Grinnell Glacier get its name?

Diane: Grinnell Glacier is named for a guy named George Bird Grinnell and George Bird Grinnell was a well-to-do Easterner. He was very interested in the West. He was interested in conservation issues, really. He came from the background of sort of a gentleman hunter. So at that point, George Bird Grinnell was editor of Forest and Stream Magazine, which was kind of the the big outdoorsman journal of that time. And so in that role, he got to know James Willard Schultz. He read Schultz's writings about this area and became interested in exploring it. So Grinnell first came into this area in 1885, and on that trip he got up up into the Swift Current Valley and could could see Grinnell Glacier from a distance and was interested in it. But then he came back in 1887 with a group of other guys, and they actually hiked up to Grinnell Glacier. And it was on that trip that the friends that he was with basically named the big old chunk of ice that they got to for him for Grinnell.

Daniel: So Grinnell didn't name the glacier after himself. His buddies named it for him.

Diane: Right. It appears that his his buddies named it for him, although it also appears from his writings that he probably was very agreeable to having something named after him, would be my guess.

Daniel: And he did then name a ton of mountains and lakes and everything all around the park. He he was throwing out names pretty easily.

Diane: George Bird Grinnell did name all sorts of features in the park. I think it's it's, it's interesting because if you think about it, any noticeable feature, any real obvious kind of feature would have had multiple names already. It's not like there hadn't been people on this landscape for as long as time goes back. So, you know, the Blackfeet, the Kootenai, everybody would have had names for all of these obvious features, but those names hadn't been written down. Some of the names that George Bird Grinnell applied to features in what is today Glacier National Park, very much reflect the kind of trip that he was on in the 1880s. If you go into the Saint Mary Valley, we have names that he gave such as Gunsight Pass, Fusillade Mountain, Single Shot Mountain. And all of those names came from the fact that George Bird Grinnell was on a hunting trip and was thinking a lot about hunting.

Daniel: Yeah.

Diane: So Single Shot Mountain is actually where he did it. In fact, shoot a bighorn sheep with a single shot.

Daniel: Okay. All right, George. So his friends name this glacier for him. He went back many, many times, from my understanding, to Grinnell Glacier and and saw it over the course of his whole adult life, was making trips up to the ice. And I'm curious if you know anything about kind of his how he saw the glacier and how that might have changed over time, because I think early on he made predictions that, you know, this glacier is going to disappear soon.

Diane: Right. In a way, we're really fortunate that George Bird Grinnell, was a writer, and so he very much left evidence of how he thought and his impressions. And even that very first trip up to Grinnell Glacier is well documented because he wrote the whole story in various installments so that he could publish them in Forest and Stream Magazine. So we know that after those first trips where where this area really inspired him, as it does so many of us. And he he first suggested in an article that he published that perhaps this was an area that should be protected with national park status. And that didn't happen right away. There were a lot of people who weren't excited about that idea. But finally the park was established in 1910 and he continued to come back periodically and visit it. So he went from coming into the Swift Current Valley, hiking up to Grinnell Glacier, where there was no trail. They were just finding their own route. Certainly people had been there before, but there wasn't a record of people having been there before. And then he came back in later years after the Many Glacier Hotel was built, a road all the way into the valley, and then a developed park service trail from the hotel up to Grinnell Glacier. And he saw those changes both in visitation and the changes in the glacier, the ice itself.

Daniel: Yeah, we think about like today, we think about living in a an era of such fast and profound change. You know, now. But from his perspective, he was in an era of profound change, too. He went from really an undeveloped wild area to some extent, and then saw that become a tourist hub and a national park and also saw the climate and the environment really changed the glaciers throughout that time, too. And that would have been, what, from the 1880s to the 1930s. Right.

Diane: He very much wrote about the changes in the area due to the, quote, development and visitation. And of course, that was actually something that was partly due to his efforts. It was significantly influenced by his efforts. But basically, he he felt like he had promoted the idea of establishment of a national park for for a greater good. And yet he felt like what had happened as a result of that had basically ruined or certainly compromised the experience that he had personally first had when he had come into this remote wilderness area.

Daniel: Yeah.

Diane: So it's also interesting because he also wrote about the changes in the ice itself. So glaciers such as the Grinnell Glacier were probably at their largest size in the mid 1800s. So when George Grinnell was up there in the 1880s, you know, that wasn't that long after the maximum size of, quote, modern Grinnell Glacier. And already by his later trips up into the into the valley, I know in the twenties he was documenting that it had changed dramatically and it was a much smaller glacier than he had originally seen. And of course, that was long before any of us were talking about climate change or really understanding what was going on. But he certainly knew what he was observing and understood that there were changes.

Daniel: He saw those changes happening. Yeah. Hmm. Yeah. So we here in the park, we have a chance to see, you know, in recent decades, climate change and glacier melt that is really almost entirely caused by human climate change. But in George Bird Grinnell's era, that was climate change that was mostly naturally the ending of the Little Ice Age.

Diane: And then we have a lot of records from the park naturalists that were were going up there in the 1920s and 1930s. Morton J. Elrod was the first person employed as a Ranger naturalist, leading hikes up to Grinnell Glacier. And he he was a biology professor from the University of Montana. And so in the mid 1920s, he started to document he had noticed that, you know, every year he was having to actually walk farther to get to the edge of the ice when he went to Grinnell Glacier. So Morton J. Elrod started to document, you know, how many steps it was, how many paces, to get from a certain big rock on the moraine that we now refer to as "Elrod's Rock." And so he set the stage for actual scientific research documenting the changes up there. And so we know that there were pretty dramatic changes, quite dramatic changes in the twenties and thirties. And then it appears that that recession of the glaciers slowed down significantly and then took off again actually after I started working here in the in the 1980s.

Daniel: So one of the things that Grinnell was big on was creating a national park here. He was involved in this area for decades before it was a national park. Then in 1910, Congress makes Glacier National Park a reality. One of the things I know you are particularly fascinated in is how does that name get picked? Glacier National Park. Why is it called that?

Diane: Yeah, I am fascinated by by the whole issue of the name of the park. Because while we have really good documentation for a lot of things, we do not have a document that said, "We are going to establish Glacier National Park and give it that name because," fill in the blank.

Diane: So you come to a place called Glacier National Park, and one of the first questions at a visitor center is, you know, "Where is the glacier?" "Where can I drive to a glacier?" "Where can I touch a glacier?"

Diane: And often people are expecting massive ice fields like you have in Patagonia or up in Alaska. They're they're visualizing something different from what we have today. And so I noticed that in my earlier years as a ranger, I would overhear a lot of other people sort of trying to make it okay with visitors saying, "Oh, well, you know, you're not going to be able to drive to a glacier. But really, the park was named for this glaciated landscape from the Ice Age glaciers. So you're experiencing everything Glacier has by, you know, driving up the St. Mary Valley or the Lake McDonald Valley."

Daniel: So it's kind of confusing because the park does have active existing small mountain glaciers. And 10,000 years and more ago, the park was carved by massive Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers. So both are true. But which one was the park actually named for? That's a little bit murky.

Diane: That that's the question. And that's the question I tried to answer in looking back through the historical documents, it's very evident that before the park was established, before they came up with the name, one of the things that people were really excited about was that this was a place south of Alaska in the United States where you could take the railroad up to the mountains and then you could actually get to glaciers. You know, folks, folks were working really hard to hike up to places like Grinnell Glacier or Sperry Glacier. It was really the West Side glaciers like Sperry Glacier that I think led to that name, because in those early years people would come on the Great Northern Railway and they would make their way up to Lake McDonald, take a boat up the lake. There was no no road at that point. And then they would hike up to Sperry Glacier, and this was a place you could actually hike to a glacier. We have plenty of original documents that make it clear that people were really excited about the fact that there were honest to goodness glaciers here. And we have every reason to believe that. That's why they named it Glacier National Park.

Daniel: It was kind of a or it was actually a a tourist package, basically come stay in our hotel and we will take you to a glacier in Glacier National Park. So you look through early park documents, you look through advertisements that the Great Northern Railway had to try and get people to come visit this place. We look at newspaper articles from when the park was established in 1910, and for the most part everyone's talking about the active, small, glaciers in the mountains here. So it seems that that's probably what they named it for.

Diane: Even even the very first superintendents annual reports that we have in the archives, when they just give an overview of this new national park and what it has to offer to the American people. They emphasize that it has glaciers. And none of those writings ever say. They talk about it being a beautiful place with nice scenery. But they never say, "and it has a glaciated landscape, so it should be called Glacier National Park.".

[Music fades in and then concludes.]

Daniel: How what was your first visit? How did you first come to many Glacier?

Diane: I grew up in Seattle and I grew up in a family that did a lot of camping and hiking and visited national parks with our tent. And so I had come to Glacier on family camping trips a couple of times in my childhood, and I actually distinctly remember the first time I was in the Many Glacier area. We spent a night at Granite Park Chalet. We hiked the Highline in from Logan Pass, and then the next day we hiked over Swiftcurrent Pass and actually hiked into the Many Glacier area coming down from the Continental Divide.

Daniel: Wow. Today, most people take the long, bumpy road in from Babb, but you came in on foot, which is seems really special.

Diane: Yeah. We can almost pretend like I'm an old pioneer or something, but it wasn't quite like that.

Daniel: Tell me how that that led into a career in Many Glacier.

Diane: Yeah, I was one of those nerdy national park fans as, as a child, I loved it when our family camping in national parks. I always was excited to go to the ranger talks in the evenings. So I also remember on on that same trip we came back into Many Glacier another day and we went on the Ranger-Guided boat trip and hiked to Grinnell Lake. And I distinctly remember that that hike was being led by a female ranger, and I believe that was the first time I had ever seen a female ranger, because they weren't that common at that point. And I don't know that it was it was an "aha moment" that set the track, but it was certainly an awareness that, oh, that would be a really cool job.

Daniel: You're in an inspiring place, having a good time and you see someone leading a path that maybe you could follow.

Diane: Absolutely. It looked like it looked like a good life and turns out it is a good life. You know, I want to clarify. I really don't feel like I've had a career in Glacier National Park or career as a ranger, because for me, Glacier has always been a passion more than a career. I had a career as an elementary teacher, and then I would spend my summers working as a ranger in Glacier because I was passionate about it. And even though I do it for a little bit longer and I no longer teach, I'm retired from teaching. For me, the park has always been a passion and a choice rather than something that I felt I was stuck in. I guess career doesn't have to be a negative word, but for me I think of it differently.

Daniel: Oh, I like that. Yeah. That the word "career" implies... Uh, it implies an amount of work that you don't necessarily feel. This is just a good way to spend the summer.

Diane: Exactly. And not to gloss over it. There's plenty of work involved. But but I've I've chosen to have Glacier be a positive in my life, more than a negative at any time.

Daniel: But for that, though, you were working for the hotel and you went on a hike up to Grinnell Glacier. I don't know. What do you remember about about seeing the glacier for the first time?

Diane: I very much remember that that first time I hiked up to Grinnell Glacier, I got to the end of the trail at the top of the moraine where where you look, you know, down at Upper Grinnell Lake and across at the glacier itself. And my impression and actually I have photographs of it to back it up was the glacier itself wasn't very far away.

Diane: From from the moraine the glacier was right there, in your face. As opposed to now where it's quite a distance across that basin to get to the ice itself. And now when people hike up there, people get to the moraine and they they look and they take it all in and then they always seem to be enticed to... They want to get closer to the glacier itself.

Daniel: The glacier was big enough. You didn't have to hike further once you got to the edge, that was good enough.

Diane: Exactly. And in those first years when I visited, I never did actually go out on to the glacier itself. For many years then after I started working as a ranger here and leading interpretive hikes up there, we would actually walk on the ice and go out onto the ice itself. But it seems like in those those early years when I was hiking up there as a college student in the summers, it was a more intimate experience just being able to see it from the moraine.

Daniel: You know, On that first trip you took to the glacier in '81, did you think, Oh, this is all going to be gone someday? Or did you see that change coming?

Diane: My memory of when I started working as a ranger and really paying attention to bigger ideas having to do with the Grinnell Glacier. We were fascinated by the stories from the twenties in the thirties when when Upper Grinnell Lake first appeared as the meltwater lake, as the glacier receded and pulled away from the moraine.

Diane: You know, it was fascinating to think that that lake hadn't been there in the George Bird Grinnell times. And of course, we have wonderful repeat photography showing the thickness of Grinnell Glacier and that Salamander (what we call Salamander Glacier today) up above, was simply the upper lobe of a Grinnell Glacier connected by by an icefall there.

Daniel: When George Bird Grinnell first visited it was just kind of the whole back of the valley is just one big mass of ice. And now we have names for the different pieces because they've separated and a lake has formed at the edge of the glacier. So it's really changed a lot.

Diane: I mean, we spend so much time in the park talking about geology in terms of things being millions and a billion years old, and then to to see these changes happening just, just in the short history of the park actually existing, is kind of mind blowing.

Daniel: Yeah. In your first years hiking up to Grinnell, I'm guessing that not a lot of people were talking about modern human-caused climate change.

Diane: I don't remember people really talking about climate change at all in those early years. I was very fortunate to be mentored by rangers like Bob Schuster, who had been around since the mid-sixties. And, you know, he was documenting that since he had started in 1967, he really hadn't noticed changes in Grinnell Glacier. And then suddenly in those later eighties, everything just seemed to take off with rocket speed. And it's it's been changing, it feels like hourly, ever since.

Daniel: Yeah. So in the at least anecdotally, in the sixties and seventies, it seemed like Grinnell was holding fairly steady. But then that really changed kind of at the start of your time going up there.

Diane: I clearly remember that in my early years, leading the hikes up to Grinnell Glacier, what the very special thing was that we would actually lead our visitor groups out onto the ice. We had an ice ax and we had been trained to to be safe and know what we were doing because glacier travel is not something to to take lightly. There are a lot of potential hazards, and we certainly do not encourage people to go out onto the ice today because not only do they probably not have the background to recognize the risks with the crevasses and hidden dangers, but it has also changed so much since we did lead that hike because the edge of the ice has become much more rotten and undercut.

Diane: But my memory is that a couple times during the summer a friend and I, after we had concluded our organized hikes, we'd we'd take a little excursion on our own down to the outlet of Grinnell Glacier. And this is where the water actually came rushing from underneath the ice. And it led down to into the stream that that went over the waterfall and drains that entire valley. And so when we would walk down there, we would be walking across the basin with this massive wall of ice on our right, and then we would get down to where the water came gushing out from underneath the wall of the edge of Grinnell Glacier. And my memory is that at that point where the outlet was, the ice was rising, at least at least 30 feet above me, if not more. I actually I have photographs of that. I'll have to show you.

Daniel: Okay. Where as now, you'd be... It'd be kind of tricky to find a spot where the ice is, what, ten feet high?

Diane: Yeah, today when you get... So today, to take that walk that I would take. In the late 1980s down to the outlet. You're simply walking across this open limestone wide valley in a way it's it's a hanging valley where where I had ice on my right. Today, there are all sorts of plants and wildflowers growing up. We actually have small trees that are growing up. It's it's like that very first step in plant succession. After that, those soils have first been exposed after they were covered by ice for for thousands of years. And it looks much more raw and rocky. I've heard people describe it as almost a moonscape, as if we had any experience on the moon. But with that raw, open, rocky-ness, I, I see people just wandering all over the place and yet they're not thinking about the fact that they're compact in that soil. They're actually stepping on and tiny plants and and we're really threatening that that future glorious subalpine meadow.

Daniel: Yeah. Do you remember when you first heard about climate change as a concept? Like, modern-day human-caused climate change?

Diane: The first thing I remember is when I was an SCA, Student Conservation Association, intern for the Park Service, working at the St Mary Visitor Center. And I remember that one of the books that was for sale there at St. Mary was what I remember as a as a children's book. It was not a scholarly tome by any means, but basically a children's book about climate change. And I can remember picking that up off the shelf and reading it during my spare time, which even there is a rather amazing change because there's never a spare moment in any of the visitor centers in Glacier today. But there were moments I could read a book and learn at the desk.

Daniel: Wow. Yeah. So you are you find this kid's book in the visitor center and it kind of explains the basics that, humans are changing the climate, and causing the glaciers to retreat. And that's one of your first at least one of the first times you can remember really seeing that put together.

Diane: I feel like that that was the beginning of providing me with a framework to then take in other information, be interested in learning more.

Daniel: All right, then let's talk about a pivotal moment in Grinnell Glacier history, and in maybe the history of climate change, happens when Vice President Al Gore visits the glacier.

Diane: That was a pretty big deal to have the vice president to have the vice president come to Grinnell Glacier on a day trip from Washington, D.C. was not your typical day in Glacier National Park.

Daniel: Okay.

Diane: And I first became aware of it because suddenly we had all of these men in khaki fishing vests and earpieces wandering around the Many Glacier Valley. And it it turned out they were the advance-team for the Secret Service.

Daniel: And they're trying to blend in.

Diane: They so did not blend in.


Daniel: Okay. So then what ended up being your job, your role, for the Vice President's visit?

Diane: Yeah. So in 1997, I was in the middle of my teaching career in in Kalispell. And then it turned out the Vice President was coming and we needed to have all sorts of extra personnel. And so I was asked if I if I was available to help that day. And I wasn't available because I was a teacher. And that was the day I was supposed to be in the classroom. But I called my principal and I pleaded, I have this chance to be involved in this event with the Vice President. "Could I please use one of my personal days for the school year?"

Diane: So that's what I did. And it turned out that my job was to deal with the media that was going to go up the trail ahead of the vice president.

Daniel: Okay.

Diane: So the Secret Service had been telling us that Al Gore was in very good shape and he was a good hiker and that he was going to have no problem hiking up that trail. And the people who were handling all the logistics understood that the media wouldn't necessarily be in as good shape as the Vice President.

Diane: So the media pool was a combination of local Montana media and then all sorts of national folks. And I remember them telling me that they'd they'd boarded a plane in Washington, D.C. (They had boarded Air Force Two in Washington, D.C.) at something like 3:00 in the morning Eastern Time. And they they flew out to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls. And then at that point, they got on three Chinook helicopters—

Daniel: Wow!

Diane: —that flew them to what we used to endearingly call "Babb International Airport," which is a pasture in Babb that used to have an air sock on it. And I remember that they had to go down and get the cows out of it.

Daniel: Shoot them out of the way.

Diane: So they'd brought in the special armored vehicles from from elsewhere and a motorcade that picked them up and drove the entourage up to Many Glacier Hotel. And at that point, the Park Service had built a big stage at the end of the hotel where there was a view of Salamander Glacier and the Grinnell Basin behind.

Diane: And he gave a speech about climate change. The whole purpose of this trip, as he was Vice President, he had a passion for trying to raise public awareness to the issues of climate change.

Diane: And so he gave his speech there—I missed the speech because as soon as the the the entourage arrived at the Glacier Hotel, the, quote pre-positioned press and I jumped on a boat and then eventually got up to the head of the valley. And we started hiking at their pace so that we could get up there ahead of the vice president.

Daniel: Okay. So Al Gore is giving his speech about global warming. And you didn't get to see that part because you were taking the reporters and the press up, up the trail to meet everyone else at the glacier.

Diane: Right. One one of the humorous things about that day was when we had had the Secret Service running around the entire week before. The Secret Service knows bad guys. They know security, but they were in a panic about bears.

Daniel: Oh, of course.

Diane: Just like many visitors to Glacier National Park that have no idea about bears. They were under the impression that there was a bear lurking behind every corner that was going to be an incredible threat to to the Vice President. And, of course, the the risk of anything happening in Bear country is incredibly low.

Daniel: Of course.

Diane: And but but it's understandable. So I can remember as we were hiking up the trail, I look up the hillside and periodically stationed up above the trail throughout the hike, I could look up and I would see a secret serviceman accompanied by a glacier National Park ranger to protect the Secret serviceman from bears.

Daniel: Of course.

Diane: The trail was completely open for hikers that day. There were there were regular hikers just hiking on the trail and running into the Vice President.

Daniel: So there was like—what was the the mood? Do you remember? And what did Al Gore think of it?

Diane: He actually hiked with Dan Fagre, who was our our local expert on what was happening with climate change and with the with Grinnell Glacier. And so he hiked with Dan Fagre and with Dave Castiel, who was our our senior ranger interpreter in the valley at that time.

Diane: So as part of that effort that Al Gore had as vice president tied in with that, you may remember he came up with a national speaking tour is the way I remember it, that that then turned into a book called, "An Inconvenient Truth." And from my perspective, it was really that era of him coming out with "An Inconvenient Truth" that really got the general public talking about climate change. And and certainly having the same kinds of varied viewpoints and opinions.

Diane: And it's unfortunate, in my opinion. Well, here I go with opinions, but it's it's unfortunate that that something that really is scientific has has become so polarizing. But I feel like that was the first that I became aware of that polarizing aspect of it as well.

Daniel: His visit really brings a lot of attention to the concepts of global warming and climate change. So that just starts to become a more talked about subject in America. But it also makes that connection between global warming and Glacier National Park, like, forever cemented together.

Diane: So it's no surprise that when we're in a place called Glacier National Park, it's an easy concept, rather iconic for national and even international media to pick up on Glacier National Park and its disappearing glaciers. And so that is something that from that Al Gore time on, it seems like the public is very aware of that, no matter where they're from.

Daniel: Yeah. Did you note did you see that play out in front of your eyes then? You know, in the summers after the vice president's visit, you're leading people on hikes up to Grinnell Glacier. And I'm guessing that people's questions and how people felt about seeing the glacier started to shift around then.

Diane: Yes. In my first year leading hikes to Grinnell Glacier, we weren't talking about and people weren't asking about current changes up there because there wasn't anything that noticeable in front of our eyes right then. But certainly since then, it's something that people are very aware of and their frequent frequently asking about.

Diane: And I've always felt like my goal as an interpreter in Glacier National Park isn't so much to educate them as to the minutia of the science, but simply to to show them what we're seeing on the landscape.

Diane: One of the incredible tools we have are those repeat photography examples that were there—there was actually a guy with a big old camera on that George Bird Grinnell trip to Grinnell Glacier in 1887. So we have a photographic record of what has been going on in that valley since 1887.

Daniel: Wow. And so that really helps you show and illustrate that change to people who are hiking up to Grinnell for the first time ever. You just show them a picture what it used to look like.

Daniel: Grinnell Glacier has gone through periods of very, you know, somewhat stable periods. It's gone through periods of rapid retreat, which we're seeing more and more of in recent years. And there's been kind of a, as that glacier retreats, a changing in how much water it's impounding and the we call the lake, "Upper Grinnell Lake." And that's changed size over time because of the way the ice is or isn't blocking that water from draining down the valley.

Diane: Right. And in my early years leading the hike up to Grinnell Glacier, the glacier itself impounded Upper Grinnell Lake. And then we knew that there was a channel that the water from Upper Grinnell Lake was following underneath the ice and then popping out in that dramatic rush and the outlet where where I'd walk along the the steep wall of ice and see the water coming out. Today, the glacier is not impounding the lake at all. There's there's still a significant meltwater lake up there, but it is flowing, flowing freely past the glacier, to the outlet.

Daniel: Right.

[Music fades in and then concludes.]

Daniel: One of the cool things about the National Park Service is—and about this park—is that we are getting to see this what is usually a very long geologic process. We are seeing it play out in on a human timescale, a human lifetime. We're seeing ice retreat and then plants and trees and things grow back into place. Like that's pretty wild.

Diane: And I feel like that's one of the things that makes the hike to Grinnell Glacier such an incredible opportunity for people today. I see people have all sorts of emotional responses to that area. It's beautiful. It's it's gorgeous. It's it's stark. And to be up in the Grinnell base and close to the lake, to the upper lake and close to the ice itself is really unlike any place else people experience in Glacier National Park. And today, people understand that that ice is disappearing and it's not going to be with us forever. And people express a lot of sadness about that. And I certainly feel that that sadness, that sense of loss as well. But at the same time, I try to focus on the incredible opportunity we have that, this is in a national park. It's a place that we do have the opportunity to actually be connected to what's happening. It's not just something that we're reading about in the news. It's not just some lingo about climate change, but because of these resources protected by the National Park Service, people are able to experience that up close and see it for themselves and and have that much emotional response, which perhaps is what people need to have in order to take climate change seriously.

Daniel: To understand it. So do you encounter a lot of people feeling sad or grieving or saying goodbye to the glaciers when they come on your hikes?

Diane: I do find a lot of people who are who are sad and almost distraught in some cases, and I've been amazed in recent years how many visitors I have met throughout the park who verbalized that they came to Glacier National Park because they want to see this place before the glaciers are gone.

Daniel: Wow. So when when you encounter those visitors that are distraught, what's what's your approach? What do you try and tell them?

Diane: Well, I certainly don't tell them how to feel. I give them the information that that I can share about what has happened at Grinnell Glacier in the past, what seems to be happening. Right now. We it's it's very unlikely that anything could change that eventuality right now.

Daniel: Hmm.

Diane: But I try to focus on the fact that there are things that humans do still have control over with climate change. Certainly the rate of change, you know, how extreme it's going to become or are things that are still within our control and the human species is pretty incredible.

Daniel: Right.

Diane: We we have incredible abilities with technology and problem solving. None of it's going to be easy. And I think that's in my opinion, that's where we are right now, is that as a society, perhaps we're wrestling with how much we're willing to commit to to solve a problem that is not simple.

Daniel: It makes me think of how special of a place this park is in Grinnell Glacier especially. And the you know, as a ranger, you going up there and using the place to help people figure out how they can be a part of that change, how they can, what they can do.

Diane: And that's one of the amazing gifts of a national park, is that it's a place that each person can experience individually. And and if they have some of those sad feelings up there. Perhaps that's okay. Perhaps. Perhaps that's a good thing. I try to not leave people in despair. I try to to point out some of the positives that can come about simply because of that awareness and and some of the positives. You know that there are endless possibilities. But at the same time, I'm not the one to tell every body that things are going to be okay.

Daniel: Yeah. So, Diane, when you hike up to Grinnell Glacier these days, how does it feel for you?

Diane: In a way, I guess it feels profound. It feels... It feels like a gift for me personally that I have been able to experience this valley over enough years to actually see the changes myself. It's it's not something that I have to read about and and wonder, you know, "What is this climate change thing? What's really happening?"

Diane: Whether we had words for it or not. I have experienced and seen incredible changes up there. And I think it's natural that with changes, I think for many of us, there's a sadness. There's there's a longing for the way things used to be.

Diane: It's not just the glacier. This park has a visitation today that's double what it was when I started working here. And so there there are changes in the glacier. There are changes in the visitor experience. And of course, there is a sadness. And yet I do I do feel excitement that at least we have places like Glacier National Park where I'm able to to see and experience these raw, real realities.

Daniel: Yeah... When you think about all the people, you know, driving and flying out for vacation at Glacier and or when you think about the Vice President flying and all these helicopters and airplanes to get there, there is a kind of contradiction, you know, in the amount of fossil fuels being burned for us to go see and say goodbye to this glacier that's melting because of the burning of fossil fuels.

Diane: Life is not simple. The world is not simple, and the world is not black and white. I lead a life that's dependent on on a lot of fossil fuels. And here in Glacier National Park, as the Park Service, we really do care about these issues. And yet one of the most iconic experiences in Glacier National Park is driving going to the Sun Road. Our park is known worldwide as being the park with the iconic road, the first National Park Service road, where actually driving the road was the experience as opposed to simply getting from one point to another. So it's all wrapped up and it's all complicated. And I think I think it's a slippery slope when people expect there to be easy black and white answers.

Diane: To a certain extent, I feel like we look at the Grinnell Glacier base and we understand Grinnell Glacier is receding and for a moment we just need to be with that reality. And then the next step is that maybe we'll be able to start doing something about it.

Daniel: Hmm. That's really well-put. How have you changed since your first visit to Grinnell?

Diane: My hair got gray. That happened ridiculously early, though. I think one way I have changed is that I have accepted that reality. That things aren't simple and they're not black and white. I think when I was younger, I wanted to jump to answers and I wanted to know it all. And I wanted to think that I had all the answers. And now I'm not so sure that there are easy answers for most of the things that I wrestle with. But I believe we need to keep wrestling and and we'll find our way to an answer at some point.

Daniel: And being okay with living in that complicated, contradictory gray area.

Diane: And accepting the fact that a place like Glacier gives us that opportunity to feel more connected to the world, at least at least for me, I can't I can't speak for other people. But protected places such as Glacier allow me the time and the space to ponder and problem solve and process some of those issues.

Daniel: I think you're, of course, connected to the Many Glacier area, to Grinnell Glacier. But do you feel like you're kind of part of it?

Diane: I think it would be presumptive of me to to be part of it, but it's part of me. Many Glacier is a huge part of me, and for that I am very thankful.

Daniel: Well, thanks for coming and talking to us, Diane.

Diane: Thank you, Daniel.

[Ending music fades in and plays under credits.]

Peri: Headwaters is funded by donations to the Glacier National Park Conservancy. As an organization dedicated to supporting the park the Conservancy funds a lot of sustainability initiatives, from solar panels on park buildings, to storytelling projects like this one, the Conservancy is doing critical work to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. You can learn more about what they do and about how to get involved at Glacier.org.

Peri: This show is created by Daniel Lombardi. Michael Faist. Gaby Eseverri, and me, Peri Sasnett. We get critical support from Lacie Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, Kristen Friesen, and so many good people with Glacier's natural and cultural resource teams.

Peri: Our music was made by the brilliant Frank Waln, and the show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in the show notes. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

A conversation with longtime interpretive ranger Diane Sine about a lifetime of watching change in Glacier. This episode was recorded in May of 2023.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Overview of the park’s glaciers: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/glaciersoverview.htm

Episode 2

Climate and Community with Mike Durglo, Jr.


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Peri Sasnett: Welcome to Headwaters, a show from Glacier National Park, which is the traditional homelands of many Indigenous groups that still live in this area today. This episode is an interview we did with Mike Durglo Jr, who's a climate leader at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. We talked about how Native American tribes can lead the way through the climate crisis. This episode is part of a series of conversations we've been having with a wide variety of climate change experts. These episodes don't have to be listened to in any order; each one stands on its own. And they all focus on a particular aspect of the way the world is being altered by the burning of fossil fuels over the past century and a half, human activity has released enough greenhouse gases to warm the Earth's climate over one degree Celsius, with only more warming on the way. [subtle beat begins to play] Throughout 2023, Daniel sat down with experts to talk about how that warming is altering Glacier National Park, our lives and our futures. It's critical to remember that Glacier has been a home for people since time immemorial. This has never been an empty landscape. It has been loved and cared for by people for thousands of years. And to find our way through the next century, we'll need to have a lot more conversations like this one. [synth beat contines to play, then resolves]

Mike Durglo, Jr: I call myself a seed planter because just giving people hope.

Daniel Lombardi: Thanks for joining us, and can you introduce yourself?

Mike: Thank you. [Introduces himself in Salish] Good morning, everybody. My name is Standing Grizzly Bear. That's my given name. My English name or my [speaks Salish] name is Mike Durglo. Currently, I'm the department head for the Tribal Historic Preservation Department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Working for the tribes for, it was 40 years.

Daniel: Wow. Yeah. Congrats. That's pretty amazing. And so that's just down west, southwest of the park, so one of the park's neighbors. Yeah, well, yeah. Give. Give me an overview, then, of what are the climate change impacts that you're seeing on the Flathead reservation, what you're seeing in this area.

Mike: You know, you think about the air quality and what's what's been happening, and even even this year, earlier smoke. I mean, it was early. A few years ago I was driving to my office to work, and there was so much smoke that I couldn't even see the mountains. I live right there, you know, at the base of of the mountains at McDonald Peak, and my office was only like eight miles from my house. But I'm thinking, my grandson had doubles this morning, football practice, double practices. And I'm thinking, I hope that those kids are not outside playing, you know, practicing for football right now in this.

Daniel: Because the air is so toxic.

Mike: Right. And, you know, it was not just the kids, but the elders, and the people that are most vulnerable to the all the smoke. And so we had I don't remember if it was the the Earth Day event that you came to, but it was one of our gatherings where Dr. Lori Byron and her husband attended that. Anyway, I talked about that. I told I shared that story and I shared my concern for the people being out in that smoke. And a few months later, Dr. Byron calls me and says, Mike, would you be interested in putting up some Purple Air monitors? I said, Heck yeah. I didn't really, you know, I was like, So what do we do? And I don't know if you're familiar with them, but they're only about this big, they're inexpensive and they measure PM 2.5 air quality, and they give you real time data. So she sent me seven monitors. We're putting them up around the reservation at seven schools. They have a what's called a flag program that you can, the kids can put out a flag. So if it's a bad air day, they can put out a red flag. If it's a good day, it's the green flag. And there's all these different ones in the middle. And just this year we're putting up I don't remember how many, 14 more? We're going to put them in, inside and outside.

Daniel: So that's great. Yeah. And so that's a kind of climate adaptation, the dealing with air quality, which can be degraded by just burning fossil fuels and cars and stuff. Around here, it's often caused by wildfire, which itself is exacerbated and expanded by climate change.

Mike: Our fire seasons have shifted. So here what we've seen over the last, I don't know, several years is later wildfires burning later in the season. So we're still fighting wildfires in October and November when the fire season used to, you know, go of like from August to September maybe. So climate change isn't the only thing that that messed up there. We we did too, as human beings. I mean, you're all familiar with that one guy, what did he say? [does a silly, deep voice] "Only you can prevent wildfires."

Daniel: Smokey the Bear. [both laugh]

Mike: Yeah. Smokey the Bear is like... A hundred years of fire suppression has not helped. Mhm. To speak. I was invited to speak about historic use of fire on the land. Mm hmm. As you read in some of Lewis and Clark's journals of, you know, walking through this beautiful plains with grass up to their shoulders and it's like that didn't happen all by itself. Mhm. That happened from the tribes living on the land for those thousands of years and you know, using fire as a tool. We didn't follow the bison around, the bison followed where we burned. Mhm.

Daniel: Because the grass would grow back greener.

Mike: We burned those areas and then the bison would go back to those areas and feed. So that it made us easier to hunt. So, you know, a thousand years of that understanding how the land works, it's so, you know, you go back to fire suppression and the way it is now. Climate change plus fire suppression equals catastrophic wildfires. [synth beat marks a transition]

Mike: We were one of the first tribes, right, in the United States to develop a climate strategy. That was back in 2012. My boss and my boss's boss, you know, they were asked several times about what is the tribe's stance, what is the tribe doing about climate change? What are you guys actually doing? And at the time I was the Environmental Director, and I was also the chairman of the RTOC, the Regional Tribal Operations Committee, that's region eight tribes. There's like 17 tribes in Region Eight: North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah.

Daniel: Why do you think it's important to start with a plan? Like was that always automatic, you knew like, the first step is to create a climate plan?

Mike: Whatever agency it is, it don't matter if it's a tribe or the city or the county or federal agency, all of the different programs focus on a certain aspect. There's fisheries, there's wildlife. They're focused on whatever their media is there. So really, I feel like, and this might be hindsight, right? I feel like the whole process ended up bringing all of us in a in a tighter circle. When when I was asked to coordinate that effort, I wanted ours to be more comprehensive. And we had nine sectors. So air, water, fisheries, wildlife, forestry, people. And also I wanted to make sure that we included traditional knowledge. My dad was really a big support. He was actually the department head for Tribal Historic Preservation when I was the Environmental Director. So he he contributed a lot to that plan. And I always say that one of the most awesome parts of that process was interviewing my elders. So I did eight interviews, and my dad being one of those, and those are all available on that website and you can watch those. And I wanted to make sure that we we very much included traditional cultural knowledge within the planning effort.

Daniel: One of the reasons I'm super interested to talk to you about this is because Glacier National Park, we're in the process of trying to write a climate action plan. So I think what you said about how the importance of a plan early on, at least looking back, was that it brought everyone together and got everyone to kind of get on the same page. Did you find that like people were ready for that or like, was there anyone resistant to like, "Oh, this is going to add more work to me" or anything like that?

Mike: When I started doing climate change work it's like, when people saw Mike Durglo coming down the hall, they would slam their door and lock it and pull their shade because they knew that Mike was going to come and ask them to do more work. I mean, they're already busy. They're already doing their their full time work in their field. And I come along and say, "Hey, I need you to come to our meeting because we're talking about impacts of climate change on fisheries" or whatever. They were already doing climate change work without calling it climate change.

Daniel: Yeah, climate change is one of those things that so often it seems like it's adding on to... It's not even always creating new challenges, but it's also often just like a layer on top of a heavy workload that already exists.

Mike: It's more work. I've been doing, you know, my job as the Environmental Director at the time plus climate. It's really something that you have to be passionate and compassionate about. So the reason I wanted to rewrite the plan was based on that newer evidence, the projections or the the science that we were looking at in 2012 was conservative. Yeah, you know, we had hope. "Yeah. Everybody's going to understand us. Everybody's going to going to get it. That things are changing, that we're we need to start looking at alternative fuel sources and alternative energy and all that stuff, and everybody's going to jump on board." That hasn't happened.

Daniel: So let me recap some of that. It was about ten years ago now, 2012, you all released the your climate plan. And now looking back, it looks a little conservative. It looks a little too optimistic. And we've seen the impacts of climate change, that were predicted back then, we've seen them come to pass much sooner than predicted. And so now you're working on updating, creating a new plan. And it seems clear to me that the CSKT, and you in particular, have been leaders nationally in terms of developing a climate action plan, especially leaders in helping and working with other tribes on their climate plans. Does that feel right?

Mike: Oh, absolutely. In fact, back in 2016, I received an award from President Obama. I got to go to the White House. And that award was for leadership in climate change. It's not that I do what I do to get an award or a pat on or anything like that, but it was very honoring. You know, I was honored and humbled to be there. And that was just for the work I've been doing to help other tribes like Blackfeet, Fort Belknap, the Crows. I've helped different tribes and even up into Canada. [synth beat plays to mark a transition]

Daniel: Climate change is impacting, you know, every sector of the wheel of life, as you were describing it, including people and cultural resources. So maybe let's get into that. What is a cultural resource?

Mike: A resource could be a culturally modified tree or a rock cairn, or a fire pit, historical fire pit. Or, I mean, a lot of those are associated with campsites, right? So those resources, like culturally modified trees, how do you protect that from climate change? Mm hmm. In our database and in Glacier National Park's database, we have identified over 300 cultural sites or resources.

Daniel: So to zoom out for a second, you worked on a project where you identified cultural sites and resources, which are basically any evidence or significant item or place that was used by or is used by members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, either today or

Mike: Yeah, sure.

Daniel: Thousands of years into the past. And so you're identifying those objects. Sometimes they're trees that were modified or used by people, sometimes they're campsites, sometimes they're actual artifacts, sometimes they're just spots and places. And so then you're looking at, how is climate change potentially going to impact these specific resources?

Mike: So I'm going to give you an example of of potential impact to a site that's along a stream, and that is another historic campsite. Well, what's happening at that campsite is the banks of the stream are eroding. Mm hmm. And it's I mean, you know, that's a natural process. But however, what we're seeing is increased runoff in, you know, that -- what we like to see is gradual runoff. Right? Right. In the spring, we want the snow to gradually come out of the mountains, causing minimal damage or minimal erosion. But what's happening is it comes crashing down. Like what we're seeing is that snow melt in an accelerated time period, and all that water comes crashing down the side of the mountain. Well that's causing increased erosion in that certain site, not just that site, but all the different sites along the streams. So we look at what what can we do using Western science to mitigate or to help with the process of slowing that erosion. So we come up with a list of maybe four alternatives: we can put riprap into that site; we can move some of those artifacts that are around the site or in and around the site; one alternative might be do nothing. And that's the things that we present to the elders. And and the elders could say, we don't want you around that site. We want we don't want you doing nothing there. We want you just to leave it and let the natural process take place. So those are the kind of things that we looked at in that project, that pilot project, as far as climate impacts to those cultural sites.

Daniel: And you found there's lots of sites, significant sites in the park in Glacier National Park. And would you say that they're fairly secure and safe, or would you say that there's a lot of threats to those cultural sites?

Mike: It's not just the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes that utilize Glacier National Park. Mm hmm. It was a common use area for a lot of tribes, as you know. Mm hmm. Blackfeet, the Kootenai Bands from Canada, different Blackfeet, Ktunaxa, Piikani bands from Canada, Blood Tribes, and us, used Glacier National Park for millennia.

Daniel: So all these different groups, all these different tribes have connections and cultural sites and cultural artifacts and significant connections to areas in the park. Do you feel like those are fairly safe or is climate change threatening them significantly?

Mike: I think that's part of the process that we wanted to look at when we did this pilot project.

Daniel: You have to figure it out.

Mike: Yeah. In the work that I've done, pretty much all of my career in natural resources, you start out with a base study, right? What do we have, and how how is it potentially impacted? We know that a lot of these sites are pretty safe, but they're all being impacted by climate change and people.

Daniel: What I'm hearing you say is that monitoring and studying and paying attention to how these sites are being impacted by climate change, that's sort of where we're at in the process now is being vigilant. [synth beat marks a transition]

Daniel: Do you feel like tribes across the country are-- how do you think they're facing climate change as as the impacts are accelerating? Do you think they're kind of poised to be leaders and everyone's got a plan kind of ready, or are the tribes struggling to catch up, or is it some of both?

Mike: Yeah, I think it's some of both, really. I think the tribes, the connection that we have with Mother Earth and I'm not saying everybody doesn't have this, but we've lived on the landscape for thousands of years on this landscape, Glacier National Park, the Flathead Valley. And it's all included. You know, we've we've been here for thousands of years. So really, we we understand not so much anymore. I don't think maybe that's one of the things we need to do is reconnect reconnect to the land. Because I, I remember stories from my grandparents and my parents talking about how people really, back then listened to the land, and almost like had a conversation with the land. And it's like they knew by looking at different things on the landscape what kind of winter we're going to have, or what kind of summer or, you know, any the stuff like that. So I feel like we really need to to have that connection and, you know, in order to feel the pain or whatever that we're causing Mother Earth. In order for us to survive, we have to reconnect to that circle. We can't take ourselves out of it. Above it or below it. We are part of it. Mm hmm. So. And I just feel that that's one of the commonalities that tribes have across the whole world is that connectedness. And I know you know, I'm just not saying that, you know, tribal people have that connection. Every nationality -- I don't care if you're French, German, Korean. Everybody has that. My ancestors are buried right here in this ground. That's how you walk every day in your life. And that's like a respect that you realize that these this is where my ancestors are buried. So then you have to walk in beauty to keep those ancestors happy. Mm hmm. And that's right here in Glacier National Park.

Daniel: You were describing this important connection to our earth, to the environment around us, and that everyone can have that, it's a matter of sensitivity. And. And, yeah, learning from your elders. And during the climate planning process, you were able to interview your elders. And I'm curious what you learned from them. You know, that was that you were able to really ask them about that connection to the earth and noticing when the wheel is out of balance, notice that our climate is changing. So were there some clear lessons for you after interviewing that your elders?

Mike: You know, a lot of the those elders talked about how it used to be. My dad talked about how deep the snow was when we when we drove down to the country roads. And Ig Couture from Elmo talked about how the lake used to freeze over every year, and we used to be able to go ice fishing, and he talks about ice skating too, across across the lake. The differences of my dad, you know, looking at maybe 50 to 75 years and talking to his grandparents, so that's another 50 to 70, so we're talking about like 150 years of knowledge, you know, passed down over over time. The cultural and traditional knowledge that our elders passed down to us is more about living in harmony with the land and having respect for that.

Daniel: I like hearing your stories from getting to talk to elders and tribal members from all over the country. It's really interesting. You must have picked up just so many lessons and ideas and experiences along the way. You know, you're not just having conversations locally, but you're having conversations all over. So I'm curious, yeah to just hear any other stories or lessons that you've come across.

Mike: I did a workshop, so when I work with ITEP, we bring in probably 30 representatives from the tribes in the area, and there was an elder woman at that workshop. I was doing my presentation and she was like, "Mike, you know, I'm tired of having to adapt." And when we talked about trying to help them develop plans and strategies, it's like, "hell, we don't have time to plan. We have we're in reaction mode. Our village is falling into the river." Or the ocean. And, you know, their cemeteries are being eroded away because of climate change and increased erosion. Mm hmm. So, you know, they're all in, like, reaction mode and trying to help them develop some kind of a plan or strategy, you know, how do they deal with that? [synth beat plays to mark a transition]

Daniel: How are you thinking about climate change these days, in terms of like, what kind of an issue is it? Because a lot of people think about it and they think, "oh, that's an environmental issue or that's a wildlife issue." Or sometimes now we're hearing more people talk about it being a health issue and a public health issue. What is it for you, you think? Is it partly a spiritual or economic, or how do you think about climate change?

Mike: I feel like it's all of the above and people are really starting to understand that. The impacts are spiritual, they're social, they're physical, they're mental. All of these things that are happening around us affect our whole our whole being. One of the programs that came about because we were working on climate change was the EAGLES program. But EAGLES is Environmental Advocates for Global and Local Ecological Sustainability. Say that three times. [Daniel laughs] That was a result of my brother Jim and I just having a conversation one evening about getting youth more involved in what we were doing, right? And the whole idea around that was to engage the youth in doing activities within the schools and within the communities to help, you know, help with like recycling, with putting in community gardens.

Daniel: So the EAGLES program is an effort that you and your brother created to engage the youth on the reservation, to work on sustainability, to work on fighting climate change, to try and be better stewards of the earth. So I think you're saying, you know, that for you, one of the biggest climate solutions that's out there is engaging young people.

Mike: As adults, as older people, we have to take responsibility. We can't just leave it all to the younger generations.

Daniel: You know, the past ten, fifteen years, you've been working on climate change constantly, doing all kinds of really innovative and important work. But it's interesting to me that you're saying that you hope your legacy is the EAGLES program and is working with young people. I think that's interesting that that is the key for you.

Mike: On the reservation and across the whole country on reservations, if you do a good thing or a great thing, they name a conference room after you. Or a road or homesite or whatever. It's like you drive down the road and there's, the road is named after somebody. I said, I don't want a conference room or a road or a homesite named after me. I want people to add that to what I want my legacy to be, that my grandkids will remember me and say, this is something my papa started, and this is why we're here. This is why we're doing what we're doing. That's one of the things that for me anyway, I've always thought of it as, or maybe hoped that this would be my legacy. This is what I want to leave on this Earth when I'm gone. And I was thinking about seven generations from now or, you know, 100, 200 years, and my grandkids, my great grandkids will be here and they'll say, "My papa started this." [synth beat plays to mark a transition]

Daniel: I wanted to just ask you about, you did these interviews with elders and you learned a ton of information about the way the climate is changing and how they're seeing it, and the lessons that they've learned.

Mike: It's kind of one of those things like after I did the the Elder interviews, Sadie Saloway from Elmo, I seen her like two weeks later at Walmart. Right. And Sadie seen me in Wal-Mart. And she's come, almost come running over to me. "Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike! I want you to come back and visit me!" Because I went to her house, and "I thought about so many things after you left. I want to you know, I want to share that with you." And and oh, my goodness, a couple of weeks later, she passed away. So, you know, those are the things that [get a bit choked up] just you know, you think about the value and the lesson that we can take from those visits.

Daniel: And then you didn't get a chance to go interview again.

Mike: Right. I didn't get a chance to go back. In all this work, you know, it's like so important, I think, to to get that perspective of the Elders. And there's so much that's like, I seen something that says when you lose an elder, you lose a library of knowledge. And just like with my dad, and I shared with you that my dad was really a support for the work I did. And he had so much knowledge of our culture and our history and Tony Incashola Senior, and all the elders that -- out of the eight I interviewed, Stephen Smallsalmon's the only one left with us today.

Daniel: Wow.

Mike: So, yeah.

Daniel: The two biggest solutions to climate change that I'm hearing from you is like connecting with the youth and also listening to and talking to the Elders as well. Mm hmm.

Mike: Yeah. And doing everything we can. Mm hmm. Being responsible to our Mother Earth and to each other, I think, you know. [guitar and drumbeat begins to play]

Daniel: Well, thanks so much, Mike. This has been great.

Mike: Thank you.

[guitar music continues to play through credits]

Peri: Headwaters is funded by donations to the Glacier National Park Conservancy. As an organization dedicated to supporting the park, the Conservancy funds a lot of sustainability initiatives from solar panels on park buildings to storytelling projects like this one. The Conservancy is doing critical work to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. You can learn more about what they do and about how to get involved at Glacier.org. This show is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and me, Peri Sasnett. We get critical support from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, Kristen Friesen, and so many good people with Glacier's, natural and cultural resource teams. Our music was made by the brilliant Frank Waln, and the show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in the show notes. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

[music concludes]

A conversation with Mike Durglo, Jr., climate coordinator and head of Historic Preservation for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This episode was recorded in September of 2023.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

CSKT Climate Resiliency: http://csktclimate.org/

Episode 3

Climate and the Cryosphere with Dr. Caitlyn Florentine


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Peri Sasnett: You're listening to Headwaters, a show from the icy mountains of northwest Montana about how Glacier National Park is connected to everything else. My name is Peri, and this episode is an interview that my co-host Daniel did with glaciologist Dr. Caitlyn Florentine—about how the U.S. Geological Survey studies the park's glaciers. This episode is part of a series of conversations we've been having with a wide variety of climate change experts. These episodes don't have to be listened to in any order. Each one stands on its own. And they all focus on a particular aspect of the way the world is being altered by the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past century and a half, human activity has released enough greenhouse gases to warm the Earth's climate over one degree Celsius, with only more warming on the way. Throughout 2023, Daniel sat down with experts to talk about how that warming is altering Glacier National Park, our lives and our futures.

[background drum and bass music builds]

Peri: Glaciers are the park's namesake. So digging into the details of the science around them feels like the heart of the park's story. I will say this is a fairly wonky and detailed conversation about glacier science. I studied geology, so I loved it. But I think no matter your background, you'll find it thought provoking.

[music concludes]

Daniel Lombardi: Dr. Caitlyn Florentine, welcome to Headwaters.

Caitlyn Florentine: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Daniel: Can you introduce yourself? What's your job? What do you do?

Caitlyn: Yeah. My name is Caitlyn Florentine, and I work as a glaciologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. I'm a research scientist.

Daniel: So what have you been up to for the past couple of days?

Caitlyn: I've been here in the park doing fieldwork on Sperry Glacier.

Daniel: So you were up up in the mountains for the past couple of days?

Caitlyn: Yes.

Daniel: That's exciting.

Caitlyn: Yes, We had excellent weather.

Daniel: Do you think of yourself as a glaciologist or you study the cryosphere? How do you describe what you do?

Caitlyn: I consider myself a cryosphere scientist, and the cryosphere is the portion of the earth that is frozen. So anything involving frozen water: land, ice, sea ice, permafrost, seasonal snow. So I'm a glaciologist, and I think of it from sort of a geophysical perspective.

Daniel: You approach the study of the cryosphere, you approach glaciology from a very quantitative way. What does that mean?

Caitlyn: Correct. We are interested in being very sort of precise with the numbers. So quantifying the amount of water that's entering and exiting the glacier system, for example. So rather than having a sort of description of the quality of what's happening, we also strive to put numbers to that so that we can start to be a bit more precise and exact in our understanding, which then enables us to connect to other studies and sort of systems of the of the earth.

Daniel: So what made you want to get into this field? How did you get started in the study of the cryosphere?

Caitlyn: I really love the mountains and to be in the mountains and there is a plethora of snow and ice in mountain environments. So I studied geology as an undergrad at Colorado College, and I was really fascinated by earth processes and I knew I wanted to study something on timescales that were relevant to humans. And so I made a choice for graduate school between volcanology and glaciology. And then my sort of recreational interests led to me choosing glaciology ultimately.

Daniel: Oh, that's super interesting. Cool. Yeah, because you could have studied a geology that, you know, spans millions or even billions of years, but you had a desire to keep it on a human scale or closer to a human scale anyway.

Caitlyn: Exactly. My colleagues who study seasonal snow, for example, are inspecting processes that are happening over the timescale of seconds or or hours or days. And it's sort of that opportunity to toggle the window of time that we're considering, I think really captivated me and drew me to the cryosphere.

Daniel: Oh, that's okay. That plus you want to go be able to go up into the mountains for work. So it's a good fit. Well, what makes your work important? Like, why does the cryosphere matter? Why do glaciers matter?

Caitlyn: The cryosphere right now is changing very quickly, relative to what we've observed in the last ten, twemty, fifty, a hundred years. And so that rate of change makes it really important that we not only document the changes that are occurring and understand the sort of pace of that change relative to the historical context, but also that we understand how these systems are working. Because with the rapid change of the cryosphere, so changes to seasonal snow and changes to glaciers, there are consequences downstream. So one sort of motivating example of why glaciers are important is the meltwater that glaciers provide. So a glacier sitting on the landscape will have some discharge of meltwater during the late summer months, at least in this part of the world. And that delivery of meltwater during a time of year that would otherwise be quite dry can be really critical for the aquatic habitats and for sort of broader water resources.

Daniel: I'm hearing you say kind of two things in particular there. One of them is that studying the cryosphere is important because it's changing and it's an indicator of change. So it's helpful in understanding how the world is changing. But you're also saying glaciers and the cryosphere is made of water, and water is important to people and wildlife and everything. They're valuable for that reason. Is that right?

Caitlyn: Yes, exactly.

Daniel: So I don't know if you know this, Caitlyn, but historians think that maybe one of the first euro-Americans to document a glacier here was this military guy John Van Austell, in the 1870s. But the complication is that he didn't realize he was looking at a glacier when he was. And so it wasn't until like ten years later, he came back to the same area inside what is now the park with a geologist. And they're like, oh, that's a glacier. And so then this area starts to be known as a place with glaciers. Of course, the Native Americans, the Kootenai people, the Blackfeet people, they had words describing the ice of this place. They they knew this place was full of snow and glaciers and ice for a long time before that. All of this is kind of me building up to ask you, you know, like some people might be surprised that glaciers are kind of hard to spot, surprisingly. What do you think? I mean, is that does that feel right?

Caitlyn: Yeah. So a glacier as it's now defined, it gets trickier when the ice masses get smaller. So if you're in a landscape where, there's, you're looking down a valley, and particularly at a time of year when the seasonal snow is absent. And so you're just looking at bare rock and bare ice, it will probably be quite evident what is a glacier versus what is not. Also, if you're looking at a glacier that has a lot of evidence of motion. So if you're looking at the terminus of a tidewater glacier and there are giant chunks of ice calving off into the ocean, then the sort of, all of the criteria for defining a glacier—ice that moves—is really in your face and really evident. In a landscape like Glacier National Park, the glaciers are much smaller and you have to hike a lot further into the mountains to observe them. And this has been true for the last last several centuries, if not last many thousands of years. This landscape did have big valley filling glaciers, but that was up to tens of thousands of years ago, maybe 12,000 years ago.

Daniel: So to put that another way, if you go to Alaska or if you came to this area 12,000 years ago, you're going to notice some glaciers, like they're pretty obvious because they're huge chunks of jagged moving ice. But these days in this place, glaciers are covered by seasonal snow. They're covered in rocks. They're they're smaller. It's a more complicated thing to discern. So it's not surprising that visitors today, when they come to the park or scientists a century ago maybe weren't sure at first when they were looking at a glacier.

Caitlyn: Precisely.

Daniel: Well, let's get a definition out of the way, then. Really simply what what is a glacier?

Caitlyn: A glacier is a body of ice that moves.

Daniel: Okay, simple enough.

Caitlyn: And when we talk about glaciers as moving bodies of ice, it's important to understand that, like most of us interact with ice when it's stagnant and it isn't under sufficient stress to deform and flow. But ice is actually a vicious material. So a comparable material would be honey or ketchup. So glacier ice will deform when it's under pressure. So same is how you have to hit a ketchup bottle to get the ketchup to come out of the bottle. So we sort of have two components of glacier motion. One is the ice deformation, the sort of vicious, fluid motion that I just described. And then one is the the sliding of the ice over its bed. When water gets to the bottom of a glacier, it can sort of pop the ice off its bed. And that decoupling and reduction of friction causes the glacier to move.

Daniel: Interesting. One of the things I'm taking away from what you're saying is that nature and glaciers, they don't really fit in a box. We say like this is a glacier, but in reality it's kind of a continuum or a spectrum of of movement of ice and water and rocks. Right?

Caitlyn: Precisely. And that's where science can be helpful for clarifying this complexity and ambiguity that would otherwise be difficult to navigate or interact with. So when we assign a scientific definition for what is a glacier, then we can start to categorize nature and put a more precise understanding to how much water is frozen in the landscape, for example.

Daniel: Mm hmm. All right. Well, can you give me some more basic facts about the park's glaciers? How old are they? When, when did they form?

Caitlyn: Yeah, that's an interesting question. And I think it's important when we ponder that question to understand that because the glacier is moving, it's sort of cycling ice through itself.

Daniel: Hmm.

Caitlyn: Every every year at all times.

Daniel: So because a glacier is moving ice and it's ice that's, you know, cycling through, any piece of individual ice is going to be less old than the footprint or the existence of a glacier in that area.

Caitlyn: Exactly.

Daniel: Okay. Interesting. And so let's describe that process now. I guess simply glaciers, you say, are a mass of ice that's moving. How that happens is you get a lot of snow in the winter. It compresses into ice and then it flows under its weight and melts out the other end. So it's this like conveyor belt of moving ice. How do you define or how do you describe that process, like the glacier anatomy 101.

Caitlyn: Yeah. So traditionally and sort of in our most well behaved, textbook understanding of a glacier, we have this body of ice that stretches from some high elevation zone to a lower elevation zone. And the high elevation zone typically can be described as the accumulation zone. So there's actively mass accumulating every year in that zone. So there's more snow that accumulates, then melts in the accumulation zone at high cold elevations. And so you have this conveyor belt motion and the snow that's accumulating, up high is compressing and eventually densifying into ice, which then is flowing towards the ablation zone.

Daniel: Okay, so basically it's colder up higher and it's warmer, down lower. So the higher zones, you get a lot more snow, it compresses into ice and then the glacier flows and if it's growing, it's going to keep flowing until it reaches a place that's warm enough that it melts.

Caitlyn: Precisely.

Daniel: And that's happening kind of on a seasonal basis, but it's also happening on a really much larger timescale, too.

Caitlyn: Yeah. However long it takes, those particles that are deposited in the high accumulation zone. The sort of timescale of their residence time, if you will, within the glacier will be defined by how fast the glacier is moving. So there are places on the Greenland ice sheet where it takes thousands of years for a snowflake that falls at the top of the ice sheet to make its way all the way to the margin and melt out. The glaciers here in Glacier National Park are much smaller, so the residence times would be much shorter.

Daniel: Like, it might take a snowflake that lands at the top of Sperry Glacier a few decades to reach the melt zone or the ablation zone?

Caitlyn: Precisely. And we have evidence of materials, you know, materials from the human system being deposited up high on Sperry Glacier, for example, and then melting out several decades later. So that's an indicator of the residence time.

Daniel: Yeah. So the evidence we have on Sperry Glacier for that residence time, was there a a ski? That like, got lost up on Upper Sperry Glacier and then eventually melted out?

Caitlyn: Yes.

Daniel: Okay. So do we know like, oh, this ski is from the seventies or something?

Caitlyn: Precisely.

Daniel: So you can say, okay, it takes a few decades for the for a snowflake or a ski to move through the glacier.

Caitlyn: Yes.

Daniel: Interesting. Now, we should explain that moraines are—all the little crumbs of the mountain that the glacier is like scraping off, they pile up around the edge of the glacier, and that's called a moraine. So there's. Yeah. Do you have a good way to explain what a moraine is?

Caitlyn: Yeah. So a moraine is a hill of poorly-sorted rock that's deposited on the edge of a glacier. So it's sort of a sharply crusted hill that hugs the edge of the glacier. And so it will form as those crumbs of rock and sediment are deposited along the margin of the glacier. When the glacier occupies the same position for a long period of time. However, when the glacier starts to retreat, that moraine will persist, so it acts as evidence and demarcating the stamp that of land that the ice occupied for some long period of time.

Daniel: So that's helpful. If you're a scientist without a whole lot of fancy technology a century ago, you can just like hike around in the park and you can see a glacier, but then you can see like, Oh, there's a moraine, and I can see where the glacier used to be because the dirt pile or the moraine surrounding it is far away from the ice now. So I can tell that the glacier is retreating away from where it used to be.

Caitlyn: Exactly.

Daniel: Interesting. Yeah. So there's all these clues of what the glaciers have done in the past using those clues. Do we know how? How old are the park's glaciers?

Caitlyn: Interesting question. There's been a sort of waxing and waning of glaciers in their present configuration. Now, 12,000 years ago, we have evidence, we know that this entire mountain range was encased in ice when we go further back in time. But the sort of predominant thinking and understanding, piecing together other geologic evidence is that these mountains were relatively ice free, roughly 7,000, 6,500 years ago. And then the the present modern glaciers sort of formed and have persisted. So it's it's an interesting, like the question of how old are the glaciers is actually sort of more interesting than one might think because it's not just a stagnant patch of ice sitting on the landscape. It's dynamic and it's interacting with the climate system and then it's physically flowing.

Daniel: That's super interesting. And I think that's like my take away from this whole conversation and is that these questions that seem simple, like what is a glacier? How old are the glaciers? They seem simple, but they actually have a lot of layers. And the more you dig in to it, the more complicated it gets.

Caitlyn: There are physical constraints over how fast a landscape can evolve, and that's what makes the current moment in time that we're living in right now so sort of fascinating. And what really underscores Earth science in general is we can't always look to the past for analogs of how the Earth's system responds to the sort of radiative forcing, or the mismatch between how much heat we're keeping in the Earth's system versus how much is being radiate, like vented back into space.

Daniel: Okay, I really like that because in climate change thinking and sciences, there's a lot of understanding that because we're changing the climate so fast, we can't necessarily look at the past and how the climate has changed in the past to understand how it's going to change in the future. And yet, because we can't see into the future, but we have some tools to see into the past, we end up kind of relying on inevitably and maybe over relying on evidence from the past to make guesses about the future. One thing I know that glaciologists or scientists, geologists were doing here in Glacier National Park a century ago is they're they're taking the cutting edge technology that they had a camera and they're going out near and on the glaciers and they're taking pictures. How does that come back up today? Like, what is the these historic photos? What does that allow for today?

Caitlyn: So if you have a camera today and go back to the exact same location, you can take the same picture. And the only thing that has changed is whatever's changed on the landscape. And so that repeat photography exercise provides a really objective qualitative documentation of how the landscape has changed.

Daniel: And so that was kind of a sub-project that your team at the U.S. Geological Survey started doing in the nineties as a way, Oh, let's collect up these historic photos that scientists took a century ago, and let's take the same pictures from the same vantage point. Let's take it again. We can even try and take it on the same day or about the same time of year time a month and see how how things have changed. So it's it's a very intuitive kind of science. Just what did it look like 100 years ago with a photo? And what does it look like today?

Caitlyn: Exactly. So it provides the starting point for understanding the character of landscape change. And then with our modern techniques, we can start to dig into, you know, addressing questions of what exactly is driving that change? What does that change say about what's going to happen in the future?

Daniel: The repeat photos are cool because they I mean, they answer the most very basic question: are things changing? But it's it's very qualitative. As you say, it's it's not super measurable. We can see that oh, yes, Sperry Glacier is a lot smaller now, but it's hard to measure that. Which shifts us then to the science and the approach to studying the cryosphere that your team has had for the past couple of decades. Where repeat photography is a nice communication tool and a good, you know, starting point to understand the the quality of the change. But now you're bringing Newtonian physics and really measurable science to the glaciers.

Caitlyn: Yeah, and I would say the repeat photography project is a precise scientific exercise. So it is providing a very objective, repeatable, you know, it's reproducible. And it's not, there's no sort of manipulation or prerogative or agenda that's influencing the outcome of that photograph. So it still is applying the scientific method of the objective to capture the same image from the same exact location.

Daniel: Yeah, that's important to remember that the repeat photos aren't just, you know, 100 years ago and today there's actually a lot of intervals in there. And we can repeat photos now that were taken in the eighties or the nineties. And so I think that's important. What you say about, it is a very scientific approach, but it's also a very powerful communication tool to see how things change.

[brief drum & bass music interlude]

Daniel: So you mentioned this at the start, but the past few days you've been up in the park, you've been in the mountains, you've been at Sperry Glacier. So you're still venturing into the field, just like the scientists and the glaciologists a century ago. But it's a little different. Let's talk about about your past few days. What were you trying to do up there and what was it like?

Caitlyn: Yeah. So this week we approached Sperry Glacier to measure the winter mass balance. So we visit Sperry Glacier twice a year: in the fall, and in the spring. And in the fall, we're measuring how much ice the glacier has lost during the mount season. And in the spring, we're measuring how much snow has accumulated on the glacier during the winter season. And so these two measurements give us an understanding of the mass balance, or the mass budget of the glacier. So mass balance is basically the checking account for water mass on the glacier every year. And here in Glacier National Park, we started taking these measurements in 2005 on Sperry Glacier. However, the U.S. Geological Survey has been conducting this mass balance research on glaciers in North America since as early as the 1950s. So the mass balance measurements involve installing stakes on the glacier surface, were measuring snow depth and also snow density. So we're measuring how deep the snow is, and then we're measuring the the mass of the snow. And this year, we've seen a very precipitous decline of the seasonal snowpack. And so we were measuring snow densities that were quite high for this time of year. So usually spring snow densities are maybe 500, 550 grams per cubic centimeter. In the wintertime, lighter, fluffier snow. I mean, at Bridger Bowl, the sort of coldsmoke, as it's referred to, is about 10% water mass. And in a more typical winter snow pack around here, in the sort of wetter climate of Glacier National Park is maybe 30, 40% water mass. And so we were in the springtime, it's maybe 50% water mass. And this week, on Monday, we were measuring 60%. So that's quite dense. And we also were measuring snow depths that were quite shallow relative to what we've measured in the past 18 years. So it was pretty bony. The snow cover is thin,.

Daniel: Pretty bony.

Caitlyn: Probably about a month ahead in the melt season relative to sort of the typical progression.

Daniel: Let me go back to the start of this. So this has been going on since 2005 here on Sperry Glacier, but it's been going on a lot longer around the country and around the world. And when you actually go to do it, it sounds like it gets pretty complicated, but the concepts kind of simple. Basically, you're going up and you're measuring the glacier. How thick is it? How dense is it in the spring and in the fall? And then you can if you do that over time, you can see how the mass of the glacier is changing from winter to summer and over time.

Caitlyn: And it's even simpler than that because we're just measuring the surface. So we're just measuring how much mass is added and how much is subtracted. So we don't actually measure how thick and dense the glacier writ large is. We're just sampling how much mass is entering and exiting the system. So we have these little dip sticks, basically point measurements at stakes around the glacier, and that gives us the starting point for understanding that seasonal rhythm. And then we take those measurements back to the office and we then extrapolate from those points to get a glacier-wide balance. We then calibrate those measurements against measurements from space in order to account for the fact that we're not going to install stakes where there are locations that we can't access on foot. So we're not going to install them in crevasse zones, we're not going to install them at the base of avalanche paths. And so knowing that we have this bias, this sort of systematic bias that we need to correct, we calibrate against different representations of the surface mass balance. So these stake measurements, though, that I'm describing that we just collected this week for field measurements are very powerful because they provide direct measurements of the seasonal rhythm of mass accumulation and ablation.

Daniel: So some years I suppose you're seeing the glacier grow, right?

Caitlyn: So this will be the 18th year of glacial logical measurements on Sperry Glacier. And I think there's only been one year that we've seen a positive balance. And so overall, Sperry has lost more mass than it has gained in the past 18 years.

Daniel: Interesting. So you're taking these measurements of Sperry Glacier and you can see, you can graph it then and you can see it like, oh, it held kind of steady this year. Oh, it dipped a little Oh, it maybe went up a little. But overall, you're watching it trend downward.

Caitlyn: Yes.

Daniel: Now, that seems like a great system, but it also seems like a lot of physical work. You have to get up to the glacier. You have to drill these holes. You have to put in all these stakes and everything. So you're this is really only happening at Sperry Glacier. It's happening a lot of places around the world and around the country. But here in the park, you're only doing it at one glacier. And I'm guessing that that's just because because it's a lot of work.

Caitlyn: Yes, it is logistically demanding. And for that reason, continuous records like this are very rare on our planet. So of the 200,000 glaciers on Earth, only one in every 10,000 has a continuous decades long mass balance record. So it really requires a commitment to repeat these measurements in a systematic way such that there is a cohesive, uninterrupted record. Which is really powerful scientifically, because then it allows us to understand those that seasonal rhythm.

Daniel: Right, because we have repeat photos. The repeat photos can tell us, Oh, look, the glacier got smaller over the past 50 years or 100 years, but it doesn't really tell us what happened in between and these measurements. You're doing the mass balance measurements. They tell you what happened in between.

Caitlyn: Exactly. And they help us to understand how the glacier responds to years where there may have been a big melt season. So a very hot, dry summer. But if there was also a big snow season preceding that, then the glacier may actually be in balance for the year or close to balance, whereas there could be years where the summer melts And sort of the lived experience of being in these mountains in the summer isn't that noteworthy. And then when we look at the cumulative record, we can start to really sort of understand the precise connection between the glacier and the ambient climate.

Daniel: So this is a fairly simple concept. You're measuring the the snow in the spring and measuring how much it melts in the fall. In my head, one of the big changes, one of the big shifts in glaciology happens with airplanes and aerial photography. Can you explain what changes? What does that allow for?

Caitlyn: When you can view the glaciers and the mountains from an aerial perspective, you gain an understanding of how the glaciers are changing across the region.

Daniel: It's too much work to go hike up to every glacier and measure how its mass balance is changing. But once you start being able to take pictures from the air, you don't know how how the mass is changing, but you could start measuring how the area of the glaciers are changing. So in my head, tell me if this is right, aerial photography or even from satellites, I guess—that's a big shift in the study of the cryosphere.

Caitlyn: Yeah, and I'd say it's true not just for the cryosphere, but for Earth sciences in general. Our ability to view our planet from a distance. We have a time series of glacier area at various snapshots starting in 1966, and that was generated by tracing the area of the glacier from aerial images. So pictures taken from airplanes provide that baseline imagery that we can then use to trace the extent of the glaciers. And then if we have aerial or satellite imagery from the modern era, we can do the same thing and then we can quantify the area change.

Daniel: The disadvantage is you don't know how much snow is falling on the glacier in the spring and you don't know how much is melting in the fall. But the advantage is you can look at all of the glaciers in the park at once. You can take pictures of them all. So that that's a huge advantage. So I guess the basis for glacier science in this area, as I understand it, is these aerial images. You have pictures of the glaciers from above. And then that coupled with the mass balance measurements that's just happening at Sperry Glacier, but happening over eighteen years. So those two things together, you start to get a pretty good picture of how things are changing.

Caitlyn: Definitely.

Daniel: And I guess the change that we're seeing is you have these pictures from 1966, and the area is getting smaller and all the glaciers. So that doesn't tell us if they're getting thinner necessarily or thicker or whatever. But it it does tell us that the area is getting smaller. So that's by area. We're talking about a measurement squared. So like square acres or square kilometers, right?

Caitlyn: Yes.

Daniel: So another thing I want to ask you about then, aerial images, that, that starts to unlock a new way of understanding the cryosphere on earth. But with satellites, it also starts unlocking, studying the cryosphere on other planets. So as a fun piece of trivia, like other planets have glaciers, right?

Caitlyn: Yes, Other planets have ice. And it's something that is definitely a point of interest, especially for the search for life on other planets.

Daniel: Oh of course

Caitlyn: There's sort of this tagline, follow the water.

Daniel: Yeah. Which is super interesting and interesting that glaciers on earth are made of rocks and water, but in other places in the solar system, they could be made of, I don't know, nitrogen or carbon dioxide.

Caitlyn: Well, and another factor to consider is like a glacier on Mars will have different dimensions than a glacier on earth because the gravitational force on Mars is different.

Daniel: I mean, the fundamental principles are still the same. But some of the numbers are going to shift because you have different gravity and. Interesting.

Caitlyn: Exactly.

Daniel: Okay. So all of that to me reinforces the importance of of approaching the science in a really quantitative way, having like, ways to really measure the glaciers.

Caitlyn: Exactly.

Daniel: Your research is on the cutting edge of those quantitative methods.

Caitlyn: Yes. So as we've described, we have this glacialogical approach. Which is very logistically demanding and time consuming, but it provides us the advantage of having seasonal information0ù so precise, a precise understanding of winter accumulation and summer ablation. But it's for one single glacier within the mountain range. And then we have the advantage of aerial photography and aerial imagery which provides information about the aerial extent of the glacier for the entire mountain range. And so photogrammetry is a technique that sort of marries the advantage of both approaches. And so photogrammetry is basically leveraging the same sort of phenomena that happens with our eyeballs, where there are two images that are offset. And if there are offset and overlapping, we can use that two dimensional information from the aerial image to sort of recreate the third dimension. And then if we repeat that exercise, say, with aerial imagery from the 1960s and satellite imagery from 2023, we have elevation information from both those years and we can difference the elevations to calculate the vertical change. And then we have a measurement of mass change across the landscape using photogrammetry. And we can compare that to our glacialogical measurements that give us the really fine tune seasonal information.

Daniel: This is kind of blowing my mind. So so basically, by taking two offset pictures of the glaciers from the air, you can use math, geometry I guess, to make a lot of different calculations about the shape, the three dimensional shape of the glaciers.

Caitlyn: Precisely.

Daniel: That's incredible. It sounds difficult to calculate.

Caitlyn: It involves specialized expertise, and actually the technology that, and the sort of workflows that the USGS Glacier Group leverages were originally developed for NASA's missions, for the Apollo missions. So for surveying the surface of the moon.

Daniel: There's all kinds of ways that studying the glaciers is being approached. We've hinted that mostly what you're observing is that glaciers are getting smaller. But let's let's talk about that. So is that true? All the lines of evidence point towards the glaciers are shrinking.

Caitlyn: Yes.

Daniel: Hmm.

Caitlyn: It's important, though, to understand that there can also be situations. Not so much for the glaciers here in Glacier National Park, but glaciers elsewhere where the dynamics aren't necessarily so sort of the flow of the ice isn't always directly coupled to what's happening with weather and snow accumulation and ice melt in any given year.

Daniel: The simple equation is like, well, it's hot in the summer so the glacier melts. If it's not super snowy in the winter, then the summer is stronger than the winter and the glacier gets smaller. But what you're saying is, yeah, that's that's generally very true. But there's there's some real nuances happening on specific glaciers that have more to do with water under the glacier, how steep is the glacier? One I've heard about is wind, right, and drifting. That's a big thing here in Glacier National Park, right?

Caitlyn: Exactly. And so one of those local processes that you just described is the wind drifting and wind scour of snow. Snow, snow, avalanche accumulation is another example. The shading of the surface from the topographic relief.

Daniel: It's not just how much snow falls in the winter. It's also like how much snow falls and then blows onto the glacier.

Caitlyn: Exactly. That redistribution of snow is a big important process for controlling the spatial variability of snow accumulation. And and so it becomes a relatively major influence on the mass balance of these small glaciers.

Daniel: Do you know off the top of your head, kind of the ballpark numbers that we're talking about, how much snow falls in the mountains of glacier versus how much drifts on top of Sperry Glacier?

Caitlyn: That's an open question. We have some ongoing studies that have quantified those different processes, like sort of the direct accumulation versus the relative accumulation, according to, or driven by wind drifts.

Daniel: Is it something like, you know, a high elevation forest in Glacier National Park is going to get a a couple of meters of snow over the winter. But the top of Sperry Glacier, where the wind's blowing, it's going to get like dozens of meters of snow, is that?

Caitlyn: One way I like to think about this topic is there is a glacier there for a reason. So, yeah, it's been favoring snow accumulation and the persistence of that frozen water mass. And that's how the ice forms to begin with. So generally, the, the location of the glaciers particularly now in a time when I mean, this the mountain range here in Glacier National Park is sparsely glacier ice to begin with. And when I say to begin with, I mean, like since 200 years ago.

Daniel: Mm hmm.

Caitlyn: And then with climate warming and conditions trending towards a climate that's less and less favorable to maintaining glacier ice on the landscape, those local processes become increasingly influential in terms of the persistence of ice.

Daniel: One thing that people think a lot about the park's glaciers is like, Oh, they're getting smaller. So as they get smaller, they're going to melt faster and faster. Like that's intuitive. Like, we think that's common sense. But your research has found that's not really quite true, that as they get smaller, they also become more shaded, they become more sheltered and they become relatively more snowdrift, you know—and wind blown snow lands on more of the glacier. So they're almost becoming more resilient as they get smaller.

Caitlyn: Yes. This question of relative vulnerability is really interesting and we're really keen to address that very question of do we see enhanced ice loss through time as the summers get warmer and warmer, or do we see more resilience as the glaciers are relegated to these shady wind-loaded spots? And what we're finding is that that resilience and that sort of niche like refugial setting has a buffering capacity that only can go so far.

Daniel: Mmhmm.

Caitlyn: So then if we once the glaciers experience sufficient melt, it just can't keep up even with that refugial setting.

Daniel: Okay, it helps the glaciers to be shaded and snow drifted and and tucked into their little cirques. But at a certain point, if the climate gets hot enough, it doesn't matter.

Caitlyn: Exactly.

Daniel: But it does seem like it would make predicting when the glaciers are going to be gone, quote, unquote. You know, that that starts to become pretty tricky when you start realizing that it's not just a uniform rate of retreat.

Caitlyn: Exactly. And that I mean, that hits the nail on the head. It's really important to understand how much ice is there to begin with, not just in the footprint, but also in the thickness. Like we do our best to represent these spatially variable processes and models, but having direct measurements of how much where actually—how much snow is actually accumulating at a location really helps us to at least start to constrain that margin of uncertainty.

Daniel: Right. Right. So we we know through a lot of lines of evidence that all of the glaciers are generally retreating and getting smaller. But saying or predicting when they'll be gone is pretty hard to calculate precisely at this point. And it also kind of depends on how you define gone and a whole bunch of other things.

Caitlyn: That's where some of these details really start to start to matter. But every sort of scientifically sophisticated, well constrained, physically informed model of the progression of glacier ice in Glacier National Park portends the continued demise of this frozen water.

Daniel: Well, to wrap up, you were just up at Sperry Glacier. What was it like up there after a winter in the office?

Caitlyn: The snowpack at Sperry Glacier this year was lower than it has been in past years, and we were struck by how much bare ice was exposed. There's this scour spot on Sperry Glacier, where we often see bare ice even in and throughout the winter. But certainly in the spring, once the melt season has started. However, the amount of bare ice that was exposed was definitely noticeably larger than it has been in the past. The other thing that was striking is that we could hear meltwater, which isn't common for the spring trip so often the spring trip, it feels more like winter still in the Sperry Glacier Basin and it definitely felt like spring. And obviously those sort of qualitative descriptions and the experience of being a human being on the landscape, that informs our sensibility of what's happening this year on Sperry Glacier with this winter mass balance. But the measurements of snow, depth and density will help us to really quantify how much snow has accumulated on the glacier. But it really seems like this melt season is proceeding a lot faster than a sort of a typical melt season.

Daniel: Sperry Glacier's melting out fast. Wow. A lot of your job is very quantitative. A lot of these complex Newtonian physics and first principles that we're talking about, programing out computer models. But it's special. And nice to catch you today right after you're coming out of the field and just having kind of the human experience on Sperry Glacier and on a on a year when it's changing particularly fast.

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Caitlyn: Yeah, we'll see. We'll have to compare it to other years where we've seen a relatively stout winter snowpack and mild, cloudy summer. So that's the beauty of having these measurements and this record all the way back to 2005. We can really put what we're seeing this year into into context. But thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. It's really nice to catch up.

Daniel: Yeah, this was a good conversation. Thanks for coming, Caitlyn.

Caitlyn: Yeah, you're welcome.

Peri: Headwaters is funded by donations to the Glacier National Park Conservancy. As an organization dedicated to supporting the park, the Conservancy funds a lot of sustainability initiatives from solar panels on park buildings to storytelling projects like this one, the Conservancy is doing critical work to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. You can learn more about what they do and about how to get involved at Glacier.org. This show is created by Daniel Lombardi. Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and me, Peri Sasnett. We get critical support from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, Kristen Friesen, and so many good people with Glacier's natural and cultural resource teams. Our music was made by the brilliant Frank Waln, and the show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in the show notes. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

A conversation with Dr. Caitlyn Florentine, research physical scientist with the US Geological Survey, who studies snow and ice in Glacier. This episode was recorded in May 2023.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Overview of the park’s glaciers: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/glaciersoverview.htm

Episode 4

Climate and the Future of Forests with Dr. Tyler Hoecker


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Peri Sasnett: This is Headwaters, a show about how Glacier National Park is connected to everything else. My name is Peri, and I'm talking to you from the dense forests of northwest Montana. This episode is an interview that my co-host Daniel did with forest ecologist Dr. Tyler Hoecker about how wildfires exacerbated by climate change are upending our forests. This episode is part of a series of conversations we've been having with a wide variety of climate change experts. These episodes don't have to be listened to in any order, each one stands on its own. And they all focus on a particular aspect of the way the world is being altered by the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past century and a half, human activity has released enough greenhouse gases to warm the Earth's climate over one degree Celsius, with only more warming on the way. Throughout 2023, Daniel sat down with experts to talk about how that warming is altering Glacier National Park, our lives and our futures. [drum and synth beat starts to play] I find fire fascinating, so I think this conversation was one of my favorites. I feel like I've heard most of the usual stories about wildfire so many times, so I was really excited to hear about Dr. Hoecker's research on how forests are responding to climate change. It felt like a new angle. I learned a lot, and I hope you do too.

[beat concludes]

Daniel Lombardi: So, Dr. Tyler Hoecker, welcome to Headwaters.

Tyler Hoecker: Thanks so much for having me.

Daniel: It feels pretty good that we're talking today, or auspicious or bad, on like just this week the smoke really rolled into the park. We have several new fires burning right around us. It's very much fire season, so it's a good time to have this conversation. Will you introduce yourself and talk about kind of your job and the work you're doing right now?

Tyler: Sure. So I'm Tyler Hoecker. I'm a research scientist at the University of Montana in Missoula. And right now I'm doing research trying to understand how climate change is changing fire activity across the western U.S. and trying to project how fires and forests might change into the future.

Daniel: How did you get into fire stuff, like how did that become the path for you?

Tyler: I think everybody is sort of drawn to fire, in a, in a weird way, you know, fires are pretty important, has been an important like catalyst, you know, for civilization. And so I think it's sort of just a compelling thing.

Daniel: It's kind of a universal concept, that fire and flames draw your eye and like draw you in.

Tyler: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's hard to think about forests in the West without thinking about fire. I remember as an undergrad, I took a a forest ecology and policy class, and we went to a community fire meeting. And I just remember being really fascinated by the process. And it was clear to me pretty quickly that it was really important at shaping forests in the West. And so I was really interested in understanding it. And, you know, it's sort of interesting to think back on that. You know, that was 2010. And, you know, I think fire scientists probably understood what was what was unfolding in terms of fire in the West. But I don't think anybody would have been able to really predict, you know, what's happened in the last 13 years since in terms of the amount of area burned every year. And, yeah, the types of fire events that we're seeing every summer now.

Daniel: Yeah. So let's jump into some fire ecology. At one point I was hiking up Mt. Brown and it was kind of in the fall, early fall, the fireweed was blooming and like the sun was rising and kind of glowing through it. And there was the cloud layer was like fog all in the forest. And so I was walking through that and it had burned, you know, like a year before. So everything is charred and crisp and like pretty black. There's no living trees. But in that morning light, it was so beautiful. And for me it was kind of like a pivot point. This, like black backed woodpecker, flew down and landed on the tree in front of me and was feasting on beetles that like the fire-killed trees. And I was like, Oh my gosh, like fire is not ugly. The aftermath of fire can be really beautiful. And I knew intellectually that it's also ecologically important. So maybe we can start with something like that. Like why, why is fire important in a place like Glacier National Park?

Tyler: So one of the things that I like to, to maybe start by kind of acknowledging or stating is that fire, in seasonally dry places, is inevitable. I mean, it's important to think about the benefits and the risks and things like that. And it's also important to acknowledge that it's inevitable. And it's just it is. And it will always, it will always happen in seasonally dry places.

Daniel: Yeah. So like, this place gets dry. There's lots of things growing here -- trees -- it's going to burn.

Tyler: Exactly. And so that means that everything that we see when we look at forests in fire-prone places are shaped by fire. Right? And so the species that we see, that's the forest structure or kind of the age of the trees and the way that they're arranged on the landscape in a place like Glacier, that that is driven primarily by fire and the history of fire.

Daniel: The animals and the trees that have lived here for millions of years have lived here with fire for billions of years. They always have coexisted.

Tyler: Exactly. But the biggest thing is that fires create what we call, like heterogeneity. You know, the opposite of homogeneity. Heterogeneity is variation in species composition, in structure and physical structure of a vegetation. And that heterogeneity confers resilience, right? And so a forest and an ecosystem that's heterogeneous, that's diverse and variable is going to be more resilient to future disturbances, to different pressures and stresses to insects and pathogens to drought.

Daniel: So would you say, when you say that fire creates heterogeneity in an ecosystem, in Glacier National Park, it kind of sounds like you're saying fire creates complexity.

Tyler: Absolutely.

Daniel: Okay. And that creates complexity means different habitats, which means that allows for biodiversity for more kinds of life to live in one place.

Tyler: Absolutely. So biodiversity basically emerges from complexity. Right? A complex system has more niches, has more opportunities for different types of organisms, and that creates a richer system.

Daniel: Compared to, say, a cornfield or like a forest that's all just one kind of -- lodgepole pine say. You know, it's just all one tree. So only certain kinds of birds, only certain kinds of animals are going to live there. You start mixing that up, you burn it and different trees start growing, then you're getting more complexity. You're getting more biodiversity.

Tyler: Yep.

Daniel: That's cool.

Tyler: Yeah.

Daniel: Not every tree in the forest has the same adaptations to fire. Some trees are adapted where they like a little bit of fire. Others, they only grow in places that probably aren't going to burn. So maybe you could break that down a little bit. Like, what are the strategies for trees? What are your options?

Tyler: Right. So trees or plants, you know, have these, as you described them, quirks, right. These characteristics. And in, and in sort of the ecology world we call those traits, but I think makes more sense to call like a strategy. So basically your options are to avoid fire, to be a species that can either hang out for a long period in the understory and during a long fire free period, or can tolerate cool, wet sites where fire is less common and happens never or very infrequently. So those are species like subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, western red cedar, western hemlock. Those are trees that grow in regions or in microclimates that tend not to burn very often or tend to burn very infrequently. And so there's a long fire-free interval in which they can establish and become dominant.

Daniel: So if you're familiar with the park, then like somewhere like the Fish Creek campground or the Avalanche area. These are like little pockets in the landscape where a creek goes through the middle, they get a lot of rain right there, they get a lot of snow. And so you have a lot of cedar and hemlock, these forests that are really dense and dark and mossy, you can just feel that it doesn't feel like fire comes through there very often.

Tyler: Exactly. Yeah. And so the other strategy or another strategy is to resist fire, and to survive fire as an individual. So those are species like ponderosa pine, western larch, and they have things like thick bark. They drop their lower branches, so that there aren't ladder fuels that would carry flame to the crown. They have rot-resistant wood, so that when their trunk is scarred by fire, that exposed wood doesn't rot. Hmm.

Daniel: And then there's all kinds of species that are-- there's all kinds of other strategies, too.

Tyler: Yeah. And so there's there's maybe sort of a third strategy around what we might say, fire embracing, or fire resilient.

Daniel: Fire loving.

Tyler: Yeah, fire loving. And so these are species that, like in the case of lodgepole pine, they've adapted a strategy where individuals are killed, but they have mechanisms for their genes to carry on. So older lodgepole pine tend to produce some serotinous cones, and they're, they're cones that are closed, and they're bound up by resin. And serotinous cones stay closed until they're heated by fire.

Daniel: They're waiting for fire.

Tyler: They're waiting for fire. And so this is a strategy. This is like putting all your money under the mattress and waiting for that opportunity to strike it big. Right? So the individual bearing those cones is probably dead, as are all of the individuals around it. But what you have is this environment that's perfect for lodgepole pine seedlings. It's bare mineral soil, it's high light, it's low in competition. And so they seed, you know, millions of seeds onto a, into an environment that's perfect for for their regeneration. And so then you have a new single-age cohort that recovers after the fire.

Daniel: Interesting.

Tyler: The other sort of version of being a fire-embracing, or fire-resilient, is to be able to resprout. So that things like aspen or cottonwoods or shrubs.

Daniel: That is they're not good at surviving the fire, but they'll grow back faster than every -- all the other trees. Right.

Tyler: So they survive in a way, their underground structures survive. The top is killed and they can re sprout from that underground. Those underground root structures.

Daniel: It doesn't have to regrow its roots, it's already got them.

Tyler: Yep. It's starting with a bit of a trust fund there and so can do really well.

Daniel: So there's we have all these trees in the park. We've got ponderosa pine in the North Fork, we've got cedar, we've got big dense forests of lodgepole and larch. We've got it all in Glacier. It's a pretty diverse place. So what is the fire regime or what is the history and pattern of wildfire, naturally, in Glacier National Park?

Tyler: Yeah. So, you know, one of the things that's really fun and cool about studying fire in Glacier is that high tree diversity. So you have all of these different individual species that sort of respond and coexist with fire in different ways like we talked about. And what that also means is that the fire regime across Glacier is different depending on where you are. So most of Glacier is what we would call Subalpine forest. So that's forests that are dominated by species like Engelmann Spruce subalpine fir douglas fir, larch, western white pine a little bit.

Daniel: Okay.

Tyler: So these are sort of the mid to high elevation, you know, before you get into that alpine whitebark pine zone. Those are forests that burn infrequently and at high severity. So infrequent in that context means every 150 to 300 years or so.

Daniel: Wow.

Tyler: So that's what we would call infrequent. Mm hmm. And because there's this long time period between fires, there's a long opportunity or a lot of opportunity for biomass to accumulate. And so that means that when fires do come through, they burn at high severity, they burn really hot, they kill most of the trees, they burn off the organic matter on the, on the surface of the soil. There are some places in Glacier that have a more frequent and less severe fire regime. So places like the North Fork, because they're in sort of a warm, dry microclimate and because they have species that can survive fire, that sort of creates the conditions for a more frequent fire regime, which would be burning every 5 to 50 years or maybe 5 to 100 years.

Daniel: So it could be pretty common. Yeah, every five years.

Tyler: Yeah so that's-- and then at low severity, meaning that relatively few individuals are killed in a fire. Right. So maybe some trees are killed, but most of the large mature individuals survive and maybe the small trees in the understory are killed. Hmm. It's also important to note that in a lot of places, those frequent fire regimes were supported by human burning, you know, by by cultural burning, by Indigenous people.

Daniel: Okay. So the park has some areas that historically would have burned pretty regularly, maybe sometimes even as much as every five or ten years, and burning at a fairly low severity. It's clearing out the shrubs and burning the grasses around the trees, burning some of the little trees. But most of the park is stand-replacing fires. Most of the park is not burning that often. In recent years we've had the Howe Ridge fire. We've had the the Sprague fire. What kind of fires are those? Are those the frequent fires or the infrequent ones that happen only every few hundred years?

Tyler: So those two fires together were a really cool opportunity as a scientist, because what we had there was fires that burned in forests that were historically pretty similar on either side of Lake McDonald. And those both of those fires burned almost into that Cedar-Hemlock zone, but mostly in that kind of mid-elevation subalpine forest zone. And the Sprague Fire was really kind of what we think of as typical of the historical fire regime in Glacier. So fire where those trees were in that range of 150 to 300 years old. So you had old forests, pretty big trees, relatively dense and had not experienced fire for a long time.

Daniel: So this the Sprague fire then, I remember when that started, and that's the fire that ultimately burned down Sperry Chalet. This-- this is a fire that you're saying is what we would expect in Glacier National Park, that those trees, 200, 300 years old, they're kind of right on schedule to to burn.

Tyler: Right.

Daniel: But then now things are changing. What is the relationship, if we step back for a second, between fire and climate? We know things are getting hotter. I'm sure that's changing fire here.

Tyler: Yeah. So all fire regimes are driven by three things, basically. By vegetation, climate and ignitions. So we kind of we talk about like a fire triangle defined by those three things. But which is more important or more influential varies from place to place. And so in a place like Glacier, ignitions are not particularly limiting, and vegetation is not particularly limiting. You know, if you think about the forests of Glacier, they have a lot of biomass, right? We have a lot of trees. There's plenty of fuel on the landscape. Okay. And so what tends to limit fire activity in Glacier is climate.

Daniel: Because we also have a lot of lightning strikes.

Tyler: Right. So we almost always have the vegetation ingredient. We almost always have the ignition ingredient, at least during the summer. And what determines whether we have fires and in particular what drives whether we have big fires -- big fires that burn for a long time -- that's really driven by climate.

Daniel: So to put it simply, there are always enough trees here for a good fire. It's really just, is the climate dry enough for it to happen?

Tyler: Exactly. Yeah. There's always enough vegetation on the landscape to burn. And it's whether or not the, the environment and the weather is suitable for burning.

Daniel: So now maybe tell you could tell me some more about then, what are the trends? What's been happening in recent decades? What are we kind of forecasting to see? I mean the headline we know is it's, it's getting hotter. Climate change is warming this place up. How is that affecting fire?

Tyler: Sure. So because climate is a, is a big driver of all fire regimes, and especially in places like Glacier, where climate is the main driver of the fire regime, fire activity is really sensitive to changes in climate.

Daniel: Like big picture, what are we seeing across the American west? I mean, I think we're seeing more fire, right?

Tyler: Yeah. So we're seeing we're seeing longer and hotter fire seasons. So we're seeing that fires can happen for more of the year. They can last longer and they're burning hotter and burning at higher severity, affecting more of the landscape.

Daniel: One study I've seen estimated across the broader American west, something like doubling. We've already seen a doubling of the amount of wildfire burned since the eighties.

Tyler: Yeah. And so we also know that we can see this trajectory of increasing area burned. And the other thing that's different now is that these forests are burning and then trying to recover in a climate that's very different than it was 100 years ago.

Daniel: This is really where your research comes in then.

Tyler: Right, and then seedlings are trying to reestablish in an environment that's several degrees warmer and much drier than it was when the last fire happened. So it's kind of this combination of increasing area burned and increasingly warm, dry conditions that make it more difficult for trees to reestablish after a fire. So that's part of what makes modern fire activity so different.

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Daniel: So maybe we could talk then now about the Howe Ridge fire, and as an example of kind of how the regeneration is changing.

Tyler: Right. Yeah. So some useful context for the Howe Ridge fire is that it burned entirely within the footprint of the 2003 Robert Fire. You know, that was the conventional wisdom in the Northern Rockies is that places that have recently burned are unlikely to burn again for at least a few decades.

Daniel: But so then in 2018, 15 years later, it burned again, like really just the exact same spot. And that was unexpected for fire managers and scientists. Right?

Tyler: Right.

Daniel: Okay. I was watching the fire the night it really took off, burning downhill in a way you wouldn't expect. And a, a woman was watching and crying about the fire. And I was talking with her and I, I didn't really know what to say. And I was like, "well, yeah, I, I didn't think a fire could burn in a spot where it had already burned just 15 years ago." And she was like, "Well, that's climate change. I know it is." And that kind of stunned me. But I was like, I guess she's right.

Tyler: Yeah. And so I talked about how the area that was burned in the Sprague fire was really old and this forest was sort of at a stage where it was, you know, sort of ready to burn. Right. And when that fire burned through, there was all these sort of material legacies left that allowed the forest to recover rapidly. Right. So there are stands that had a lot of serotinous cones. There were big live trees all around the edge of the burned area to, to seed into that area. And when we went back into the the area that the Sprague Fire burned, it was basically like walking through wildflower meadows. It was like a sea of hollyhock, like I've never seen.

Daniel: Wow.

Tyler: And then there'll be other areas that were like a sea of fireweed. Hmm. And that's sort of like what we expect post-fire landscapes to look to look like in the Northern Rockies.

Daniel: So this is really fire being an agent of change and diversity and beauty, the kind of the way we'd expect fire to be here historically or traditionally.

Tyler: Right.

Daniel: And that's the Sprague fire. That's really interesting.

Tyler: Yeah. And so I wasn't here for it, but that's what I imagine things looked like after the 2003 Robert Fire. So the Robert Fire, or like the landscape following the Robert fire, regenerated similar to to what is happening right now after the Sprague fire. Mm hmm. And so we had these, you know, really dense stands of mostly lodgepole pine and larch. But some of the other species that we would expect, like Doug fir and spruce and fir were regenerating in that site. Mm hmm. And then 15 years later, a lot of that standing wood that was killed in 2003, a lot of those snags fell. And so you have a ton of coarse woody debris, sort of matchsticks all across Howe Ridge. So it actually creates these conditions that are really conducive to very high severity fire.

Daniel: Yeah. So basically that's lots of big trees that died in 2003, they're laying on the ground, laying on top of each other. And then all in between those, coming up, are young baby trees that are, you know, less than ten feet tall sometimes. And they're really close together. So now you've got big logs and lots of little bushy trees all mixed together really tightly.

Tyler: Yep. But if you have all these matchsticks and you're going weeks into the summer without rain, you have an opportunity to really dry out these big fuels. And you have all these fine fuels, like you said, sort of right there, intermixed with all of the dead wood. And then you get these warm, dry conditions, you get an ignition, and you get some strong winds, and that can that can burn these very young forests in a way that we haven't observed much before the last few years.

Daniel: Hmm. So then that's where things are a little bit unexpected.

Tyler: Absolutely. So we measured both of these fires two years post-fire. Okay. So the Sprague Fire we've sampled in 2019, and Howe Ridge we sampled in 2020.

Daniel: Two years after they burned.

Tyler: Yep. So kind of the key pieces of information that we were after was, the density of trees -- how many trees are there, you know, per area? And what's the composition? What species are they? Mm hmm. Because we wanted to know how the forest that was regenerating was similar or different to the forest that was there before. And so in general, what we found in the Sprague Fire was that the composition that we sampled in those first few years post-fire was pretty similar to the composition beforehand. So there was a little bit less of the spruce and fir, which you might expect because they're very fire sensitive and they're a little bit more shade tolerant. But we had basically the full suite of species that we saw before the fire, we were able to identify post-fire.

Daniel: So the Sprague Fire like, is an example of the forest regenerating kind of as you'd expect. You see most of the trees that were there, that were burned, you see most of them growing back up.

Tyler: Yeah.

Daniel: And then you're comparing that to the Sprague fire, to the Howe Ridge fire.

Tyler: Right. And so we did the same thing in the Howe Ridge fire, as I mentioned, you know, fires are are really complex and heterogeneous in terms of their severity. We went to places that burned at high severity because we were really thinking about the future, and thinking about as the climate becomes warmer, it's really these places that have burned at high severity that are going to give us the best sort of window into the future climate -- where forests are headed.

Daniel: You didn't survey randomly. You picked intentionally areas that burned really severely.

Tyler: Right. So it's not that those places characterize the whole fire or and certainly not that they characterize the whole park, but they characterize what happens in a forest when it burns twice and when it burns at high severity twice.

Daniel: So what happens?

Tyler: So now we've burned it twice. There's almost no material left on the landscape to provide these shaded microsites for seedlings. We're really far now from seed sources and any of the seed sources that might have been within that burned patch. Like serotinous lodgepole pine haven't had the opportunity to develop. Serotinous cones don't develop on lodgepole pine until about 30 years in. And so you have no serotinous cones.

Daniel: Because they weren't ready.

Tyler: They didn't have long enough to develop and mature and then even non-serotinous cones, these trees are just 15 years old, right? So they're just approaching sort of sexual maturity. So they may have some cones, but probably not very many. Uh huh. So it's kind of, you know, this combination of factors where the post-fire environment is much harsher for regeneration because we're missing this residual forest structure that acted like a canopy. And we're missing a lot of the seed sources that are, you know, essential for the forest to regenerate.

Daniel: So it's kind of like the fire burning a little bit ahead of schedule. Though that may have happened in the past, we don't know quite how often, it's definitely unusual for the past century.

Tyler: Right. So now you're really locked into this trajectory of only the most fire-adapted species can really reestablish in that type of setting. And so what we saw was, you know, the vast majority of our plots were either larch, dominated by larch, or lodgepole pine.

Daniel: So comparing them, the two survey sites, you're swimming through fields of wildflowers on one side, and then on Howe Ridge, are you just baking in the sun?

Tyler: Basically. I mean, it depends where you were, but particularly that south-facing slope of Howe Ridge that you see when you look across Lake MacDonald, you know, that's a south-facing slope. So it's particularly warm and dry. And so that area before 2003, that band along the lakeshore, that was Cedar-Hemlock forest. Hmm. And you can imagine what it's like to walk around in it, in an old-grown Cedar Hemlock forest. It's totally shaded. It's, you know, you have plants that don't even photosynthesize, there's so little sunlight. It's moist, right? Huge old trees.

Daniel: Lots of moss.

Tyler: Yeah. Moss and

Daniel: It's like the Avalanche Creek area

Tyler: It's like Avalanche Creek area. Yeah. So you go from that before 2003 to now, you have a setting where it's super dry, rocky, and it's mostly willow and some aspen, some larch, some Douglas fir seedlings coming back, but really low tree densities, particularly in that area. So I think it's just really striking that in this one particular area, we went from an old growth Cedar-Hemlock forest to a really hot, dry shrub field.

Daniel: Wow.

Tyler: In 20 years.

Daniel: Yeah. Interesting.

Tyler: So it's not that reburns are are everywhere all the time right now. But what makes them so interesting from a science perspective is that we think of them as like this window into the future. Yeah. And so that's why we want to go into those places now and start to understand what's happening. And, you know, the thing with the Cedar-Hemlock forests around Lake MacDonald is those are established centuries ago. Mm hmm. And so not only has there been modern climate change, but, you know, there were fluctuations in climate before the industrial period, and those forests established during what was called the Little Ice Age. So it was a particularly cold period at the end of the Holocene, the last kind of interglacial period.

Daniel: When the park's glaciers were really robust.

Tyler: Right. So that's when those forests established. So they establish in a climate that's really, really different from the climate today. Mm hmm. And so the thing that's cool and fascinating about trees is that they're really long-lived and they're really resilient. So trees can sort of be out of sync with their climate for a pretty long time.

Daniel: Interesting.

Tyler: Right? Because they have these big roots that can access water from a lot of different places. They create their own microclimates. Mm hmm. So the Cedar-Hemlock forests around Lake McDonald have been out of sync with climate for a while. Mm hmm. But what we're seeing is that fire is really catalyzing that change. Mm hmm. Where eventually, if the climate continued on the trajectory that it's on, even in the absence of fire, those Cedar-Hemlock forests may die during a severe drought or something like that. But fire comes through and is really the event that catalyzes that shift in in an abrupt way.

Daniel: Hmm. Can you give me some more details on that? Like what's regrowing? Grass?

Tyler: Yeah, I mean, what that looks like is, right now that landscape is is really dominated by shrubs. It's really open. And in a few decades, it may be like a more open forest that we find really pleasant and desirable. Or it may be that we just have this really prolonged period of recovery, and we may never get a forest recovering in the way that it was before.

Daniel: Hmm. So to some extent, fire re-burning more regularly, burning hotter, more often because of climate change, it's kind of simplifying the landscape a little bit. Whereas historically, traditionally, the wildfire was more of a diversifying agent on the landscape.

Tyler: I think that's a really good way to put it, yeah. And that's what's so hard to grapple with, is that like if we're able to sort of mitigate global climate change, and temperatures sort of plateau, and rates of burning plateau, it's not impossible that the historical forest types that were there can reestablish. But with all those caveats, that would still take, you know, a century to play out and it's -- a century is a long time. For people. You know, it's not so much time for trees, but it is a really long time for people. And so I think sometimes like, us, especially scientists, kind of get hung up on like, well, how permanent is this transition? Like, it's not going to be that way forever. And I think sometimes that's missing the point a little bit. Because it is that way now, and it's going to be that way for the next few decades to centuries. And that's really what matters for us. Right. And yeah, for several generations of people on the landscape.

Daniel: That's what matters for us and for anyone we're ever going to meet.

Tyler: Exactly.

[drumbeat plays, marking a transition]

Daniel: And then I guess if we're making predictions about what Glacier's going to look like 100 years from now, the safest bet is that all of these different things are going to play out in different places. Some places are going to become grassier, some -- it's going to be all of the above, I guess.

Tyler: Exactly.

Daniel: Okay.

Tyler: What that means, though, is that, you know, those are a few different pathways that are all possible and like you said, are are all likely to play out somewhere on the landscape. Mm hmm. What's less and less likely are old forests, and forests dominated by really fire-sensitive species. Mm hmm. So old subalpine, spruce-fir forests, old cedar-hemlock forests, old whitebark pine forests, those are the types of forest that we probably will see less of in Glacier in the future. Or will occupy less of the park than they do now, or than they did in the past.

Daniel: Yeah, maybe this isn't even your job to answer this, but what's the response then? What can we do to adapt to this?

Tyler: I mean, I do think that, yeah, it's not my job to say exactly what we should do. I do think it's my job to try to help to provide information about, this is what we think is happening, and these are the likely scenarios. What we should do about it really depends on what do we value? What do we find desirable, what do we find undesirable? And what are we willing to do? Mm hmm. There's a really useful framework for climate adaptation that was actually developed by the National Park Service Climate Change Response program called RAD: Resist, Accept, Direct. And it's a really useful way to think about, okay, here's where we're headed. And then it helps us to decide, okay, is that where we want to go? And then if it's not, let's think about the options. We can resist -- in Glacier, resistance means when we have a really hot, dry summer and there's a fire in the park, we're going to put sprinklers in Avalanche Creek. Mm hmm. Or we're going to do things like they did in Sequoia and wrap Mylar around precious individual trees. Yeah. Right. That's resisting.

Daniel: Doing everything we can to stop it from burning.

Tyler: Doing everything you can, right? Or or bringing in air tankers and suppressing fires right when they start. Mm hmm. And sort of saying, Yeah, fire -- we know fire is like an important ecological process in Glacier, but we're not really comfortable with the consequences, and so we're going to resist.

Daniel: Mm hmm.

Tyler: Directing might be more like, let's allow certain types of of change to play out, and let's sort of give some nudges or kicks along the way to help the system move in a direction that we find more desirable.

Daniel: Like prescribed burning, maybe.

Tyler: Like prescribed burning, or fuel treatments, or thinning out vegetation to modify fire behavior when it does happen. Mm hmm. Or in the case of like, replanting, maybe we replant with species that are more fire-adapted or more drought-tolerant than what was there before. Instead of just replacing the forest with what exactly what was there before. Right. So that was Direct. And then Acceptance is just saying here in Glacier, we're just going to let things run their course and see what happens. Mm hmm. And just be okay with what that, whatever that is.

Daniel: Yeah. And it could be, you know, in this part of Glacier, in these situations, we accept it. And in this part of Glacier, and in these circumstances, we resist or direct it.

Tyler: Exactly. And so if it looks like we're headed towards a park-like larch forest, we might say, yeah let's accept that. That sounds good. We like, we like hiking through that better than we like hiking through really dense lodgepole pine. Like, maybe that's okay. But when that means, you know, a transition to invasive cheatgrass, maybe that's not acceptable to us anymore.

Daniel: Yeah.

Tyler: I do think it's important to just like, just at least acknowledge, you know, it is hard to watch old growth Cedar Hemlock forest burn. You know, like, even if there are beautiful wildflowers that come up after. Mm hmm. It can be beautiful and fascinating and also sad.

Daniel: Yeah. And it's like, it is a natural part of this ecosystem, and yet it is also increasing in severity due to human-caused climate change. And it is like, a natural thing, and it was also like, toxically unhealthy for our lungs to live in it. [both laugh] Right. Like.

Tyler: Right.

Daniel: It's all of this.

Tyler: Yeah. I mean, I think that's where it adds a lot of complexity to the "what to do about it" as well. Because you can take a perspective that like we're just going to let things play out and be hands off. But the reality is that we are already having an influence on this system. You know, even if we're not out there harvesting trees, you know. And so pretending that we aren't influencing the system is is sort of, I think, a sort of choosing to ignore the influence that we know we're having.

Daniel: That we already have. Not to mention the 10,000 years of history of people intentionally having a lot of influence anyway. So it's like....

Tyler: Right. So I think, you know, it gets tricky and we should be careful about everything we do as, you know, like stewards of a landscape, but, like the context for stewardship is changing really rapidly, and so we might need to get more comfortable with things that we've previously found uncomfortable.

[guitar and drumbeat starts to play]

Daniel: Mmhmm. Well, Dr. Hoecker, thanks for coming in, chatting with me. This has been really, really fascinating.

Tyler: Awesome. Thank you, Headwaters team, for having me. Pleasure to be here.

[hopeful, slightly ambiguous music continues to play]

Peri: Headwaters is funded by donations to the Glacier National Park Conservancy. As an organization dedicated to supporting the park, the Conservancy funds a lot of sustainability initiatives from solar panels on park buildings to storytelling projects like this one. The Conservancy is doing critical work to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. You can learn more about what they do and about how to get involved at Glacier.org. This show is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and me, Peri Sasnett. We get critical support from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, Kristen Friesen, and so many good people with Glacier's, natural and cultural resource teams. Our music was made by the brilliant Frank Waln, and the show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in the show notes. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

A conversation with Dr. Tyler Hoecker, who studies forest ecology and the changing dynamics of fire as the climate warms. This episode was recorded in August of 2023.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Climate change in Glacier: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/climate-change.htm Dr. Hoecker’s research: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378112721009051

Episode 5

Climate and History with Elizabeth Villano


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is brought to you by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. You're listening to Headwaters, a show from Glacier National Park.

Peri Sasnett: Glacier is usually thought of as a nature park, but it's also steeped in human culture and history dating back thousands of years. My name is Peri, and this episode is an interview with climate change interpreter and park ranger Elizabeth Villano. She talks about how climate change isn't just a nature or science story, but is also a history and culture story, and about how national parks and historic sites across the country can lead that conversation. This episode is part of a series of conversations we've been having with a wide variety of climate change experts. These episodes don't have to be listened to in any order, each one stands on its own. And they all focus on a particular aspect of the way the world is being altered by the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past century and a half, human activity has released enough greenhouse gases to warm the Earth's climate over one degree Celsius, with only more warming on the way. Throughout 2023, Daniel sat down with experts to talk about how that warming is altering Glacier National Park, our lives and our futures. [drum and synth beat starts to play] This is an interview that surprised me. Each turn in the conversation went in directions I didn't expect. I've always known that climate change is a big story that connects to pretty much everything, but I'd never heard it explored this fully. If you enjoy visiting national parks, or especially if you like going to ranger programs, this conversation is for you.

[beat concludes]

Daniel Lombardi: Elizabeth, welcome to headquarters.

Elizabeth Villano: Thanks so much, Daniel. It's great to be here.

Daniel: Will you introduce yourself? Where do you work?

Elizabeth: I work for the Climate Change Response Program, which is the centralized unit within the National Park Service that does climate change communication, resilience, adaptation work for all of the National Park Service sites.

Daniel: And before that, you worked for a bunch of national park sites in the San Francisco Bay Area, right?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I worked at Alcatraz Island, the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, and Rosie the Riveter World War Two Home Front National Historical Park.

Daniel: Okay, so you're you are a park ranger wearing the flat hat, talking to the public, talking about trees, talking about the history of World War Two, talking about all kinds of stuff.

Elizabeth: And federal prisons.

Daniel: Okay. And now you're working with all the national parks around the country, four hundred-some of them. And you're helping them incorporate climate change into what they're already doing?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think at last count, there was 424 National Park Service sites across the country.

Daniel: Okay.

Elizabeth: And all of those interpreters have a really important job of engaging the public with their site specifically. Mm hmm. And so I am kind of in the next step up from that, where I help create training materials and actually facilitate and lead trainings that help those interpreters find their own site connection to climate change.

Daniel: Is there a park site that isn't connected to climate change?

Elizabeth: Definitely not.

Daniel: And that is exactly why I wanted to talk to you. We're having this whole series of conversations about climate change in the national parks. And I wanted to talk to you because you are talking to all these other national parks, talking about how climate change is connected to everything we do, including historical and cultural park sites. It's not just about the big nature parks like Glacier.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. And in those big nature parks like Glacier, finding the unexpected connections that sometimes create the deeper meanings for visitors.

Daniel: So there for sure wasn't any like, you know, "aha" wake up moment for you on climate change. Like what underpins, you know, what's your motivation? Why do you want to tell climate stories at all?

Elizabeth: So the mission of the National Park Service is to preserve these places that we're in unimpaired for future generations. Mm hmm. And a lot of people understand when we say things like, don't feed the bears, right? That's not an unimpaired state. That is humans feeding bears. Mm hmm. They understand when we say don't throw litter on the ground. Right. Because that's not unimpaired. If we really want to stay true to our mission statement, then we absolutely have to talk about here's ways that we can reduce our carbon footprint so that these places remain unimpaired for future generations, for people to continue enjoying these beautiful places that we love and cherish so much. That's just another form of advocacy that we absolutely need to do.

Daniel: Especially in a place like Glacier that's so easy to see. And such an important point you're making is that. Climate change is impacting and changing in a negative way. Glacier National Park. And we have to acknowledge that and we have to explore it. We have to talk about it. We have to tell the climate stories of Glacier National Park and of all the other park sites as well.

Elizabeth: Mm hmm. Yeah. Even if your park site doesn't have a glacier to melt or, you know, a sea level rise that will destroy your resource, you're still a part of this larger interconnected system across the nation where if we are protecting the National Park Services resources, you're a part of that movement. So part of my work is developing training tools so that anyone across the Park Service can say, How do I talk about climate change more effectively? And then the other part of that is actually leading and facilitating trainings.

Daniel: And that's one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you, is because I know you're working on a a big resource, a big toolkit called History and Hope, which is a tool that's going to help more national parks, especially national historical parks, talk about climate change and talk about climate change in places that maybe they haven't a lot in the past. Is that right?

Elizabeth: Yeah. The full title is History and Hope: Interpreting the Roots of Our Climate Crisis and Inspiring Action.

Daniel: Okay. I'm I'm really excited to talk to you today. And I want to talk to you about how the national parks can interpret climate change into the future. Maybe a new approach to talking about climate change that's different than what we've done in the past. But let's start with you a little bit. Did you have a moment or a turning point where you started thinking about climate change a lot more or differently?

Elizabeth: Well, you know, I was thinking about if I had a wake up moment in thinking about climate change as a whole, and I realized the answer is no. It's just been a part of my consciousness since I can remember. Mm hmm. And I think that unfortunately, that's just how the trajectory of climate change, knowledge and understanding is going to go. And as you talk with people who are younger than me, especially, there's no wake up moment. It's yeah, I was born into a world that is increasingly in hospitable and is going to change in ways that we can't imagine or comprehend. Mm hmm.

Daniel: You could imagine a climate scientist 30 years ago or something, and they do some experiments or finally read some new research, and they have this wake up moment. But for people, for millennials, for Gen Z, for younger people, there's not moments like that. It's sort of you learn about it before you really understand it. And it's just climate change is kind of an ever present thing. Is that what I mean? That's how it feels for me too.

Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. It's just a part of how I view the world. Any time I'm in the outdoors, it's always kind of there in the back of my mind. And I think a part of my journey with the Park Service was figuring out, okay, we have this massive systemic issue and we're only really talking about it in spaces we think of as natural. But of course, this problem is so much bigger than just in natural spaces. Mm hmm. So how do we use park service sites that are more than just natural? All the cultural history embedded into them to help us think through those really challenging issues with climate change?

Daniel: Yeah. Why? Why And how do you think National Park sites, whether they're cultural or historical or natural, like why are park sites so well-suited for communicating climate change?

Elizabeth: I think first I've noticed in myself and other Park Service interpreters that we kind of hold a false binary of what's natural and what's cultural. Mm hmm. We say, like, this park is natural. There's glaciers, there's trees, there's rocks. And this park is cultural. It talks about wars and World War Two. And yeah, every park site has all of it.

Daniel: Like Glacier National Park is known as a natural park. We have grizzly bears. We have glaciers. Right. But of course, there's a lot of cultural and history here. And I imagine in the same way a site like Rosie the Riveter, you know, that's interpreting World War Two history, it's really a culture site. But of course, it is also part of the natural world and about the natural environment. So they're connected. But beyond that, there's something about like place based learning. And when you go to a place, it helps you learn about something like climate change in a different way. I think national parks as a whole are getting, you know, 300 some million visitors were really trusted and park rangers are really trusted. A. Authorities. It makes something so important like climate change, it makes it really important to talk about at such important places like National Park sites, I think. Do you agree?

Elizabeth: Yeah. And when people come to these sites, they're kind of in a different state of mind. Mm hmm. You know, they're on vacation mode. They're more open to learning, receiving information and feel really connected to the place that they're in. Mm hmm. National parks have such an immense power of place, it can kind of transport you into a different way of viewing the world. Yeah. And not just that. I think if you think about who the nation's storytellers are. Mm hmm. We're kind of the only agency or one of the only agencies that's employed to tell stories of our nation's past, as well as a trained workforce who understands how to dig into these histories and help people find their relevance with them. You'll often hear interpreters or the phrase interpretation. Mm hmm. And I used to get a lot like, What does that mean? Mm hmm. I'm not a language interpreter. I don't translate French to English, but I do interpret why this place matters to you and what helps you find your relevance to it. And so that was really the purpose of this project. And this toolkit is finding more ways we can interpret climate change so that we can say, here's a connection in this park site that maybe relates back to your own life more, that relates back to the qualities of being a person existing in a really messy world.

[drumbeat plays to mark a transition]

Daniel: How did you start out talking about climate change when you were interpreting to the public? When people ask you about climate change, how how did you approach the topic with people?

Elizabeth: It was pretty dark, really.

Daniel: I think it was the same for me.

Elizabeth: I was working at Muir Woods National Monument, which is a beautiful redwood forest about an hour north of San Francisco, and the fog in and around the Bay Area is decreasing. It's decreased by about 30% since the 1950s. And the redwoods rely on the fog. Uh, so at the end of my talk, I would kind of, you know, the crescendo would be the fog is disappearing. And what is that going to mean for these trees? And I think, you know, I would just leave these really uncomfortably long pauses where I would start imagining the worst and people would start imagining the worst.

Daniel: Mm hmm.

Elizabeth: And I think the the underlying tone of what I was saying is, I'm so glad you're here now because they're not going to be here anymore. Mm hmm. And. When you're engaging with people, when you're doing programs, it's so energizing usually. And I would just leave these programs feeling so depleted and sad and depressed. And we've seen that people who are interpreting climate change, people who are doing the science of climate change, are really starting to feel depressed and worn down because we're so immersed in this topic that feels really hopeless.

Daniel: Yeah, I think you know that That's exactly how I approached interpreting and talking to the public about climate change when I first started as well. I was, you know, I'm not afraid of scary stories. I like the the doom side of things. I definitely early on focused on climate impacts. You know, climate change is causing wildfire to increase. It's causing the glaciers to melt. And here's how these animals are impacted and this is how much hotter it is. And, you know, telling kind of the the heavy impact side of the story, that was definitely the way I went at it. And I don't know that, you know, I would think that that half is important. You have to recognize that. But it definitely feels like there's something missing.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I mean, did you feel hopeful when you talked about that?

Daniel: I... I don't... I don't know that I did. I think I felt really pretty pessimistic, and I'm guessing that's how the audience felt as well.

Elizabeth: I mean, we are just such social creatures. Like if you think about when your friend is sad, like it kind of pulls you down to. Especially like as the authority figure when you were sad. Like people feel that. Yeah. The doom and gloom approach to climate change interpretation. I think it's pretty pervasive. And, you know, I think in part it's because we have a lot of science. There's no disputing really these climate impacts. And so as an interpreter, when you're looking for something to talk about, you gravitate towards these facts and you want to share them with people you feel so passionately about, the place you live in, work in play in, that you want to bring people into that with you. And I just think. You know, if you are a first time visitor to a National Park Service site and you go to a talk about glaciers melting and then you go back home and it's kind of hard to get food on your table or you're worried about making rent or, you know, you're stuck in a city. You kind of forget what it was like to be in that place. Like, what does a melting iceberg mean to you? If you like, picture your eyes and you think about climate change. The images that are going to come to mind are probably. Icebergs, melting polar bears losing their homes. Maybe like lakes that have been dried out from immense drought or wildfires. And I think as a public, as people were pretty good at understanding the natural impacts of climate change and where the conversation has just lagged for a long time, both in parks and media, is what that means for people.

Daniel: Yeah, it sounds like you're saying the national parks are this perfect venue to talk about climate change, but that most of the time we have focused on the impacts of climate change and we haven't really made the connection for, you know, someone visiting a national park, the connection between how the glaciers are melting and why that matters, or why climate change matters for that person's life at home. Like that connection isn't being made.

Elizabeth: Yeah, and that's played out in the data. Americans are really good at understanding the link between climate change and environmental issues. And then just increasingly bad about thinking about the intersectionality of it. We're great at seeing climate change as an environmental issue, but when you start to think about how climate change will impact our economy, it gets worse. If you start thinking about the intersection between climate change and health, it gets even worse. Although I think during the pandemic there was some conversation about the ways in which climate change will start to increase the risk of vector borne illnesses, increase the risk for pandemics. So maybe we've gotten a little bit better at that. But way at the bottom of that list of comprehending is climate change and social justice. The ways that climate change really increases and magnifies the risks which people are already living in today.

Daniel: Elizabeth, you're thinking about how the national parks are a perfect place to talk about climate change, but how the story and the conversation about climate change has been so negative and so impact in nature focused, then I think there was like a moment where that shifted for you. The story flipped around and you started thinking about the climate conversation in national parks in a new way.

Elizabeth: Yeah. So I went from working in Redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument to interpreting war history and homefront history at Rosie the Riveter World War Two Home Front National Historical Site. So Rosie the Riveter is not a place where people come to expecting to think about climate change. There is kind of that question among staff to like, is this really the place to be talking about climate change? This is an event that happened in the 1940s. This has not just doesn't really have any natural resources to speak of. Leave that to another park site. Hmm. But I'm Italian. I'm not good at leaving things alone. And so I started to think about how how to bring in this story here. And the way in which I decided to do it was let visitors make that connection themselves. And so I put up a whiteboard in the middle of this industrial space. Mm hmm. That said, during World War Two, the country mobilized around a common cause. What cause do you want to mobilize around now? And there is a whiteboard marker. And that was it. So people started to throw their responses up. And I collected all the data, and I tabulated and I tabulated per month. Mm hmm. And I put together word clouds where the biggest word in the middle of this word cloud was the thing most responded to. Mm hmm. And so I started to look at which responses had the most traction. And without fail, month after month, no matter what was happening in the news, it was always climate change.

Daniel: Were you surprised?

Elizabeth: I think I was hopeful. Yeah. And I felt empowered. Hmm. You know, it was that idea that I think a lot of the barriers in talking about climate change are more in my head than it is actually in people's minds. You know, they come to national parks. Seeking answers, seeking perspectives of what happened in the past, and intuitively wanting to make those connections to the present.

Daniel: So then what happened next?

Elizabeth: I came up with a ranger talk called When History Rhymes, kind of based off of that idiom that Mark Twain didn't say, but people think he did. That history doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes. So really using this idea of, okay, well, why would we even talk about history if we're not going to try to learn from it? If we are the nation's storytellers, how do we help people draw lessons from that so that we can help them draw their own conclusions and come away from these sites addressing the issues on their minds, which time and time again was climate change.

Daniel: So basically it's like, how can we take the lessons from mobilizing the history of mobilizing for World War two? What can we apply from that to today? Or what do we definitely not want to apply, But like using history as a tool to understand the present and the future. Is that right?

Elizabeth: That's exactly right. And I think World War Two is is actually a great example because a lot of people would come in, would say, oh, that was the greatest generation. That was the last time Americans were really unified. And that's true to an extent. And it also kind of leaves out the ways in which we mobilized at the expense of Japanese-American citizens who didn't need to be excluded, incarcerated. The ways in which they were. And so the way which we default to telling history tends to be pretty cherry picked. And I think that when telling history, it's really important to really encompass everything that goes into it so that when you're thinking about how to create a future, you can kind of course correct from the ways in which we maybe didn't do it well the first time.

Daniel: So there are also lessons from World War Two about what we what we don't want to do if we're going to mobilize and unify as a country. How can we improve this time, From the last time we did that.

Elizabeth: Our mobilization around World War Two was visionary in a lot of ways. Yeah, it brought women into the workforce. It brought people of color into the workforce. It brought people with disabilities into the workforce. I think it was really a time our country said what other creative talents out there exist and how can we utilize them to combat this really large threat that we're facing? This threat of fascism that we all agree is really important? And that that is truly a lesson to be learned in thinking about mobilizing around climate change is how many different pools of talent exist that we can pull from and weave in to climate actions, climate solutions.

Daniel: So there's lessons that things that we can really that can really inspire our response to climate change. And then there's also things like, Oh, we can also do better than we did before. So it's both.

Elizabeth: It also helps us get to the idea of unintended consequences. Mm hmm. Right. Because World War Two, as a person of Jewish descent, I'm not going to say that the emissions we created from World War Two were worth it. Mm hmm. Mobilizing around World War Two was crucial in facing this threat of fascism that was harming people's lives around the world. And if you look at the data emissions trends from World War Two, it's through the charts.

Daniel: Right after the greenhouse gas emissions that were emitted from tanks and industry and building ships and all of that for World War Two. Those greenhouse gas emissions contributed a lot to climate change.

Elizabeth: It was really one of the the key moments of globalization that set forth the global trade routes that today we take for granted so much the ways in which the country flipped itself to bring parts together from around the country faster.

Daniel: It really set globalization and industrialization on a new trajectory.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And then the economic prosperity after World War Two, the ways in which cash was just flushed into the system for the everyday American. Hmm. That also made it so that we were buying a lot more. We were consuming a lot more. Our carbon emissions per person really increased. We went from one car households to two car households. We started getting washing machines. These are all things that are good. But really get to this idea of progress and how progress looks so different for different people and the unintended consequences that can arise from it.

Daniel: It's super interesting to hear you make the connection from, you know, this starting point of responding and mobilizing to World War Two, and then you start seeing all these knock on effects that are very connected to climate change, but also connected to justice and inequality. And that it starts as one thing, you know, or it seems like one thing responding to World War Two. And then you see that it shifts the trajectory of history in a million ways afterward.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think that's the coolest thing about Park Service sites, is that every site across the country just has their fingers in almost every period of history you can. And so if you look at all of these sites across the timeline, you actually have a pretty comprehensive picture of who we've been as a society. The decisions that have been made intentionally or unintentionally, that have kind of been steering us towards this current moment of intense climate change.

Daniel: Okay, so now you're working for the Climate Change Response Program and you're talking to park rangers around the country. You've been doing workshops and stuff and you're asking, what do you want visitors to your park to take away from a program about climate change? What have you found out from that, from those conversations?

Elizabeth: The more that we bring out the history of that park site and how people were embedded into that story, the more we see ourselves in it, both in the people of the past as well as who we can become as a future people. I think rangers are searching for ways to communicate to the public that there's still hope and ways to help people find their own place in getting involved.

Daniel: Yeah, which is pretty different from the like, traditional approach which focuses on, you know, nature and animals and the impacts climate change is having on those things, like the impacts of climate change on, you know, melting glaciers. It's pretty different.

Elizabeth: I think grounding people in the realization that there is work to be done, that we are not doomed at this point. Like I actually think we're in the best time to be alive because we're not really locked into anything. We were locked into a certain amount, but it's not it's not concrete from here. There's so many different ways to make it better or worse, depending on the actions we take. And I think that when we as interpretive staff, when we help people realize what their role is in the story, help open up that space, that there are things to be done, then we've really succeeded. And I think there's different ways to do that. And the field as a whole hasn't really come up with the perfect way.

Daniel: At the end of a program on climate change, everyone wants to know, you know, what can I do? What can I do about climate change for me? And what do you say?

Elizabeth: One of the resources I really like to share is called a climate Venn diagram created by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth: Johnson, who's a really prominent marine biologist. She's a Black woman in science, and she really explores the intersection between race and climate.

Daniel: And so she has these overlapping circles of a Venn diagram describing how anyone can get involved in working on climate change.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Okay. And the questions she asks you to consider are: What do you enjoy doing?

Daniel: Mm hmm.

Elizabeth: What work needs to be done? And what are you good at? Hmm. And where the intersection of these three circles overlaps is a space for you to think about your own contribution. I think the good and the bad news about climate change is that it's so big and it's so overwhelming that it can feel almost like there's too much to do. But that also means that almost anything that you find joy in, there's a space for you in a climate solution, in a climate action.

[drumbeat plays to mark a transition]

Daniel: So tell me what it's what it's been like talking to people around the country, talking to park rangers around the country about how they are doing climate change interpretation.

Elizabeth: Yeah. So I led a training recently at the Channel Islands. Mm hmm. And one of the things we talked about is trying to put ourselves in the shoes of people who are making history. Hmm. I think we, like, personally have thought about history kind of passively. A lot. Mm hmm. Where it just kind of happens.

Daniel: Where it's, like, governed by forces beyond actual people. And we forget that there are real people with names and, like, feelings involved.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. Mm hmm. And so we. I did this both in my programs and with park rangers, where we came up with a list of social changes that have happened over time. Mm hmm. Things like curb cuts on sidewalks or sewage systems.

Daniel: Curb cuts being like, allowing wheelchairs to go onto sidewalks.

Elizabeth: Yeah. I didn't know this, but, you know, it's only been within the last 30 or 40 years or so that those became prevalent. If you were in a wheelchair before then, it was just hard to navigate cities.

Daniel: Curbs did not have like, slopes that you could go up.

Elizabeth: No.

Daniel: So what about the sewage systems then? What's the story behind that one?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I mean, people just used to toss their refuse out in the street. Right? It was like, kind of gross. And no one was really taking responsibility for cleaning it up. And that obviously created a lot of diseases. Mm hmm. You know, a lot of these social systems that we take for granted today, also, a lot of our rights, our voting rights, our civil rights, the fact that women can have bank accounts and credit cards, these are things that we're not just handed to us. They were fought for by people, like you said, with very real emotions against systems that seemed pretty insurmountable.

Daniel: You're describing an understanding of history that is humanizing. You know, there were people throughout history that created the world we live in today.

Elizabeth: And, you know, I imagine that if you asked an abolitionist, do you think that you can actually fight against this massive economic system that profits off of bodies for free.

Daniel: That being slavery.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I imagine that people would have felt pretty pessimistic about the outcome. Yeah, I don't think it was a guarantee at any point that they were going to win. And I think that reminding ourselves that these people and movements had feelings and doubts and insecurities and were just people trying to rise to a moment to confront a crisis that they believed was important and reimagine a world that didn't rely on the systems that they were lived in and trapped in. That's huge. And helping my thinking about climate change.

Daniel: Yeah, that's really powerful that there's lessons we can apply to climate change today.

Elizabeth: And I think that there's almost a skepticism of rangers about and historians about going into the emotions of history. Mm hmm. We think of history as kind of this set of facts that are almost emotionless. And that's how it's been taught too. Mm hmm. Devoid of the human experience. But when you start to go into that and you start to realize that history is just a bunch of people's opinions smushed together that you're thinking about, and those people weren't living in the same world as us, but experiencing the same feelings as us. Then you start to understand a lot more how to apply that into the future, how to confront the pessimism, the anxiety, the doubt, the insurmountable pity we feel of climate change. And look at times in the past where people have overcome these same feelings and persevered through them to create the world we live in now, that sometimes we take for granted.

Daniel: Yeah, it's really powerful to imagine the early days of World War Two and how daunting that must have felt, or the the fight against slavery, or the civil rights movement or the the right to vote that these were such big challenges. And climate change is a similar challenge today that as an individual, it's pretty easy for it to feel so overwhelming.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think climate change is one of those issues that both manages to make it feel like it's your fault individually, that anything you do is causing it.

Daniel: Mm hmm.

Elizabeth: But also that there's nothing you can do to solve it. And that tension is really hard.

Daniel: Yeah.

Elizabeth: I think one of my turning points in my own interpretation of climate change came from when I was willing to let myself be more vulnerable with the public.

Daniel: Opening up a little bit.

Elizabeth: Yeah. In my programs, I would literally say to people, I'm going to take off my ranger persona now. I'm going to be me, a human who has a job and wears a badge. And I think by doing that, and giving people space to feel the very, very real emotions around climate change, that's almost a necessary foundation to seeing yourself in the solution for climate change.

Daniel: Which is a big part of what you're trying to do then, is is help park rangers interpret climate change and tell the stories of climate change in a way that. Everyone can feel like they're part of the story.

Elizabeth: Yeah, I mean climate change is a human-caused issue, and it has to have a human-caused solution. And I would say the thing that we know that sets us apart as people is our ability to learn from the past. And so this toolkit really or my approach to climate change interpretation, wants to look at a full picture of the past and really take all of the lessons and all of the humanity we can from it.

Daniel: Good and bad.

Elizabeth: Good and bad.

Daniel: I wanted to ask you about this, you know, to push back on that idea a little bit. Like climate change is so huge and difficult and like it's a tough topic on its own. So why do you want to go dragging history into it? It feels like it could make it even more difficult.

Elizabeth: It absolutely could. But climate change is not a simple story. And so when you try to simplify it and you try to just look at it through a very baseline lens, you're going to get a simple solution. And we know this is not a problem with a simple solution.

Daniel: Okay.

Elizabeth: Yeah, it's interesting. In my career as a Park Service interpreter, the two things I've really focused on are talking about climate change and then elevating these undertold stories. And I found that when I bring up these undertold stories, the things that we kind of think about as touchy.

Daniel: Mm hmm.

Elizabeth: That's when people are push back the most. You know, they're like, "why are you talking about this?"

Daniel: This sensitive topic?

Elizabeth: Right.

Daniel: Okay.

Elizabeth: But my job as a historian, as the nation's historian

Daniel: And storyteller.

Elizabeth: And storyteller, is to tell all American stories. Mm hmm. We have a Park Service initiative called, "telling all Americans' stories." And historically, over time, those stories were from a pretty small group of Americans. They were generally white, powerful, affluent men stories who absolutely had a role in shaping who this nation is. And we were giving them such an outsized amount of attention that when we pull our attentions back a little and bring in other narratives, it almost can feel like a statement, when in reality it's just broadening the picture. At MuirWoods where I worked, the story we told for decades and decades very largely revolved around three powerful, affluent men who absolutely helped save the forest. Without them, it would not have been there. But as a woman who doesn't have a lot of money to throw around and causes, I was like, "okay, so that's not my solution. I don't see myself there." And so when we started to expand the story and say who else was involved, what other characters were in this, then I started to see myself more in it. The women who helped fight for and saved Muir Woods didn't have the right to vote. So if you look at today, some of the people who are going to be most affected by climate change -- youth -- they can say, "Oh, I don't have the right to vote yet, but I can see instances in which people used a different form of social pressure to get the cause that they cared about to succeed."

Daniel: That's interesting. The story of Muir Woods, this park unit in the Bay Area. The wealthy, powerful white men that, that pushed to create and preserve those trees in that forest... That's not the whole story.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And I would say from the time the forest was protected in 1908, up until 2018, that's the only story we told. What that story left out was that for generations and time immemorial, that forest was protected and stewarded by the Indigenous people of that land, the Huimen Coast Miwok, and the first movement to actually try to mobilize around and protect their woods was this elite, upper class white women's group called the California Club, who didn't appear on a single sign. And so when we started to expand that story, to bring in the role of women, to bring in the stewardship of Indigenous people, not only did we show that there were more spaces in social movements, there were more people at play than just the well-known figureheads. Mm hmm. Not only that, but there were these really deep pools of knowledge on how to best steward the place that we all care about so much.

Daniel: Yeah. So you're bringing in these other stories, you're broadening the history of Muir Woods, but you're trying to do this across the Park Service. And it's, it's good because it's more inclusive, like you're including more people in the story. But it's also helpful because you're getting a deeper and richer understanding of who we are and what this country is.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Daniel: And I think it also maybe helps us imagine who we can be.

Elizabeth: I completely agree with that. I think an argument I hear a lot about bringing up these touchy histories is like, "Oh, you're just focusing on the bad stuff." Hmm. But, I mean, if you think about raising a kid, if you're not talking about the bad stuff, how are they going to learn how to be a better adult? Like, it's that it's those formative lessons that teach us who we were and who we want to become. And I think the more I learn about the power of storytelling, the more I really appreciate our role in doing it. And we've actually found that when people today are listening to the same engaging story, their heart rates synchronize across time, across space, so their heartbeats will literally sync up when listening to that same engaging story, which shows that our bodies are just hardwired for this. Across time immemorial, we've used stories to dictate who we are, whether we're talking about creation myths. Or, you know, biblical narratives or the Grimm's Fairy tales.

Daniel: Or the story of World War Two.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly.

Daniel: It really emphasizes the importance of what we're trying to do in the National Park Service and what interpretation is trying to do.

Elizabeth: Exactly. Use that power of place to help people realize their place in a really broad story over time.

Daniel: Elizabeth, where are you seeing some really cool stories emerging from the national parks? Where are you seeing history and climate change really intersect in an interesting way? Because I know you're talking to people all around the country.

Elizabeth: Yeah. This product that I've mentioned earlier, I think at this point we've collaborated with around 40 different park sites around the country.

Daniel: This History and Hope Toolkit and program you're, you're working on.

Elizabeth: Mm hmm. I think sometimes the strongest stories are the ones that are the least expected. Mm hmm. So, for example.

Daniel: Like, everyone expects Glacier National Park to be talking about melting glaciers and climate change. That's old news, right?

Elizabeth: Exactly. Like, how does that really apply to me? Mm hmm.

Daniel: Do you have any examples of parks that are telling these cool stories about history and climate?

Elizabeth: One of my favorites is from Maggie Walker National Historic Site out in Virginia, where it's a woman who was really central to a lot of conversations around Black economic empowerment in the early 1900s.

Daniel: She was a social justice activist.

Elizabeth: Absolutely.

Daniel: Okay. So you don't really expect that to be connected to climate change.

Elizabeth: Right. And, you know, it's a story that by and of itself deserves to be told. Mm hmm. But Maggie Walker also lived through a period where her house went from candlelight to electricity, which at the surface level is like, okay, she lived through a period of technology change. Mm hmm. But then you start to think about how much society changed when she lived through it. Mm hmm. Like, her house became electric. She got a dishwasher at some point or something like that. Like these little things that we take for granted today are actually immense amounts of societal change of everyone who lived through it. Mm hmm. And when we think about the scope of the challenges today for climate change, it can feel big. You know, it's like, wow, so much needs to change. But that has happened time and time and again.

Daniel: So she's living through a really revolutionary time.

Elizabeth: Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, if there's one trait I would call humans, it's adaptable. Hmm. Especially if there's something that can make our lives better. Mm hmm. So Maggie Walker went from candlelight to electricity? Mm hmm. She went from a horse and buggy to a car. And not just any car, but an electric car, which I didn't know was invented in the early 1900s.

Daniel: Wow.

Elizabeth: Right. So when confronted with a better option, we've taken it time and time and again. And I feel like right now we're we're nervous about the changes that need to happen. But that's just been a part of the experience of being a person over time.

Daniel: And it's cool that National Park Sites can tell that story about how we've gone through these big changes in the past.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And, you know, that's at a historic site in Virginia. But the infrastructure at Glacier has changed over time too.

Daniel: Right.

Elizabeth: It's incorporated these new technologies. So you come here thinking about, oh, the glaciers are melting. We've heard that story. Mm hmm. It's not that it's not an important story. But what if, when you're here, you can also think about the ways that society has adapted to new technologies over time?

Daniel: Right. The first park headquarters was here with, you know, logs of wood.

Elizabeth: Probably from the park.

Daniel: Yeah. And, you know, today we have solar panels on the roof. It's a big change.

Elizabeth: That's a story of the innate creativity, adaptability and just pioneering spirit of people. And I think that's something that when I look to the future, I identify those as traits we really need to embody.

Daniel: And we really need to tell stories like that in the national parks.

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly.

Daniel: So looking at our past, looking at our history, that helps us. It helps us imagine the future and see how we've gone through these changes before. And I think it can help us think more creatively about the solutions that we're working on right now, like the solutions to climate change that we're implementing. Have you seen that play out or how have you seen that?

Elizabeth: I think that's spot on. I think that sometimes in the environmental movement it feels like there's a crisis of imagination. That we feel like we have to settle for these options that aren't really getting to the root of the problem. You know, if we put-- if we transition to solar panels everywhere, that is fantastic. And I think what that's missing also is that the same systems that have created climate change are also the same systems that have really set up and exacerbated a lot of the social inequalities that we're still very much grappling with. I think in both of these cases, there's the idea of something being deemed as "expendable." And I put that in air quotes, but I'm on a podcast, so imagine those air quotes around the word expendable. Mm hmm. Where we think about people as expendable. We absolutely as a society thought about people who were enslaved as expendable. Mm hmm. We thought about the Indigenous stewards and caretakers of this land as expendable for this idea of progress. And progress has brought us to where we are today. And it was done so with the mentality that there was okay things to sacrifice along the way. And I see that a lot of times in climate solutions as well, where we say, "okay, well, we can get some stuff out of this. You know, we can just try to reduce our emissions without looking at the people or places or land that have been viewed expendable along the way."

Daniel: Tell me about this "yes/and" approach to history.

Elizabeth: Well, the "yes/and" approach, I think, comes from improv like. "Yes... And. I like that idea -- and." Mm hmm. And I think we can "yes/and" the successes of history. And a great example of that is the creation of the National Park Service that you and I both work for. This Service that we are a part of, the National Park Service, was a revolutionary idea. That we should protect places around the country for future generations. Mm hmm. We've been called America's best idea. Mm hmm. But the "and" part of that comes from the ways in which the creation of the National Park Service disregarded the existence, the sovereignty and the intentional land management of the places that we've protected by Indigenous people.

Daniel: So you're saying the National Park Service is a pretty cool idea?

Elizabeth: Yes. America's best. So they say. Yeah.

Daniel: So yes. And we can do better as we go forward. We can do better.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think the way to do better now is that we have land that's been protected through this incredible idea -- and -- what are the ways that we can incorporate those deep pools of knowledge from those Indigenous people over time? These are people who have lived and sustained and stewarded landscapes for time immemorial, who have so much knowledge accumulated and built up. And there's actually there's been studies that have shown that land stewarded intentionally by Indigenous people can be more productive, more biodiverse than land that's just been left alone. Kind of reshapes our idea of what a wilderness is.

Daniel: It's kind of hard, I think, for people to imagine the world they want to see. It's easier to imagine the worst case scenario.

Elizabeth: I completely agree with that. And I think, you know, that gets back to what we were talking about earlier, where if you look at movements of the past, I think it was a huge feat of the imagination that they even fought for those big social changes. I imagine that if you were enslaved, thinking about an economic system that didn't revolve around slavery must have been mind boggling.

Daniel: It would have been a really, you know, sci-fi utopian kind of thinking to imagine a whole different world.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And almost any social change you can think of, the world that they fought for was must have just felt incomprehensible at the time. The way that sometimes I feel myself thinking about climate change now, which is when I think about a just equitable climate future, it can almost feel incomprehensible and insurmountable. Hmm. And I think that that's that's par for the course with these movements. That's a part of the process. And it's okay to let yourself feel that and recognize that we've gone through that before. We've come out on the other end.

Daniel: Yeah. That studying our our own history can be an inspiring reminder of that.

[drumbeat plays to mark a transition]

Daniel: For people going to interpretive programs, what motivates them to take action on anything, I guess, but what motivates people to take action on climate change?

Elizabeth: I think the verdict is still out, but from what I've seen, the biggest discourse is kind of around, is it fear or is it hope?

Daniel: Like, should this ranger program inspire people and be hopeful so that they'll, they'll take action? Or should it scare them? And should they be worried into taking action?

Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. You know, I think that there's merit in both. We don't want to sugarcoat the fact that the climate is changing. We are locked in to a degree of changes.

Daniel: Mm hmm. The glaciers here are melting, and the climate has already warmed quite a bit.

Elizabeth: Yeah. And I think that if you try so hard to be hopeful that you don't acknowledge any of that, then you're, you're in a false sense of hope. Mm hmm. And there's one of the biggest ideas I've seen around it is that if you're talking about hope, there's two different types of hope. There's the hope that something will happen. Someone will do something kind of that passive hope, that passive you of history we've been talking about. And then there's an active hope. The hope that if you do something, it can make an impact. And one of my favorite quotes is by an author, Rebecca Solnit, where she says, "Hope isn't just a lottery ticket that you sit on the couch clutching. It's an ax that you break down doors with." And I think that's really where I lean towards, is I want to instill in you the confidence that there's still things to be done, but that it's not just going to happen. Nothing in history has just happened. There are people pushing forces, and you're going to be involved in that, and the causes you care about, or it's just going to happen to you.

[hopeful guitar and drumbeat plays]

Daniel: I love that. Thanks so much for talking with us about all this today.

Elizabeth: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

[music continues to play]

Peri: Headwaters is funded by donations to the Glacier National Park Conservancy. As an organization dedicated to supporting the park, the conservancy funds a lot of sustainability initiatives, from solar panels on park buildings to storytelling projects like this one. The Conservancy is doing critical work to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. You can learn more about what they do and about how to get involved at Glacier.org. This show is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and me, Peri Sasnett. We get critical support from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, Kristen Friesen, and so many good people with Glacier's natural and cultural resource teams. Our music was made by the brilliant Frank Waln, and the show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in the show notes. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

A conversation with Elizabeth Villano, from the NPS Climate Change Response Program, about telling climate stories and finding hope. This episode was recorded in June of 2023.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Climate change in Glacier: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/climate-change.htm Climate change across the NPS: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/climatechange/index.htm

Episode 6

Climate and Health with Dr. Danielle Buttke


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is brought to you by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Peri Sasnett: This is Headwaters, a podcast made in the verdant wonderland that is Glacier National Park. Millions of people come here each year looking for a break from the stresses of everyday life. My name is Peri, and this episode is an interview that my co-host Daniel did with Dr. Danielle Buttke, talking about the intersection of climate change and public health. They talk about how the health of our climate, environment, and communities is all intertwined. This episode is part of a series of conversations we've been having with a wide variety of climate change experts. These episodes don't have to be listened to in any order, each one stands on its own. And they all focus on a particular aspect of the way the world is being altered by the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past century and a half, human activity has released enough greenhouse gases to warm the Earth's climate over one degree Celsius, with only more warming on the way. Throughout 2023, Daniel sat down with experts to talk about how that warming is altering Glacier National Park, our lives and our futures.

[drum and synth beat starts to play]

Peri: I've always been interested in the idea that people and nature are deeply connected. Maybe you know that already, if you listened to our season on whitebark pine. Still, I don't think I was prepared to hear Dr. Buttke explain these interconnections with so much scientific rigor. I was also struck by how profoundly our health is connected to our climate. I think this interview is essential listening.

[beat concludes]

Daniel Lombardi: So thanks for talking to us. We wanted to talk to you, Dr. Buttke, about public health and climate change and how climate change is impacting human health and the health of our natural environment, and how those two things are intertwined and all tangled up together.

Danielle Buttke: I'm excited to be here today.

Daniel: So you have an impressive background, right? You have a Master's in public health. You've studied environmental sciences, and you also have a degree in veterinary medicine, the health and epidemiology of animals. Is that kind of a good summary of that?

Danielle: It is, yeah. I had a little bit of a circuitous route to where I am today. Originally wanted to study and work in environmental science and wildlife conservation, which was where my, my Ph.D. work really focused, and realized somewhat early on that animals knew how to survive just fine. It was really that humans were, were taking over the resources and had basic needs that, that needed to be met before we could ask them to conserve resources for tomorrow. And that's when I switched to public health.

Daniel: So what's your job now? Tell us about where you work and what you do.

Danielle: So I currently lead the One Health program for the National Park Service, and One Health is simply the recognition that both human health, animal health and environmental health are all completely interdependent and interlinked. And when we think about the multiplicity of health outcomes and players, when we're looking at a specific problem, we all benefit when we think about health as a more holistic construct.

Daniel: A lot of times I think your job gets really kicked into high gear when like there's a hantavirus outbreak or something in a national park. Is that right?

Danielle: It is, yeah. Because we share so much of the same biology with other species, we often share a lot of the same diseases. Diseases that pass between humans and animals -- and they can often go in either direction -- SARS-CoV-2 or COVID is a perfect example of that, you know, they're called zoonotic diseases. And that's really where I got my start and where a lot of my work is focused, on those infectious diseases that can pass between humans and animals. Hantavirus is a perfect example of one of those. And so increasingly in our work, we're finding that when the environment is healthy, when we keep those ecosystems healthy, those ecosystem processes are occurring in the way that nature intended. We have many, many fewer disease risks and many, many fewer disease spillover events.

Daniel: Interesting. So I think one thing that's maybe surprising to some people, but talking with you, it seems pretty obvious, that like one approach to studying climate change or thinking about climate change is to think about it through a lens of public health, of environmental health. Do you encounter people that find that surprising, or that's a new idea for them. That these that climate change and environmental health and human health are connected.

Danielle: It's really surprising to me to hear and see how many people have not thought about that connection. In every aspect of the way in which climate change impacts the environment, has a similar impact on human health. And yet studies have shown that few people are aware of those impacts, even if they've personally been impacted by a climate disaster or climate emergency. Because when people understand climate change as an impact to their daily lives and their personal health and their family's health, I think it really helps people to understand why it's so important they take action. And it also helps to clarify the ways in which they can personally take action in their local community, in their home and the environment around them.

Daniel: Yeah. Do you think it's helpful for us to define the difference between health and disease?

Danielle: I think that Western medicine, and my own profession, has focused heavily on disease because it's really easy to see. It's very easy to measure. We have specific tests for specific diseases, and oftentimes it's it's something that we can directly treat. Health is a really difficult thing to measure. Health is not simply the absence of disease, but an individual's ability to thrive within the environment that they exist in, whether it's a human or an animal. And it's therefore a lot easier to understand why health is more directly impacted by climate change than disease per se. Even though we do know that climate change dramatically influences the rate, the types and the severity of infectious diseases. But again, health is much broader than just disease, and therefore the impacts of climate change are much broader than just disease.

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Daniel: What are some examples of climate change really impacting wildlife health and wildlife disease that you've come across in your work?

Danielle: Climate change can influence the actual reproduction of a bacterium or a virus. Under warmer temperatures, or higher or sometimes even lower amounts of precipitation, certain bacteria and viruses can replicate faster, to a higher level, or for a longer period of time. Mosquito-borne viruses are a perfect example of this. When you have a longer, warmer summer, mosquitoes can replicate much more quickly and rapidly, they're present for a longer period of time throughout the year, and those viruses within those mosquitoes can also replicate more rapidly under those warming temperatures. We're also seeing that infectious diseases are changed under climate change because of the ways in which the environment influences where those animals thrive and survive. Avian malaria in Hawaii is a perfect example of this. While neither the mosquitoes nor the the parasite that causes malaria are native to Hawaii, they have become endemic in bird populations and in mosquito populations there. Prior to the warmer temperatures we've seen under climate change, a lot of the native bird species were able to only survive and evade malaria at very high elevations on the mountains in Hawaii. With climate change, those mosquito vectors are moving up in elevation, and those native bird species that are extremely susceptible to malaria, because they didn't evolve with this non-native parasite, are dying out from malaria. And as the mosquitoes move up, there's fewer and fewer refugia, or safe places, for those birds to survive and hide from both the mosquito and the malaria parasite. And we've seen a lot of those native birds go completely extinct because of this parasite. In fact, there's a variety of studies show that there's probably only a few more years left for some of these native bird species to survive without going extinct, if we don't take action now to eradicate that non-native mosquito and that non-native parasite that's present on the island.

Daniel: Wow. So basically, in the case of Hawaii and the birds there, it's a story of climate change and a story of invasive or non-native species in that the mosquitoes and the malaria is historically wasn't there. But this is -- generally, all around the world, what's happening is as the climate warms, these mosquitoes and the diseases they carry are able to spread into new places and impact more people and new species of wildlife as well. Is that right?

Danielle: That's absolutely correct.

Daniel: So we're seeing the potential for these mosquitoes to expand their ranges. Does their range contract alongside, too? As it gets hotter and hotter, they can move to higher elevations and farther north, but then does their the southern end or the lower end of their ranges shrink at the same time? Or are they able to tolerate the heat better?

Danielle: For for many species, absolutely. There is not necessarily an expansion of range. Oftentimes, it's just a shift in the range in which these organisms can survive. However, it's not just climate change that's happening on the landscape. It's also human development of landscapes. And humans create microclimates that are oftentimes much more conducive to having these parasites, whether it's ticks, mosquitoes, pathogens themselves, survive. So, for example, here in Colorado, on the Front Range, we have a lot of irrigation because people like green lawns, they like having trees that might not otherwise be able to live on this landscape. And when we have irrigation, we know we have dramatically increased rates of mosquito-borne disease, such as West Nile virus. And so we have, by altering the landscape, changed the way in which these pathogens can survive and interact. And you have kind of a one-two double whammy of that land-use change that's expanding the range, as well as those, those changes from climate change that are expanding the season under which these pathogens can thrive. But I want to be clear it's not always a unidirectional: more disease because of climate change. If we're seeing decreases in precipitation or longer periods of time between which we have rainfall events, that can impact the survival of of ticks. And so it's not always that climate change is causing more pathogens to occur on the landscape. And maybe in some circumstances that's causing them to contract their range or be present for a shorter period of time. But at the end of the day, humans and animals evolved under very specific, discrete conditions. And when we have more rapid and more unpredictable changes in weather and conditions, this means that we are more susceptible to diseases. And diseases are more able to opportunistically take advantage of new niches.

Daniel: What I'm hearing you say is that, yes, the shift in mosquitoes and disease, the shift in range and the lengthening of the season, those are concerning. But maybe something that's understated here then is that climate change is just increasing kind of the chaos in the system, and the complexity, which makes all of this just harder to manage.

Danielle: That's a perfect way to put it.

Daniel: Well, let's talk about the pika research, then. What's happening with pika and climate change and disease?

Danielle: So pika are amazing little creatures that have evolved to fill a very specific niche at these very high elevation sites. So a big study that we have going on now is to understand how climate change may be influencing the other small mammals that are moving up to those higher-elevation sites. Because they're seeing warmer temperatures up at those higher-elevation sites, they're able to survive and interact with new populations and they're often bringing their diseases with them. And indeed, there's previous studies that have found, you know, certain species of small mammal that are known to be impacted by plague and carry fleas that can very easily and readily transmit the plague bacterium. They are now found at higher elevation sites where pika are also found. So we're really interested in looking at how those warmer temperatures may be driving new species to interact with pika, and they may be bringing the diseases that could potentially kill pika with them.

Daniel: Wow. So if someone hasn't heard of pika before, pikas are these really cute little mammals that are related to rabbits. So they're not really like mouse-like, they're much cuter than that. Size of potatoes, they love to live under the rocks high in the mountains and then like store up flowers for the winter because they don't actually hibernate. They don't sleep through the winter, right? They just hide under the rocks and eat their hay pile all winter long.

Danielle: Yeah. An adorable squeaky potato is a great way to put it.

Daniel: [laughs] So to stay warm in the winter, they hide under, you know, heavy, deep snows. And that keeps it, you know, it doesn't really get a whole lot colder than freezing point -- than 32 degrees. The snow actually insulates them from the colder air blowing around at the tops of the mountains. But then if you have changes in the amount of snow you're getting, or how warm the winters are, you might get less snow. And that could really hurt their ability to survive through the winter. So that's the general climate impact facing pika. But now you're describing something much more nuanced and complicated, and that is all these other animals, squirrels and mice and all kinds of little creatures that that have fleas, that have potentially diseases. And they're moving up the mountains because it's getting warmer up there and it's nice. And so they're interacting with the pika more, potentially sharing diseases. Am I getting that relationship right?

Danielle: Exactly. And I think it also really highlights what we talked about earlier, that interplay between health and disease. It's not just about whether or not a disease is present, it's how healthy is that population to begin with? How resilient is it to changes in its environment, in the introduction to new diseases? When you both have the loss of snowpack happening, as well as the introduction of a new disease, you're much more likely to see declines in that population because they don't have that resilience.

Daniel: So it's like, yeah, bringing some new diseases into a population of pikas isn't great, but so long -- if they're really healthy, then maybe that's not a big deal. But if they're really stressed and not very healthy because they've been freezing all winter long and really struggling, well then disease is going to hit a lot harder when it shows up.

Danielle: It's sometimes even native diseases that these populations may have evolved to handle or withstand the impacts of these diseases under normal conditions. But maybe under the land use changes that humans are causing, combined with climate change, those native diseases that they've previously evolved some sort of equilibrium or balance with are now having really detrimental impacts.

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Daniel: Well, let's shift a little bit and talk about some of the impacts of climate change on human health that are a little, a little different than what we've been talking about. One of the primary examples is that well, burning fossil fuels like driving a car or running a coal power plant, that produces, in addition to greenhouse gases which are warming the climate, it's also producing air pollution, which has a big impact on human health. And I'm wondering if you could kind of lay that out a little bit. How does just the use of fossil fuels, aside from causing climate change, how does that impact human health?

Danielle: I don't think we can state strongly enough the negative impact of fossil fuel combustion on human health. Because that pollution that's created, we're directly breathing it, because it's often created in the communities in which we live. It's our actions -- driving our car to work, heating our homes, transporting the food that we eat to the grocery store -- all of those things are happening in the places that we live and work, and therefore we're directly exposed to a lot of this pollution. It's estimated that the combustion of fossil fuels and the resulting air pollution is responsible for anywhere from 8 to 10 million deaths every single year. That is more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis kills -- combined -- every single year. And so it's really easy to make the business case for for clean energy, for for stopping climate change, because even if we're only looking at the direct health impacts of fossil fuel combustion, we can pay for clean energy. We can pay for that transition away from fossil fuels, away from combustion engines, just from the health care savings that we see. By stopping all of those premature deaths, it's decreasing our lifespans. No matter where you live and who you are. Although obviously individuals that live in more polluted communities, which unfortunately is often disadvantaged populations, whether it's people that live in rural parts of the country, people of color, people with lower income, those people obviously you see the brunt of it to a greater extent than more privileged communities. But even people in privileged communities are dying at much faster rates because of exposure to air pollution. It can get very deep into our lungs and it can cross into our bloodstream where our blood is pumped throughout our body. And those little tiny particles of pollution get lodged in our tissues. One of the most direct impacts is when it's lodged in our brain where it can cause a stroke or it leads to dementia. We see much higher rates of dementia in communities with higher rates of pollution. Or it can be in your heart or your blood vessels and it can lead to a heart attack or other types of cardiovascular disease. And so you've certainly met someone, know someone, have personally been impacted by stroke, heart attack, cardiovascular disease. All of those diseases are much worse and much more common because of fossil fuel combustion, because of our exposure to air pollution. And that's really just the start. There's a myriad of other ways in which that burning of fossil fuels impacts our health, but those are the most obvious.

Daniel: Wow. So if someone you know has a stroke, the medical report probably isn't going to say anything about air pollution because we're just not looking into the details that carefully anytime someone has a stroke. You know, we're just trying to help them get better and recover. But in reality, the air pollution is contributing at least some amount to that likelihood of a stroke happening.

Danielle: Absolutely. It's, you know, similar to the interplay of health and disease, we focus on that end result, that stroke. We focus on that disease, but we're not thinking enough about all of those factors that caused that stroke to occur in the first place. And exposure to pollution is is a really, really important one. There was, however, recently one of the first death certificates that had climate change listed. It was in, an I believe, a young person who had died from an asthma attack. And asthma is a much more direct, much more obvious way in which climate change and the burning of fossil fuels impacts our health. But there's there's many less obvious ways and many more insidious ways than simply dying from an asthma attack.

Daniel: It's difficult to parse out how much worse their particular case of asthma is because of burning fossil fuels. But it's certainly exacerbating and worsening these breathing and lung conditions that people might already have or might not already have.

Danielle: And it's not just direct exposure to fossil fuel combustion. It's also those secondary impacts of burning fossil fuels. So under these warmer temperatures, we know that wildfire is dramatically increasing. You know, and the the particles that are released during a wildfire event are having that secondary and compounding impact on increasing rates of asthma, increasing hospital admissions, increasing stroke, increasing heart attack. So it's oftentimes multifactorial, but increasingly, those events are linked to impacts of climate change. We know that, you know, somewhat surprisingly, increased precipitation from climate change in some parts of the country are increasing pollen counts and worsening asthma and other types of air pollution, whereas in other parts of the country, such as the desert southwest, those increased droughts and increased temperatures are worsening the dust, sometimes worsening fungal pollen spores that can cause different infectious diseases such as Valley Fever and worsening the rates of asthma, the rates of of general lung disease and other impacts because of those warmer temperatures.

Daniel: So here in Glacier, what what's probably happening is we're getting longer summers, warmer summers. So there's allergy season in the summer and the season in which plants are pollinating. Like that's lengthening, too. So if you're allergic to tree pollen, like when there's just longer time periods with that pollen in the air.

Danielle: These are oftentimes synergistic, especially when you have warmer temperatures. When the body is overheated, when we have higher, hotter ambient temperatures, it's a lot harder for our body to respond to especially those cardiovascular insults. We see much higher rates of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular attacks when you have these compound exposures. So it is, as you said earlier, it's just increased chaos.

Daniel: Yeah, increased chaos because it's one thing if your allergies are way worse because of the pollen or your asthma is way worse because of the smoke. But then you have to add on top of that, like, oh, also a heat wave and you don't have air conditioning. Like now you're suddenly really susceptible to like just a common cold, I would think is going to hit way harder when your body is run down from heat and smoke and everything.

Danielle: And we saw this with COVID. We saw that populations that were experiencing greater amounts of air pollution had much more severe rates of COVID-19 disease and death. We know that when your body is responding to pollution and responding to particulate matter, it's much more difficult to fight off infectious diseases, even things such as as seemingly benign as the common cold.

Daniel: Wow. Well, let's talk about the heat, then, because ultimately, that's what we most typically associated with climate change, is burning fossil fuels, is releasing greenhouse gases, and that's heating the planet. And heat is ultimately very dangerous.

Danielle: Most folks are often surprised to hear and learn that heat kills more people than any other severe weather event. And it isn't just direct heat exposure, just as it isn't direct fossil fuel pollution exposure that kills people. Repeated exposure to high temperatures in which your body's not able to cool itself well can cause a lot of long term health impacts. It can decrease kidney function. There's some studies suggesting it may influence the development of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes. It can have long term impacts on your cardiovascular system, and it can influence your ability to withstand those severe heat events in future years. And so it's not just simply did you survive that extreme heat event that you saw. It's what long term consequences are occurring to your body when when you have these, these heat exposure in these extreme heat events.

Daniel: There's two themes emerging in this conversation so far, Danielle. One of them is that the impacts of climate change on health are not evenly distributed. They're impacting some people more than others. Another theme that's emerging, that if it's not obvious already, is that none of these impacts are acting alone. They're all interacting together and exacerbating and influencing each other. Well, I want to ask you something more about heat. In Phoenix this summer, they had like almost the entire month of July over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. And that's incredible. Glacier National Park here in West Glacier, I think our record high temperature ever is 100 degrees Fahrenheit. So it's just it doesn't get that hot here. But I'm guessing that you can say more about how it's not necessarily the number that causes health issues. It's not the exact temperature. There's other factors, right?

Danielle: It is often unexpected heat that causes the worst health impacts and outcomes because people are neither behaviorally able to adapt -- maybe you didn't bring sun protection, maybe you didn't plan your hike so that you can take shade breaks, maybe you didn't bring enough water -- as well as physiologically adapt. When your body is gradually exposed to increasing heat, it's able to cool itself more efficiently over time, provided that it has the resources that needed it needs. So it's unexpected heat that's oftentimes the greatest killer. But what our study found was where we had the most severe health impacts and the most number of heat illness events and deaths was in the shoulder seasons. It's when people didn't expect the heat that they suffered the worst.

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Daniel: So far, we've talked about impacts of climate change on wildlife health and disease. And we've talked about the impacts of climate change on human health and disease. And now I was going to ask you, let's talk more about where those overlap and intersect, how human and wildlife and environmental health are really inseparable and tied together. Do you think the best examples might be like Lyme disease, hantavirus, West Nile? Should we talk about those?

Danielle: I think those are some of the the most salient examples of how human, environmental and wildlife health are interlinked. However, they're not the most powerful examples in terms of overall health benefits or overall health detriments. Lyme disease and West Nile and hantavirus are all infectious diseases that can be spread from wildlife and or insects to humans, and oftentimes vice versa. And we know that each of these diseases occurs at higher rates and spills over to humans more often when there are aspects of that environment that aren't healthy. We know, for example, West Nile virus occurs at the highest rates in the human population when there are the least number of bird species present and when there is not a very diverse community of wildlife present. It's something that's been referred to as the dilution effect, although that simplifies it quite a bit. It's much more complex than that. But it's the idea that when you have diverse wildlife populations that are present in healthy ecosystems, they essentially can dilute out that disease because they're not all susceptible to it, and therefore it can't simply amplify by passing from one animal to the next to the next. And that means that when you don't have that complete community of birds present, when you don't have that diverse assemblage of wildlife species present, you can see greater rates of some of these diseases. Lyme disease is another example of that. We know that when you have more predators present on the landscape, you have lower numbers and lower rates of transmission in the mouse populations, either because those predators are eating that mouse species that is uniquely capable of maintaining high numbers of the Lyme disease-causing bacteria, or oftentimes because those mice aren't as often to go out there and transmit disease more readily because they're afraid that a predator is watching them. And that's why when we have more natural predators present, when we have a more diverse wildlife community present on the landscape, we have lower rates of Lyme disease in those human communities and that part of of the environment. Wow. So we know that when that ecosystem is diverse and healthy, we generally have lower rates of disease transmission.

Daniel: That's really amazing. To underline that, you're saying that more biodiversity results in less disease for wildlife and people.

Danielle: For many diseases yes, that is -- and generally that is the case.

Daniel: Wow. Can we dig into each of these a little bit then? What is it about having more birds that helps with West Nile disease?

Danielle: Yeah, this is a great question and a really important example of this mechanism of of how biodiversity protects us. There are certain bird species that are really susceptible to West Nile virus, and those bird species can make a whole lot of virus in their bloodstream when they get infected. Corvids, which are things like jays and crows, are examples of birds that that make a whole lot of virus when they get infected. And that's oftentimes why they die from West Nile virus. But before they die, they can infect a lot of mosquitoes, because every single time a mosquito takes blood from that animal, they can pick up a ton of virus because it's at such high density in the blood of that bird species. Compare that to other types of songbirds that are probably more rare, probably don't like living around humans to the same extent that those corvids species do. They may get infected with West Nile virus, but they're much less likely to die from it, and they don't make as much virus when they have it or they never get it in the first place. So when you have those songbirds present that aren't very capable at transmitting West Nile virus, you essentially stop those mosquitoes from feeding on those those jays and those crows and those other species that are really good at transmitting it. And therefore, a fewer percentage of the mosquitoes in that population are going to be transmitting and carrying West Nile virus. The thing is, those species that are really good at transmitting West Nile virus are some of the most resilient to human disturbance. That's why those are the birds you see in neighborhoods, because those are some of the only ones that are tolerant of night lighting that occurs oftentimes in human developments or the noises that occur or the very, very impoverished numbers of trees and diversity of of plant species. A lot of those songbirds need more food than is present in an urban landscape, and therefore they can't live there. And so that's why having more bird species present, as we see in more diverse communities, is associated with having fewer human infections with West Nile virus.

Daniel: This is kind of blowing my mind. And so when we're talking about these diseases and the overlap between wildlife health and biodiversity and human health and human disease, the climate impact is not quite as direct as some of the other things we've talked about, but it's still a factor in that climate change is disrupting the life patterns and the existence of a bunch of these animals and changing the amount of like generalist species, like ravens versus sensitive warbler species that are being impacted by climate change, am I understanding that. Right?

Danielle: Absolutely. And I think it's probably easier to see climate impacts in these wildlife diseases and populations if instead of looking at the negative side of things, we look at the positive side of things because we know that when you have more tree canopy present in a location that's supposed to be forested, you have much greater rates of biodiversity. So more species of birds present, so less or lower rates of West Nile virus transmission occurring there. And you're more resilient against heat illness because you've got shade there, you have evapotranspiration happening from those trees. So they create cooler, more humid micro environments that help your body cool and all of those other species that are just as susceptible to heat illness oftentimes as humans are. It cleans the water. It means you're more you're less susceptible to flooding because the roots of those trees will take that water away. It regulates our environment in so many ways that it both decreases the risk of a lot of these infectious diseases, as well as protects us from severe heat, extreme weather, extreme flooding, drought, etc.. And so, you know, it's it's not just, again, about disease. It's it's really about health writ large.

Daniel: At the end of the day, those diseases are not our greatest killers. They don't have the greatest health impacts. And other infectious diseases where biodiversity can regulate or reduce the rate of disease transmission may have be more important from a number standpoint, even if the example by which biodiversity regulates disease transmission isn't as obvious.

Daniel: Are you saying that, well, hantavirus, Lyme disease, this is kind of scary, but ultimately, like from a public health perspective, asthma, and air quality, that kind of stuff is just way more impactful. Way more important.

Danielle: Exactly. Exactly. When you look at the top ten killers, not just in the United States, but globally, they're not infectious diseases. They're chronic diseases, they're cancer. They're diseases from air pollution. They're, you know, factors and health impacts that are influenced both by climate change increasingly, as well as access to nature. [drumbeat plays to mark a transition]

Daniel: So you're describing the health and disease benefits of basically just having more greenspace, having more trees and grass around where you live. Right.

Danielle: Most people can probably think about the way in which being outside might make you feel better. It's not just a feeling. We know that when you are exposed to nature, even if it's in short periods of time, very small segments or what we would think of as not very natural nature, such as a dense city park or even house plants, it can have really profound physiologic impacts that last for quite a long time on us. We know that kids that are exposed to nature, if they walk through a tree lined street on their way to school, they're going to concentrate better. They have better immune function, they have better recall and memory and and better behavioral characteristics. There are studies that have found that kids that are exposed to nature on a regular basis can sometimes even eliminate the need for medication to deal with things such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit disorder, simply from exposure to nature. We also know that we have significant increases in, for example, natural killer cell function and other immune markers when we are exposed to some of the phytochemicals that trees release, or simply exposed to greenspace, our immune system is better able to deal with pollution as well as infectious diseases when we're exposed to nature. We also know that there's a lot of mental health benefits, not just memory and mental function, but also decreased rates of anxiety, depression, lower rates of crime in communities that have green space present. And all of these is really has been found to be a direct measure or impact of of the presence of nature, even when we control for things such as socioeconomic conditions present in that environment, other other factors that can influence any of these outcomes. You know, regardless of of what your background is or where you live, there's a health impact of nature exposure that we can see if we're increasing the amount of nature you're exposed to.

Daniel: Wow.

Danielle: Yeah. And I think this is really important because while diseases such as West Nile virus, hantavirus, Lyme disease are important, they actually don't kill that many people. They can have a devastating impact on your life if you have some of those long term sequelae of Lyme disease infection. But in reality, the impacts of those diseases pale in comparison with a lot of the chronic diseases such as depression, such as substance abuse, such as suicide, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, these chronic diseases that kill far more people than those infectious diseases. But those chronic diseases that can be alleviated, if not completely cured or prevented if we have more nature present in our environment and if we have access to nature. We know that people are more likely to participate in healthy behaviors when they have more nature present in their community and environment. We know that people are more likely to be connected to others and their community when they have more greenspace present. And that dramatically increases life span and lessens your risk of dying from any type of extreme event, severe weather, emergency fire or otherwise. Because people are going to check on you. You're less likely to die of diseases of despair such as alcoholism, drug use disorder, and other forms of of mental illness deaths when you have exposure to nature and a stronger, more closer knit community. And so it really influences and improves our health in a variety of ways. Those impacts are much harder to measure than diseases from infectious causes, but they're no less real. Just because we maybe can't can't measure them in the same way.

Daniel: And so oftentimes, like defining what is nature is messy or complicated, but in this case, we're like really loosely defining it, I think, right. Like it's we're talking about just having grass and trees and plants around you. That's what you mean by exposure to nature for the most part. Right?

Danielle: Yeah. And in fact, one of the first seminal studies showing this effect simply looked at whether or not hospital patients recovering from gallbladder surgery could see nature outside of their window, or if they were on a side of the hospital that looked out at other buildings. And they found much faster rates of recovery and better outcomes in those patients who had views of trees outside of their hospital window. And so there hasn't been that much work done to really quantify what types of nature have what types of impact. But the good news is the bar is pretty low. Any nature, whether it's native or not or pristine or not or large or small, is going to have some positive benefit on your mental health, on your physical health, and your community health, and your chance of living longer and healthier and happier. And studies that look at infectious disease, studies that look at chronic disease, studies that look at school performance, anxiety, the list goes on and on. And the other thing that's really important about this is a lot of these diseases are impacted by climate change, but a lot of the benefits of nature go beyond some of the things we've just talked about to, again, reducing your risk of extreme heat, reducing your exposure to air pollution. Trees are one of the best sources of of air filters, right? Trees clean our air to a greater extent than nearly any other type of technology, and trees draw down carbon. They both help us adapt to climate change as well as help to reverse or stop some of the climate warming pollution, pull it down back into the ground so that we're not still seeing the heating impact of that carbon that's in the air. So nature is is so beneficial on so many so many levels. And climate change is really compounding a lot of these diseases that we're exposed to, a lot of these health impacts that we're exposed to. But access to nature can both have a direct impact on our risk of those diseases, as well as reverse or mitigate some of our future risk by by helping us adapt to and mitigate climate change directly.

Daniel: And to be clear, you're not talking about like some special whitebark pine tree in the top of a national park. You're talking about literally any tree is improving our air quality and health while also drawing down carbon along the way.

Danielle: Yes. And this is actually a really important point because the tree that's going to have the greatest influence on your health is the one that's closest to you. But it's local nature that has the greatest health impact because you have the greatest exposure to it. It doesn't have to be large scale. It doesn't have to be as big or beautiful as you'd like it to be. Any nature is going to have a positive health benefit for you if you're exposed to it at a higher rate.

Daniel: Not everybody has the same access to a neighborhood filled with trees and streets lined with trees. Some neighborhoods have more than others.

Danielle: And this is why those health impacts of climate change fall very unequally on communities and hit those vulnerable communities with the least resources. Most significantly, because those communities are less likely to have tree canopy, you're both less likely to have the money or the housing for air conditioning or well sealed housing that can keep that wildfire smoke out, and you're less likely to have tree canopy that's going to clean up that pollution that's there or shade your house so that you're less impacted by the lack of air conditioning during a heat wave. Greenspace is one way in which we can dramatically improve the health of those vulnerable communities, because there's both the really, really beneficial health aspects of having that exposure to greenspace, as well as that really significant need to help them adapt to warmer temperatures, to more air pollution, to more diseases present, to more flooding, to more drought. Trees are going to help with all of those things, and they're beneficial whether or not you're experiencing one of those extreme weather events.

Daniel: So altogether, it's like kind of scary to really realize like how unhealthy and how negatively our environment is being impacted by climate change. But it's also kind of inspiring or exciting that like there's so many benefits to our health from fostering a healthy environment and addressing climate change. That like we have the solutions and those solutions for a lot of these is just like engaging with and encouraging more greenspace in your own neighborhood.

Danielle: And even better, if they could be a food source to you or to to local wildlife, which you know is another impact of climate change we haven't talked about is food scarcity and food insecurity, because we're having more droughts and heat waves and greater chaos. You can't grow crops very well if you don't know whether or not the rain is going to come or how hot that temperature is going to be that summer. And so having more nature present and more types of nature present is going to make you more adaptable and more resilient. And the other really important aspect of having more nature present is that it is one of the only things that the American public universally supports. It does not matter your political views, your economic background, your your ethnic background, everyone universally, over 93% of Americans support protecting more greenspace, whether it's national parks or otherwise, for the benefit and well-being of other Americans. And so it's something we can all get behind as as a climate solution, as an equity solution, as a health solution of having more greenspace present. And if we use that greenspace to to also then, you know, grow local food or have more educational opportunities for kids or have more spaces for us to connect with each other, we're going to see a myriad of other health benefits and resilience benefits against some of these climate changes in the future.

Daniel: Well, this is all been incredible. Thank you, Dr. Buttke, for taking the time to come and chat with us about this.

Danielle: Thank you for the time. But at the end of the day, the the story is is really one of hope and and nature, the health benefits of nature. The best way for you to have an impact. The best way for you to take climate action is right where you are, influencing the people that will listen to you most readily and most willingly and in the way in which you you best know how. Any action you can take is going to be beneficial, but it's going to be most beneficial if it's it's local to you and in with people that that trust and are more likely to follow in your footsteps. And again, everyone supports more nature. Everyone supports more green space. So it's a really good place to start.

Daniel: We have so much to gain by addressing climate change. I love that.

Danielle: It's important to recognize that there's extreme disparity in this country in particular, and access to greenspace and access to shade and access to parks. And it's not simply about what zip code you live in and whether or not you have money to take that vacation and travel to to a national park. It's more about the ways in which our cities were designed and developed that excluded people of color, in particular from living in certain neighborhoods and parts of certain cities because of institutional and structural racism that existed. We know that the practice of redlining prohibited people of color from owning homes in certain parts of the city that were more likely to have greenspace and parks present. And that's why today, one of the thing that predicts your likelihood of having shade or having urban tree canopy or access to green space is sadly the color of your skin. This is a an absolute health disparity in addition to just simply being wrong that we really need to to to remedy not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it has dramatic health benefits and it helps those vulnerable communities adapt to and mitigate climate change in a way that they need it most.

Daniel: So, Danielle, some of what you're describing is the benefits of green space, not just on human health and mitigating human disease, but also just improving like mental health to being in green space. And I'm also curious to see what you think about the benefits of mental health, of like taking action, doing something in your community about green space or about climate change. Like, does that have an impact on mental health or any other kind of health?

Danielle: I think oftentimes we think about it backwards. It isn't that if you have hope, you take action. It's that if you take action that brings you hope. Taking action actually dramatically improves your mental health. And oftentimes people don't know where to start or where to act. The good news is, is that anything you can do in your neighborhood is going to have the biggest impact. And any action you're taking in your local, local neighborhood or community is also more likely to have that positive impact on your health. If you're advocating for a park, if you're planting trees, if you're starting a community garden, we are going to have so much more hope when we take action and we're going to have such a greater impact when we do it through nature based solutions, because they have health benefits that extend far beyond the direct impact on climate and health benefits or impacts. We are increasingly dependent on our local communities to meet our needs, to take care of each other, to support each other through these extreme weather events and these climate impacts and action that we can take, such as improving greenspace locally, is going to make our community more prepared for these events. It's going to provide us a resource that helps mitigate and reduce the impacts of those severe events. And it's just going to make us healthier, happier and more resilient long term. So it's it's really, I think one of the best ways for us to find hope is by taking action to find those nature based solutions where you live and work, because they'll have the greatest impact and you'll see those benefits quite clearly.

[hopeful guitar and drumbeat plays]

Daniel: Yeah, that's great. We have so much to gain by taking action to address climate change from creating more greenspace. I love it.

Peri: Headwaters is funded by donations to the Glacier National Park Conservancy. As an organization dedicated to supporting the park, the Conservancy funds a lot of sustainability initiatives from solar panels on park buildings to storytelling projects like this one. The Conservancy is doing critical work to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. You can learn more about what they do and about how to get involved at Glacier.org. This show is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and me, Peri Sasnett. We get critical support from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, Kristen Friesen, and so many good people with Glacier's, natural and cultural resource teams. Our music was made by the brilliant Frank Waln, and the show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in the show notes. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

[music concludes]

A conversation with Dr. Danielle Buttke, who works for the National Park Service at the intersection of human, wildlife, and environmental health. This episode was recorded in September 2023.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Climate change in Glacier: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/nature/climate-change.htm Public health in National Parks: https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1735/index.ht

Season 4

Episode 1

A Growly Bear and the Invention of Bear Spray


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Michael Faist: This summer, I came across the story of a bear nicknamed Growly. Growly was a grizzly bear who lived in Glacier National Park in the 1970s. And when he was young, he lived a normal bear life. His mom taught him how to pick huckleberries and dig up glacier lily bulbs. He swam across his first creek, caught his first animal, and—after a couple of years—struck out on his own, ready to take on the world. We also know that by age seven, Growly got into some trouble.

Music: [dramatic drums start playing]

Michael: You see, when you're a bear trying to pack on the pounds before winter, you've got to eat a lot. And if you want to eat, say, 150 calories, you could find and pick 150 huckleberries. Or you could eat one Twinkie.

Music: [quiet contemplative music starts]

Michael: Bear management records from 50 years ago are light on the details, so we don't know exactly what Growly did, but we do know he was labeled a, "problem bear." A term often used to describe bears who associate people with food. More often than not, problem bears aren't malicious or uniquely ill-tempered, they're smart. They know that they need a lot of calories to survive the winter and happen to live around humans who leave a lot of food lying around. One account stated that Growly wandered through a busy campground searching for food. Another claimed that he followed his nose to an empty cabin, "vandalizing" it to get food inside. He hadn't hurt anyone, but this habit suggested it was only a matter of time, and park managers decided to remove him. The next time Growly followed his nose, he followed it into a trap.

Music: [upbeat flute music starts playing]

Michael: For some bears, this is where the story ends. But for Growly, this is just the beginning. Growly would soon leave Glacier, and would go on to change how all of us recreate in Bear Country—and play a part in the creation of bear spray.

Music: [Headwaters theme begins playing; starting with mandolin, then a drumbeat, a flute line, and other instruments layer in before the music finishes]

News Clip: So this is what helped save our lives.

News Clip: I'm going to spray you.

Sound Effect: [spraying sound].

News Clip: She took two steps into the cloud and made a 90 degree turn and then ran out of there.

Music: [Theme music finishes]

Michael: You're listening to Headwaters, a podcast about how Glacier National Park connects to everything else. And in this episode, we're talking about bear spray. I'm Michael.

Daniel Lombardi: I'm Daniel.

Michael: For people who might not be familiar, Daniel, what is bear spray?

Daniel: Bear spray is, it's basically a self-defense spray. Like a pepper spray. A really strong pepper spray that you spray at a bear if you're being charged or attacked.

Michael: Right. And it's become a central part of the visitor experience here in Glacier, because we have one of the highest densities of grizzly bears anywhere in the lower 48 states.

Daniel: Yeah. So most people who come to the park, they're picking up bear spray at the airport on their way here or at basically any store around in the whole area.

Michael: Gift shop, grocery store, all over.

Daniel: It's an essential item around here.

Michael: And if you see a park ranger out and about, they will have a can with them. And if you go on a hike with one, they'll likely sing its praises sometimes, literally. I went on a hike with a Ranger this year who wrote a whole song to let wildlife know we were in the area.

Ranger Frank: [singing loudly to the tune of Jingle Bells] Grizzly bears, grizzly bears, grizzlies in the way. Get off the trail, cause if you charge, with pepper, you'll get sprayed.

Michael: Thanks, Ranger Frank.

Daniel: Oh, wow.

Michael: [smiling] Yeah, it was very good.

Daniel: I love it.

Michael: But while bear spray is ubiquitous now, it hasn't been around forever. So in this episode, we're diving into the origins of bear spray, and meeting some of the people behind the hottest lifesaving accessory in bear country.

Music: [dramatic drums play]

Michael: [in the car] I think it's this red roofed building.

Daniel: My first question for you then, Michael, is like, what actually is bear spray? What is it made of? And how do they how do they make it?

Michael: Right, how do they make the stuff? And that was my first question, too. And it turns out we don't have to go far to find the answer because a lot of bear spray is made locally, right outside of Glacier.

Daniel: [in the field] Where we at?

Michael: [in the field] We are at the Counter Assault Bear Spray factory in Kalispell, in the Flathead Valley. Hello, I'm Michael. I'm looking for Randy?

Randy Hunt: That's me.

Michael: [in the field] Nice to meet you.

Randy: How you doing?

Michael: [in the field] It's been nice to me, Randy. Thanks for having us.

Randy: Come on in.

Michael: And luckily for us, Randy Hunt, head of operations with the brand Counter Assault, invited us for a tour.

Michael: [in the field] And you manufacture everything right here in house?

Randy: Yes, everything. So our we bring our pepper oil in from, you know, it's brought from the other side of the United States, actually grown in India. And is brought herec and we mix the pepper oil here into different solvents...

Michael: If you're wondering how to use bear spray, you should check out our St Mary episode from our first season. There will be a link in the show notes for this episode. But with Randy, I got to learn what goes in the can. And the central ingredient, unsurprisingly, is pepper oil.

Michael: [in the field] And you said the pepper oil, you get it from the East Coast or other side the country, and it's grown in India. That's one thing I didn't really grasp, was like you're getting it from actual was like cayenne peppers? Or

Randy: They're a they're a heat chili. So if you think your jalepenos they've got heat content in Scoville heat units, there are about three to four thousand scoville heat units in a jalepeno. Your habanero is around 150 to 350,000. We're running 3.2 million.

Michael: They get the oil from peppers or chilies in the genus Capsicum, which includes everything from pepper in pepperoncinis to cayenne peppers.

Daniel: [surprised] So it's like, they're like real peppers that go in food!

Michael: And because it's all from real peppers, it's a food grade oil, which on its own would be safe for consumption. Technically.

Randy: So you can use it, it's safe to eat. You can actually fry chicken wings in it or french fries. You probably won't want to eat them because it will clear everything out of ya.

Michael: [in the field] [laughing]

Randy: But but yeah.

Michael: And this oil is in more than just pepper sprays. It's found in everything from hot sauces to pharmaceuticals, like arthritis cream.

Daniel: Okay, but that's not all that's in the can. There's something else besides peppers mushed up in there.

Michael: Yeah, the pepper oil is actually only 2% of the ingredients, because if it was just pepper oil, it would harden in the can and be useless.

Randy: When you spray it. If you think, if you cook bacon, it will solidify when it cools down and it turns white. But we've got to keep the oil in a liquid form. So we put a solvent in there instead of shooting hard pieces of like, bacon grease out of at the bear,.

Michael: [in the field] [laughing]

Randy: It keeps it in a liquid form in the air.

Michael: So so even though pepper oil is only 2% of the ingredients, bear spray's three times more potent than pepper spray for humans. And so the ingredients are: the pepper oil, a solvent to keep that oil liquid and a propellant to launch the spray.

Michael: [in the field] That's the pepper oil.

Randy: Yep.

Michael: [in the field] [laughing] Oleoresin Capsicum. 3.2 MOS, 40lbs.

Michael: What would you say it looked like, Daniel?

Daniel: It looked just like hot sauce! Yeah, it looked like hot sauce.

Michael: Like a dark, thick, hot sauce. It was. [laughing] I mean, it smelled hot, too.

Michael: [in the field] And so how much of this goes into each bottle or can, like, the pepper oil?

Randy: These two containers ten gallons will make about...

Michael: They were actively filling these cans when we were there. Randy was saying like these two 10-gallon buckets of the pepper oil concoction will make over 1500 cans of bear spray. So a little bit goes a long way.

Randy: Goes a long ways, but it's still not as far as we would like it to go, because, yeah, there's some some spendy food grade oil.

Michael: [in the field] I bet.

Michael: So while there are many brands of bear spray today, Counter Assault holds the distinction of being the first. Opening back in 1986, they helped pioneer this formula of pepper, propellant, and solvent that reputable brands widely use today.

Randy: You know, across the board, all the bear sprays are using a really hot pepper oil, and all of them are going to work. And the biggest thing is: people are safe and the bears are safe. And that's what it's been refined down to, is using a product that's not going to hurt people, it's not going to hurt bears, keeps everybody safe.

Michael: Bear spray's non-lethality—the fact that bears that get sprayed with this will turn around, but ultimately be unharmed—is not only a huge selling point, but it helps explain why bear spray exists at all.

Music: [dramatic drums start playing]

Michael: Ever since Glacier was established in 1910, grizzly bears were on the decline. When the U.S. was founded, there were an estimated 50,000 grizzlies in the lower 48 states living everywhere from Canada to Mexico, between Iowa and California. But by the mid 1900s, Euro-Americans had all but exterminated them. There were less than a thousand grizzly bears left in the lower 48, largely isolated within large public lands in the west, like Glacier and Yellowstone. Something that's still true today. But while national parks are often seen as safe havens for wildlife, the relationship between glacier and grizzly bears was fraught in the mid 1900s. Grizzlies or bears in general were a huge attraction for park tourism, but not in the way they are now.

Daniel: Right. This was an era where a very typical part of the visitor experience was to feed the bears like out of their car, throwing out pieces of bread alongside the road, feeding bears.

Michael: Yeah, like this "animals as a spectacle" approach. The second director of the Park Service, Horace Albright, was actually a huge fan of feeding wildlife in parks. He encouraged the creation of bear feeding platforms in Yellowstone, and Yellowstone even opened a zoo at one point for people to come look at captive animals.

Daniel: Wow.

Michael: So it really was a different relationship than the one we have with wildlife today. And predictably, it had some consequences. Like, encouraging bears to seek out humans when they're hungry seems like a disaster waiting to happen. And it eventually led to tragedy. In 1967, two visitors camping in separate areas of the park were killed by grizzly bears who'd come to their campsites in search of food. These shocking deaths later came to be known as Night of the Grizzlies, and were the first grizzly fatalities in Glacier's 50-year history. In response, Glacier completely overhauled all of its bear policies. They closed some campgrounds, outlawed giving food to wildlife and installed bear proof trash cans. They also found and killed the bears responsible and faced a lot of pressure from the public and even some policymakers to kill more. The park superintendent at one point issued a memo, here daniel, can you read it?

Daniel: Okay. "When a grizzly bear appears in any area of visitor use, it will be immediately destroyed by a park ranger." Wow. That is a pretty aggressive stance for a park to take against bears.

Michael: Yeah, it was pretty intense.

Daniel: The park is taking a very aggressive stance to kill bears in order to keep people safe.

Michael: Mhmm.

Daniel: But as a species, at this time, they're actually becoming very threatened in the 1960s and 70's.

Michael: Right, as Glacier is dealing with these events, grizzlies are identified as an endangered species by the federal government, which demands a broad recovery effort. you know, scientists started studying how many bears were left, what their habitat needs were—insight that would help them recover and hopefully help our two species coexist.

Daniel: So they need to know more. Park managers are looking for more data about bears in general. But if we zoom in on the story we're looking at here—that is the history of bear spray—you can see this emerging need for a tool that allows people and bears to de-escalate conflicts in a non-lethal way at an individual scale.

Michael: Yeah. Which brings us back to Growly, the bear who apparently didn't like grapefruit.

Janet Ellis: And he told the story that the main thing Growly hated was grapefruit,

Michael: [on the phone] [laughing]

Janet: But he liked oranges fine, he figured out how to slice an orange open. He had really long claws.

Michael: After being captured in Glacier National Park in 1976, Growly was sent to Churchill, Manitoba. A town in northern Canada known for its polar bears.

Janet: I was a research assistant.

Michael: That voice is Janet Ellis.

Janet: And I spent four months on the bears study with the Bears in 1978.

Michael: Janet is currently a Montana state senator, but she spent a few months helping zoology grad student Gary Miller conduct a study on bear behavior.

Janet: The University of Montana had a bear lab up there, way far from town.

Michael: There were four bears in this study. Two grizzlies, Growly and Snarly, and two polar bears nicknamed Magdalen and Guen. Janet helped take care of them.

Michael: [on the phone] So what does it look like to take care of a grizzly bear in a lab?

Janet: So it was cleaning the area. It was feeding them every day and making sure they had water. The Hudson Bay store was the local grocery store in Churchill. And so we would get meat scraps and vegetable, you know, whatever food that they were willing to give away. And that's what the bears lived on.

Michael: Each bear was monitored dawn to dusk, body temperature, heart rate, posture. Reading through the paper, I really liked these little drawings that showed bear body language. And it turns out Janet drew those.

Janet: I did illustrate Gary Miller's master's thesis.

Michael: [on the phone] Oh, you drew the the bear outlines of their different postures?

Janet: Yeah, I did all that stuff.

Michael: Oh those are so cute!

Michael: Finally, one by one, they'd bring the bears into a 13 foot by 20 foot cell, with a drinking well for water and a barred metal door. From outside the cell, an assistant would provoke the bear into charging, approaching the door and stomping if necessary.

Daniel: Wow. That so that's all it took to get them to charge at the gate of the cage?

Michael: Most of the time. Yeah, I mean, Janet said that every bear was different. The polar bears were pretty docile. And one of the grizzly bears, Snarly, was actually really easily provoked. She said that he'd charge whenever somebody just approached the door.

Daniel: So they approached the cage door and the bear could see them and would just charge at the door.

Michael: Mhmm.

Daniel: Wow.

Michael: And when a bear charged, they would deploy a deterrent to hopefully stop them in their tracks. They tried different. Sounds like a handheld boat horn.

Sound Effect: [boat horn noise]

Michael: A referee whistle.

Sound Effect: [whistle blowing]

Michael: They played a recording of a bear growling.

Sound Effect: [sound of a bear growling]

Michael: It was actually a recording of Growly, the bear, growling—which might be how he got his name. And they tested a popular item marketed to alert bears to your presence. Bear Bells.

Sound Effect: [small bells jingling]

Michael: Here's an excerpt from their research, read for us by a voice actor.

Voice Actor: Twice when small bells were tested on growling, he slept through the test. The bells were of the type that are sold to hikers in Glacier and Yellowstone National parks to warn bears of their approach. In these tests, the assistant stood at the door of the cell and rang the bells. Growly was not more than six meters away and never woke up. The idea that small bells will warn grizzlies before approaching clearly needs reevaluation.

Daniel: I've definitely heard a lot of bear bells on the trail here in Glacier, but the problem is I don't hear them until the person's like right next to me on the trail. So yeah, they're just not loud enough to really alert a bear.

Michael: Yeah, I've heard that, you know, the thing you're bothering the most by wearing bear bells is yourself. And it wasn't just sounds. They tried strobe lights. They waved a giant piece of plywood, and they sprayed bears with chemicals or irritants like onion juice and Windex.

Daniel: Oh, wow.

Michael: And they also deployed a product called Halt, which was a pepper spray developed for postal workers who were getting bitten by a lot of dogs in the fifties.

Daniel: While they were throwing everything at these bears. But before this, there really weren't that many choices.

Michael: Yeah, I mean, it seems a little strange now that they'd be trying things like Windex, but there weren't non-lethal deterrents available at the time, so they were just seeing whatever would work.

Daniel: Hmm. So after they tried all this, what were the results?

Michael: Well, sounds like the handheld boat horn worked pretty well, but only if they were extremely loud. And the boat horn also apparently didn't work in low temperatures. The bells and whistles didn't do much. The giant piece of plywood could stop a bear, but the effect didn't last very long. However, Halt—the postal worker pepper spray—worked really well.

Daniel: Hmm.

Voice Actor: Each time it was tested, the bear charged until it was sprayed. The bear then turned and ran to the farthest corner of the cell where it rubbed its eyes and blinked vigorously. In one case, Snarly went to the water well and washed his face with his paws.

Janet: That's the only thing that would stop a charging bear. And that was true with Grizzly bears and polar bears. I mean, they couldn't see! Even if it was for a couple of minutes, and they would just stop and it would freak them out.

Michael: [on the phone] Hmm.

Janet: And so, yes, it was the only thing—because we had again, mentioned boat horns and bells and all kinds of things. So it, it was a precursor.

Michael: Thanks to Growly, Snarly, Magdalen, and Gwen—who endured around 20 tests each—the paper that came out of this study concluded with this line:

Voice Actor: The results of Halt dog repellent in the laboratory indicate that effective repellents can be developed.

Music: [dramatic drums playing]

Daniel: So the study up in Churchill, it showed that this dog pepper spray works pretty well. I mean, was that it? Did they just then package it up and sell it as bear spray?

Michael: There were a few steps in between. So the University of Montana was funding the study Janet was a part of, and with this conclusion that a deterrent could be developed. They started funding a follow up study.

Daniel: I'm guessing that at University of Montana, they were using different bears?

Michael: Yeah. This second study had a new set of bears, including one problem Bear from Glacier that was labeled in the study as a roadside panhandler.

Daniel: Oh, wow.

Michael: And these new bears were sent down to Fort Missoula.

Daniel: Who led this follow up study?

Michael: So the student that was working on this study was named Carrie Hunt. And it's funny, newspaper articles that you read about Carrie go out of their way to highlight that she is five foot one, 115pounds, and just like the first study in Churchill, is provoking these 500 pound grizzlies into charging in order to test these deterrents.

Daniel: So this had the same premise as the first study?

Michael: Yeah, very similar. A magazine actually interviewed Carrie about the experience.

Voice Actor: Hunt step to the barred door of the bear's cell, by stomping her feet, she provoked almost all the bears into charging. More than once, concrete dust flew from the hinges as a huge bear rammed the cell door.

Voice Actor: Even though the situation was controlled and there was no way I could get hurt. It was still frightening. The power and aggression of an angry charging grizzly is overwhelming.

Voice Actor: If the bear charged it received an application of the repellent being tested.

Michael: A lot of the things they were testing were very similar to that first study, they did sounds like in this case rock music. They did Halt, that same dog spray.

Voice Actor: Everything from tear gas to rock music was tested, but only a commercial dog repellent spray had any significant effect. The spray's active ingredient was capsaicin, a derivative of red peppers.

Michael: Ironically, the study was actually funded by a competitor to what we now know as bear spray called Skunker.

Daniel: Oh..

Michael: Can you guess what soccer is?

Daniel: I'm guessing it smelled really bad.

Michael: Yeah, it was a synthetic skunk spray. And turned out Skunker didn't work, and it just kind of made the bears sad.

Daniel: [laughing] I'm not surprised.

Michael: They didn't leave the area. But Halt, once again, did work. The only problem was that's not how people have bear encounters in the wild.

Daniel: Sure.

Michael: You know, and this tiny can of pepper spray, designed for a dog that's biting a postal worker, like it doesn't shoot far enough. It's not strong enough. And so Carrie highlighted that, you know, this is a really promising thing to follow up on, but it would need some refining. It needs some iterating to turn it into an effective bear deterrent for public use.

Daniel: So now there's two studies that are both showing that some kind of pepper spray is probably going to work pretty well to stop a charging bear.

Michael: Yeah.

Daniel: But to work in the real world, it needs some modifications.

Michael: Right. And this result started to trickle out into, like local Montanans that either were connected to the university in some way and found its way to a guy named Bill Pounds. After hearing Carrie's results, he reached out and offered to help refine it, and eventually that collaboration turned into Counter Assault.

Randy: Over the years has been refined, has got different propellants, it's got different concentrations of the pepper.

Michael: One of the big things that they worked on was the delivery method. You know how the spray would leave the can?

Michael: [in the field] Yeah, you mentioned the spray. That was one thing I realized I hadn't mentioned, because like some of the earlier brands were shooting six feet in, like a pencil-thin stream, like Wasp killer.

Randy: Right. So that stream, you're not going to hit a bear from 30 feet away in the eyes, especially when you're in a panic yourself. I mean, I don't care who you are, you're going to be in a panic when a very charging at you. They wanted that shotgun pattern, as it's called, a fog pattern. Fog.

Daniel: Okay. So this this is part of the process we saw. They're taking a canister full of the ingredients and they're putting like a spray nozzle on the top of it that shoots the bear spray out into a fog or a cone.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. And through testing and conversations with bear biologists, you know, they refined that fog into a spray that would last 7 seconds and shoot 30 feet.

Randy: That fog is going to get in the sinuses. It's going to get in the eyes. It's they're going to inhale. It's going to get in all the mucous membranes, the lungs. That's what changes their senses, and they just stop. It's it's a shock to their system like it is ours.

Michael: There were some obstacles along the way before bear spray was widely adopted. There were fraudsters making weak knock offs, and some serious misunderstandings, like thinking you used it like bug spray, or that it was a spice rub you could buy at the grocery store.

Voice Actor: When I first heard about bare pepper spray, I rushed right down to Albertsons to see if that store stocked it. But alas, though, I looked among the spices, the cooking oils, and even in the meat department, I found no bear pepper spray.

Michael: That was from a newspaper article back in 1999. So it took a lot of education and messaging to get people to understand and carry bear spray. But what really got people on board was its track record. It was working.

Larry King: He and his family were in the sights of three bears, recently managed to get away.

Michael: This is a newscast from Larry King where he's interviewing a guy who had to use bear spray here in Glacier.

Larry King: Sounds like Jack was lucky. What happened, Jack? What happened to you and the Bears?

Jack Hanna: Well, Saturday night, Larry, just Saturday night, my wife and I went to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park. We lived here 20-something years. It's a favorite place to hike.

Michael: So the story is about this group hiking the Grinnell Glacier Trail when a bear started following them, and after following them for a little while, started running at them.

Larry King: I waited to get about 30 feet and unloaded one blast. It kept coming. My wife stood about ten feet right in my face. I just went bam, right in his face and ran away again.

Michael: Bear spray stopped it in its tracks.

Larry King: So this is what helped save our lives.

Michael: A lot of stories like this come up when you Google bear spray, including this line.

Voice Actor: Thanks to God, a friend and pepper spray. I'm still here.

Michael: That quote comes from a bear attack survivo,r who would go on to found his own bear spray company called UDAP, which is based in Butte, Montana. Testimonials like these have slowly won people over, and even folks who doubted a pepper spray could work as well as a firearm.

Randy: You know, like I said, I was retired military. I'm a gun guy. It's fine. But these guys are like, Well, I need my gun. Okay, well, you're still trying to hit something, if it's a charge—that you've got a kill zone that's, you know, maybe grapefruit-sized, that you have to try to get a bullet through. Well, you may not be able to do that. And I don't care, I carry weapons, but I carry bear spray when I go in the woods.

Michael: And because of this effective track record, Glacier suggests all visitors to the park carry bear spray. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recommends all hunters carry it, too.

Michael: [in the field[] So how many cans do you put out from here in a year or a month?

Randy: Now, in 2021, we did 375,000 cans of bears spray. And it's just education. That's what's helped. Back in the day, a few years ago, like I talked with Pride here, he says: I remember when we did 30,000 cans in a year. I said, I'm doing that in a month. So that's how much it's picked up from those first days back in the eighties and where the word has gotten out.

Michael: Even still, bear spray is no substitute for common sense. Being safe in bear country involves storing food properly, making noise on trail, hiking in groups, not just grabbing a can of bear spray and calling it a day.

Daniel: Yeah, I've actually heard some bear experts talk about the downside of bear spray is that people think they just strap it on their back and then they're safe, and that it actually discourages the kind of awareness and mindfulness of bear safety that you need to have in mind.

Michael: You don't want to get complacent.

Daniel: No, you can't just put it in the bottom of your backpack and think it's going to help with a bear attack. I mean, you can't put on your seatbelt and drive off a cliff.

Michael: Right. And it is also worth pointing out, like I've carried bear spray on all the hikes I've done here in the last ten years. I've never had to use it, have you?

Daniel: No. My whole life I've been in bear country, and I've never used bear spray.

Michael: Right? I mean, I've taken it out a few times.

Daniel: Uh-huh.

Michael: But I've never had to spray it. The only times I've actually been around it going off was when people set it off on accident.

Michael: The adoption of bear spray coincides with a shift in our relationship with bears: a shift from managing bears to managing people. That change, which we're all a part of, makes a huge difference for our wildlife. Compared to the 1960s, there are a lot more bears and humans in Glacier. Around 100 more grizzlies and literally millions more annual visitors. But that hasn't led to an equivalent rise in bear human conflicts or problem bears like Growly needing to be removed. Thanks to these tools that help us coexist, more bears get to live out their normal bear lives, even as more and more people like you and me come to visit.

Music: [dramatic drums playing]

Daniel: I think I just have one question left for you, Michael.

Michael: Yeah?

Daniel: Whatever happened to Growly?

Michael: Growly, you could say, was actually the first life that bear spray saved. Here's Janet Ellis again talking about the end of that first study in Churchill.

Janet: They were shutting down the bear lab after we left. And so we had two grizzly bears, the polar bears were released back into the wild, but the grizzly bears were going to be destroyed.

Music: [somber music playing]

Michael: It's not easy to release a food conditioned bear back into the wild. So it's standard practice in cases like this for the bear to be euthanized. But after taking care of Growly for months, Janet had taken a liking to him.

Janet: We could play tug of war with him, where his forearms were gigantic and so couldn't fit through the bars really very far. Just a little bit. But he put his hand out of the cage and you could grab his claws. He could give up, and he was going to win.

Michael: She fed growly, gave him water, got him exercise. Apparently he really liked playing with these giant tires they had lying around.

Janet: He'd just pounce on them, he could put them up in his mouth and shake them like a rag. I mean, he was so strong.

Michael: So when it seemed like Growly was going to be euthanized, she started writing letters to friends and family.

Janet: Well, I wrote various relatives to see if they had any ideas. And it was my dad, who was an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, that talked—there was a city councilman I think, who was in his law firm. And then he knew somebody else who was head of Parks and Recreation, and they knew Jack Hanna. You know, It was that sort of thing.

Michael: Through her dad's network, Janet reached Jack Hanna, the director of the Columbus Zoo—and coincidentally, the guy you heard Larry King interviewing earlier, because years later, he used bear spray on the Grinnell Glacier Trail. Anyway, they asked Jack, you know, if we can raise enough money to feed Growly for a year, would you take him? And he said yes.

Janet: So they raised, they raised enough money, I know, for him to be fed for a year and then also to pay for the transport down.

Michael: The only problem was, Janet had to take him there herself. He wouldn't fit on a plane and there wasn't even a road out of Churchill.

Janet: So you had to get on a train. We had a a big culvert trip. Have you seen? You know-

Michael: [on the phone] Yeah, the giant metal cylinders.

Janet: But this was for polar bears, so it was really big.

Michael: [on the phone] [laughs].

Janet: And then we rented a three-quarter-ton pickup and drove from there.

Michael: After a 30 hour train ride, Janet loaded Growly's culvert trap— this big metal cylinder—into the bed of a pickup truck, and drove another 25 hours to the Columbus Zoo. Apparently, Growly was pretty cooperative.

Janet: He was in a culvert trap with the, in the back. I could see him when I was driving and he was looking forward. And that's where the grate was so he could watch. And he hadn't been outside in two years at least. So he was really interested in what was going on. But he didn't really rock the truck.

Michael: Like anyone on a road trip. Greatly needed food and water along the way. Janet could slip him food through the grate, but she had to get help with water.

Janet: But when he stopped at a gas station, you did need to water him. We went. I had to water my bear in the pickup to explain why you needed the hose [laughs] at a gas station. That's the thing that's most entertaining.

Michael: Ultimately, Growly was a great road trip companion, and the drive went off without a hitch. So after a few days of travel, Growly was introduced to his new home at the zoo.

Janet: They had trees and boulders, and he wanted day bed, he just rearranged the whole thing, and they had to put wire around the trees so he wouldn't destroy them. Yeah. He had his own opinion on redecorating his new home.

Both: [laughing]

Michael: I grew up in Columbus, and spent a lot of time as a kid at the Columbus Zoo. So there's a real chance Growly was the first bear I ever met. And I might have run into Janet there, too.

Janet: My son, he's 28 now, but he remembers Growley, cause we would go to the, every time we went to Columbus, we would go to the Columbus Zoo.

Michael: Grizzly bears are formidable neighbors. Not to be taken lightly. And in the 20th century, their future was uncertain. Some Americans argued they should be destroyed entirely, that our two species could not coexist. But tools like bear spray have proven that wrong.

Music: [music begins to build under narration]

Michael: Today, we have access to an easy and effective tool to diffuse bear encounters that doesn't harm the bear. And while no deterrent is a guarantee, Growly showed us that bear spray works. Seeing him at the zoo, I didn't know about the cabins he vandalized or the summer he spent in Canada enduring boat horns, onion juice and pepper spray. I doubt anyone there other than Janet knew the whole story. But I did know that it was special to see a grizzly bear. And thanks in part to Growly, you don't have to go to a zoo to do that.

Music: [credits music continues to build, and plays under the credits]

Peri Sasnett: That's our show. Headwaters is a production of Glacier National Park and is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. We could not make the show without them. You can learn more about what they do at Glacier.org. Headwaters is made possible with help from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, and so many people throughout the Glacier community— especially the natural and cultural resource teams. We're grateful for all of you. Our music this season is by the brilliant Frank Waln. The show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in our show notes. Special thanks this episode to Randy Hunt and everyone at Counter Assault. Janet Ellis, Carrie Hunt, and Chuck Bartlebaugh for discussing this project with us, as well as Growly, Snarly, and all the other bears who contributed to the creation of Bear Spray. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving us a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

Bear spray saves lives, but where does it come from? We follow a Glacier grizzly to learn the story.

Learn how to use bear spray, in the St. Mary episode of Season One: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/confluence-st-mary/id1542669779?i=1000501502018

Headwaters is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and Peri Sasnett

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall

Episode 2

Can Ranger Traditions Survive into the Future?


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is brought to you by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Peri Sasnett: Picture a National Park Service Ranger station. What does it look like? Maybe a big log cabin with a mossy pitched roof and a creaky screen door? Glacier does have plenty of those, but my office is in park headquarters, which has some strong mid-century middle school energy. And working here, I'm always happening upon obsolete relics of bygone eras. Handwritten memos, ink stamps, a fax machine... I haven't found a typewriter yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to find one lurking in a drawer. Only a few decades ago, people in this building used those things all the time. But like a lot of people, many rangers' jobs have changed pretty dramatically in the last 40 years. Mine definitely has. But in this episode, we're spending a day with a ranger whose office equipment and duties haven't changed much at all in 40—or even 100—years.

Lora Funk: Can you drag this dead goat out of the waterfall? That's a weird one. The marmot's living in the toilet again!

Peri: Meet Wilderness Ranger Lora Funk. She has long, sandy blonde braids and bright blue eyes. She wears the park uniform with a little mud on her boots, and she loves to laugh at the absurdities of life in the backcountry. I immediately want to be her friend.

Lora: My laundry is a bucket with a metal plunger that people call an Alaska Maytag, and I think it gets the clothes cleaner... But I don't think people necessarily think my clothes are clean. [laughs]

Peri: Alongside her colleagues, General and Tank—both horses—and Ellen the mule, Lora helps steward and patrol the Belly River Valley of the park.

Lora: Yeah if someone were to say, like, picture a historic ranger station and a iconic valley... It's Belly River.

Peri: One of her favorite things about the Belly is that there are no roads. So unlike the rest of Glacier's Ranger Stations, you can't drive here.

Lora: The Belly River Ranger Station is located six miles into Glacier's wilderness. [sounds of horse footsteps in the background] You either have to hike in or ride a pony.

Peri: I interviewed Lora in the ranger station, but also while she lugged gear around and rode a horse, who occasionally took an interest in my microphone.

Lora: Would you like to be interviewed, General? Hello. Hello. [loud snuffling and sniffing sounds] He went for it! [another loud sniff] Is he going to eat it?

Michael Faist: Just sniffin.

Lora: We have two rangers, myself and Alison, the commission ranger. There's a trail crew which varies in size 2 to 4, and we have three had a stock, and that makes up our entire staff.

Peri: The Belly River Ranger station is a brown log cabin—a Park Service specialty—with white window frames and a flagpole out front. It sits between a creek and a wide open meadow where the horses graze and its covered porch faces west towards steep sided, rocky peaks. It's a very traditional scene, and so is life out here.

Lora: So I live off grid. I live in a one room cabin there with a propane stove. And we do get running water for a few months of the season. Otherwise, we have to haul our water from the creek. I do not have a bathroom connected to my house. I have to walk through the outhouse. Yeah I mean, you start to lose track of time and age and everything out here. Some of that kind of stuff fades away because then you're like, is it 2020 or is it 1920? There's elk running around and there's a fence that looks just about the same... I'm reading books and hauling my water from the creek.

Peri: When I tell my friends I work for the Park Service, I think this might be what they picture. But in a lot of ways, the agency is looking to the future—trying to modernize our infrastructure, lower our carbon emissions. And tell our stories differently. Parks have podcast now, for example. It seems like a vestige of the past to come to the Belly and see Lora still riding horses, packing gear on mules and living in the backcountry. And honestly, I wonder how long this way of life this type of ranger can last. But I know I want to experience it before it's too late.

Music: [Headwaters theme begins playing; starting with mandolin, then a drumbeat, a flute line, and other instruments layer in before the music finishes]

Peri: I'm Peri, and you're listening to Headwaters, a show about how Glacier National Park is connected to everything else. And today, I'm tagging along for a day in the life with the person who might have the coolest job in the park.

Lora: All right. Today, we've got the horses, the mule, saddled, and we're going to head out. Take care of ranger business.

Peri: Today's "ranger business" is going up toward Helen Lake to pick up and pack out some leftover supplies. Michael and I walk in front of the stock while Lora rides, since apparently they prefer to follow us.

Lora: Come on, keep up with the humans. Keep up with the humans.

Peri: Apparently, horses have abandonment issues. So even though we didn't really need both Tank and General, everyone came along for the ride. [drumbeat of music plays]

Lora: [talking to the stock] All right. How does everyone feel today? [clinking of tack and gear] Okay. Good. Good. Yep.

Peri: For most park staff, our ranger business is pretty specific: giving a campfire program, studying plants, managing the park's budget, making a podcast. But for Lora, almost anything could be her ranger business on a given day.

Lora: I am, like, I'm a wilderness ranger and I am specially trained on the Wilderness Act and wilderness values and character. But in the end, my day to day is a lot of general ranger duties, whether it's bear management, EMS maintenance, pulling weeds.

Peri: There are specialists for each of these things: bear biologists, search and rescue, trail crew, invasive plant crew. But Lora and other rangers like her pitch in to keep things going day to day.

Lora: Well, it takes a whole team to manage Glacier. That's why we have the experts. And so I'll call them in if we have something major. I can fix a toilet, but if the whole outhouse goes down, I gotta call trail crew. [drumbeat playing] A lot of people talk about the quote, "Jack of all trades, master of none." But the full quote is "Jack of all trades, master of none. Better something than nothing done." And that's kind of what I live by out here.

Peri: And this is much the same as the ranger business that rangers have been doing in the Belly River for decades. Take this entry from an old log book in 1994.

Chuck Cameron: September 14th, 1994. Patrol with Bob on stock to Elizabeth Lake head to deliver additional gear and supplies to the trail crew. Dug out the firepit and replaced the campground map with an updated version. Also pulled another handful of hawkweed. Chuck Cameron.

Peri: Every day when Lora gets back from the field, she writes down the day's activities and events In a big green government issued logbook. She and her predecessors have been doing this since the earliest days of the ranger station here. From Chuck 30 years ago to some of the earliest Belly River Rangers back to 1929.

Joe Heims: June 5th, 1929. Station to Red Gab Pass and return. Distance 16 miles, mounted. Object: cleaning trail and looking over trail conditions. Game seen: one mountain goat, two deer, one elk. Weather clear. Temperature 41 degrees at 7 a.m. Joe Heims.

Peri: But these days, this type of work is becoming more and more rare. Even this ranger station used to be staffed in the winter, but hasn't been for a long time.

Lora: Spots like mine that are remote are, I think there's less and less these days.

Peri: Glacier has only a handful of wilderness rangers, and just a single backcountry ranger station. And throughout the Park Service, these kinds of places, and the people with the skills to staff them, are disappearing. [drumbeat plays]

Peri: In addition to all the odd jobs Lora does, a huge part of her job is talking to park visitors, most of whom are on multiday backpacking trips. As we hiked up the trail past Dawn Mist Falls, a scenic and loud waterfall, we ran into our first hiker of the day.

Lora: [waterfall sound in the background] Hi there, how's it going?

Backpacker: Good, how are you?

Lora: Good. Where you coming from today?

Backpacker: Lake Helen.

Lora: How is it?

Backpacker: Beautiful.

Lora: Good!

Backpacker: I think it's quite the best view out there.

Lora: Yeah, a lot of people say that.

Peri: She asks where they've been and where they're going.

Lora: Cool. Do you have a permit I could take a look at.

Backpacker: Oh, yeah.

Lora: Helen, Glenns, Goat Haunt. Cool! What a great trip.

Peri: And she'll chat about their trip, making sure they have what they need.

Lora: Any questions about anything they covered in the permit office?

Backpacker: No, I think I'm good. Hopefully this uh, the food gets lighter.

Lora: Yeah. I mean, every pass will be easier.

Backpacker: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Lora: Yeah. Have fun on your trip! Belly River is my favorite place, but Goat Haunt's second, and you're going to both. So.

Peri: And sometimes they have something more unusual to report.

Lora: You know, maybe they saw a bear or a wolf or something really interesting that I can then report to the biologists or, you know, like I was saying, they often will report whether the food hang pole's damaged or the marmots living in the toilet again. [laughs] [drumbeat plays briefly]

Peri: Most days, though, she patrols, checks the campgrounds, gives the pit toilet a once over, makes sure food is stored properly, and gives a helping hand where it's needed.

Lora: So every once in a while I come across a food hang and it's not high enough.

Peri: Most backcountry campgrounds have a food hang pole where you toss a rope over and then pull your food up, securing it ten feet off the ground, just high enough to keep it away from curious bears.

Lora: [to camper] Oh, hi there! How's it going? Yeah, I just lifted your hang cause it wan't the ten feet.

Camper Yeah. Sorry about that. That was my first bear hang, so.

Lora: Oh, okay! Well...

Camper Not the prettiest.

Lora: It's okay! Just make sure, like, if you notice, I had it all the way to the top.

Camper Do you actually mind showing me what knots you did.

Lora: Yeah, I'll show you!

Peri: Today, Lora uses her educational ranger charm to teach a camper the best knots for the job.

Lora: So I use a form of a trucker hat. And so then what I do is I come through... [drumbeat plays]

Peri: It's about six miles from the ranger station where the gear was stashed for us to pack out. So we had plenty of time to chat as we walked through the forest and along the choppy turquoise waters of Elizabeth Lake, with colorful Seward Peak and the sheer Ptarmigan Wall beyond.

Lora: I'd never been to Montana before I got this job. I'd worked at Olympic as a wilderness ranger intern in college, and I always thought I was going to go back there. But then I got this job and I was like, "Oh, I guess Glacier's my place."

Peri: [to Lora] So did you always think about being a backcountry ranger or working for the Park Service? Was that always something you were interested in?

Lora: Definitely not. [laughs] I went to a liberal arts college and my major was American Studies, and I had a thesis that focused on public land history. But I took that summer internship at Olympic and realized, Wow, this is what I need to be doing. This is where I'm happy.

Peri: And it makes perfect sense that someone who loves history but wants to work outside would end up working here and living in a log cabin.

Lora: So if you're talking to me about Glacier or Belly River, I often go into the history part versus anything else.

Peri: [to Lora] Is that part of what drew you to go to the Belly River?

Lora: Definitely. The history and the legacy of Belly River. Um, having a mentor, Chuck Cameron, that worked here in the eighties and nineties. He got to share a lot of his experiences out here and the experiences of his mentor. So continuing on that legacy and preserving the Ranger Station, the institutional knowledge, passing that on... Is something that really drew me to Belly River.

Peri: Chuck is one of the voices you've heard reading logbook entries from his time in the Belly River in the 1990s, along with one from Joe Heims in the 1920s. Both were rangers in Glacier for over 40 years. A long line of rangers connected by the tools they use, the horses and mules, and the way of life that makes up this job.

Lora: It's definitely a connection to the past. We're using similar Decker saddles on the stock. That technology hasn't changed much. Yeah, we're using the same tools. I mean, literally some of the same tools that have been around for a long, long time. And yeah, we're patrolling the same trails. It's a different experience day to day, but they were doing patrol reports, we're still writing in the logbook every day what we got up to. [drumbeat plays]

Chuck: September 22nd, 1992. Patrol to Stoney Indian bench today to pull the three plank bridges for the season. Went up there with a wrench and came back with a wrench, a Pulaski, old wire, a huge tarp, an empty Southern comfort bottle, an old 10 pound syrup can, and a fishing net. Quite a haul for one patrol. South winds, 67 degrees, at 1930 hours. Chuck Cameron.

Peri: [in the field] And so, yeah, what are we packing out today?

Lora: So today we are packing out old parts of an inverted U food hang.

Peri: It's not a difficult hike to retrieve the old food hang pole. But all the same, I'm glad I'm not being asked to add a 25 pound chunk of metal to my pack.

Lora: So the reason we're having the ponies do it is because this would be more awkward for a human, and we might take multiple humans to do what Ellen can do by herself.

Peri: Glacier has a staff of packers who supply trail crews in the backcountry for eight day hitches or carry gear in for bat biologists or the fish crew. But for a few sections of metal pipe, Lora and Ellen can manage.

Lora: So there's definitely a technique to mantying loads, and with practice people can become really quick and really neat with theirs.

Michael: Like you?

Lora: I would not say mine is the prettiest. [laughs] I've seen some very lovely loads come through.

Peri: Packing loads on a mule is quite an art. Ever since horses and mules were domesticated thousands of years ago, people have been packing things on them. And Lora is quick to say she's no expert.

Lora: I'm not a packer, I'm a ranger who happens to pack. I learned from other experienced rangers, I learned by going along with the packers over the years, learning from them and their different styles. But this spring I had the opportunity to go to the Nine Mile Wildlands Training Center in Missoula and attended their basic packing course. And I got the opportunity to attend this thanks to the help and funding of the Conservancy. Which I really appreciate.

Peri: Mules are especially popular for packing because they're strong and sure footed. Their personalities vary, but Ellen is a keeper.

Lora: But mules are fun. They've got really strong personalities. Each one one's very different.

Michael: How would you describe Ellen's personality?

Lora: [sounds of packing and tying straps] She's very social. She's patient with me, you know, because I had her two years ago, so she was helping me learn. Affectionate, even. But she'll give you a look. She's like, "What are you doing?"

Peri: Basically, Lora puts the metal pipes into boxes that look like giant dresser drawers. Ellen can carry one load on each side, and after Lora makes sure they weigh the same, she wraps them up in a canvas tarp called a manty, and then finally ties them onto the metal rings of the pack saddle with some elaborate rope work.

Lora: Sometimes you see it in their eyes when a weird load comes over. They're like, "Really? You're going to put that on me?"

Peri: It seems straightforward enough, but it takes a lot of adjusting to get the load to set just right. It's kind of like packing and repacking and adjusting your own giant pack for an overnight trip—except way heavier.

Lora: [talking to Ellen] All right. Ay ay ay. All right.

Peri: [to Lora] A lot of packing seems to me to be tying and untying things.

Lora: I think you got it.

Peri: [to Lora] Am I ready to be a Ranger?

Lora: Your, you're a Ranger packer.

Peri: Spending the day with Lora, I feel lucky to see her in action and get a glimpse of what she and her predecessors have been doing here for over a hundred years. But there aren't many people who know how to do these things anymore. And I guess part of me is wondering, does anyone need to know how to do these things? Do these traditional skills still have a place in the modern world? How do we decide what's worth holding on to?

Lora: I was reading like a book where it's like, one of the tests in the application to become a ranger was, can you saddle and pack a horse properly and quickly? And it was just part of like the job application and the interview process. And everybody could ride and pack and shoe, and all the ranger staff could could do it because it was just the way of life out here, of surviving.

Peri: This isn't the case anymore, though.

Lora: You see older rangers that are reaching towards the end of their careers and the younger folks can't ride or pack. And it's something that rangers have been doing for a hundred years. And so it's like it does it ends now, or do people like me start learning and riding and packing? And we have a lot of young packers in the park, but specifically like the Ranger Packer.

Peri: I'd argue that it's a good idea to keep these thousands of years old skills alive just because—whether it's practical or not—so we don't lose them. But for Lora, it's not just nostalgia.

Lora: I value it because I get to use it day in, day out here to do my job. And I can do my job better with these three.

Peri: [to Lora] Because it's useful.

Lora: Yeah.

Peri: It's like, this is the easiest way to get a bunch of heavy stuff from point A to point B if you're not going to get a helicopter out here, which is expensive and dangerous.

Lora: It's practical, but it's also iconic. So it's that dreamy scene of, you know, the string going through the mountains, over the passes, through the valleys.

Peri: Today, that was us. And it felt like a link to something I didn't know I was missing. And I get the sense that's how a lot of people feel when they come here.

Voice actor September 1988. I live in here with two horses and a mule. And some people would say that I'm a fool, no power, no phone, and all alone. But I say Belly River is a home with a family and friends I've made over the time. I have precious memories that will always be mine. Written by Chris Burke for V.V. O'Shea.

Peri: We get back late in the day, and Lora takes care of General,Tank, and Ellen before sending them off to their evening pasture. The peaks turn rosy with alpenglow, the nighthawks call, and Lora gives us a tour of the station. Which is a functioning Ranger Station, of course, but is also basically a museum of Belly River history.

Lora: So this is the Ranger Station office. We have a library, medical supplies, base station radio. The telephone doesn't work anymore.

Peri: [to Lora] For the record, the telephone is like a 1900 telephone with the little bells that look like eyes and the little, the receiver on the side. [both laughing] I feel like I would describe this room as filled with ranger whimsy.

Lora: I think that's probably accurate. [laughing] We have a typewriter that I think was used until the nineties. Maybe we'll get it back in working condition. Some fun drawings of the mules that were worked here in the past. A photo of the old Bear Mountain fire lookout. And then next to it is Joe Cosley, the first Belly River Ranger.

Peri: Some homes have a photo of the pope hanging on the wall in a place of honor. The ranger station has a portrait of Joe Cosley.

Lora: I do not look to him for my values and ethics based on his actions. But uh, but he's—he's an icon for here. Infamous...

Peri: Joe Cosley, the first Belly River Ranger, was hired under the rationale that to catch poachers, you should hire a poacher. Unfortunately, he never really stopped poaching. But that's a story for another time.

Lora: We also have the historic Belly River file, which has old newspaper clippings, any stories or interviews that people have done about Belly River?

Peri: [to Lora] I feel like not every wilderness district is like this.

Lora: Definitely not.

Peri: It's easy to romanticize these old traditions and ways of life, but it is hard work.

Lora: They always ask me like, "This is the dream job." You know, "how do I get your job?" But they never ask me that question when my head's inside of a pit toilet, or I'm covered in just gross mud and it's pouring down rain.

Peri: And it's not just the physical challenges that can make this lifestyle tough to maintain. There are also logistical challenges to arranging your life in a way that you can do this job. And not everyone can do it.

Lora: At this point in my life, I don't mind being seasonal. I like the change. I like the work. It's just harder and harder to live in this area on seasonal wages and to find housing available in the winters. Logistically, it becomes more difficult when you're trying to balance multiple jobs, multiple health care plans. I've had five health care plans in one calendar year from seasonal work. So I'd like to do this as long as possible, but who knows what the future holds?

Chuck: [drumbeat playing] May 8th, 1990. It's a fine day here in Belly. I'm in for the 1990 season and glad of it. About 40 elk, 4 white tailed deer, and 4 Canada geese on the way in, snowing the whole way. Stored shutters in the annex and caught a glimpse of the saw-whet owl in the large aspen to the east of the pasture. Fine dinner and cribbage lessons provided by Ursula. Good to be back. Chuck Cameron.

[music playing, with a historic audio clip saying: the Stetson that I'm wearing is the hallmark of the Ranger profession. I always tell them, "Put your hat on. That's what makes you a Ranger." Echoing: I always tell 'em, put your hat on, that what makes you a ranger.]

Peri: No one person can do this job forever. But you'll learn a lot if you stick around for a decade or two, and you can pass that on to the generations after you.

Lora: I mean, some of the most beloved rangers of Glacier have come through Belly River and yeah stayed a long time. Tracy 16 seasons. Bruce as well for a long time Dave Shea was here. Chuck Cameron. And then Joe Heims, you know, staying here through the winters. I wish they would let me do that, but I'm just a seasonal. [both laugh] Definitely the people that have worked here before, or currently do, hold this place close to their heart, and it's something we all share.

Peri: [to Lora] Well, and I think it's like the relationship goes both ways, too. It's not just like "I live here and it's pretty." It's like I, like I take care of this place every day. And it takes care of me.

Lora: Yeah. And I think that there are definitely people and cultures that have been like that for a long time. And I think I didn't necessarily grow up in that. And I think a lot of us didn't.

Peri: I know the Park Service preserves historic buildings and objects—basically the Ranger Station and a lot of what's in it. But maybe it's also part of our mission to preserve ways of life, and skills and traditions that, if we're not careful, might otherwise go the way of the fax machine in my office.

Lora: We would lose a connection to the past, and we'd lose very practical skills in what and how we manage these lands.

Michael: Yeah, and it feels like this building would go from being like a living home and workspace to kind of a museum.

Lora: Yeah, it would just be a memory, yeah, a memory of the past, or this is what it used to be like instead of "This is what we're doing now." We're still living out here. We're still ranging.

Peri: I came to the Belly for a peek back in time, but if Lora has her way, this might be a look forward to. There will be other Belly River Rangers decades from now, packing mules, looking back at her entries in the logbook, and taking care of ranger business.

Chuck: [wistful violin music begins to play] October 4th, 1989. Final morning in the station. Mopped the floor, final cleaning, covered the generator, shutters on, I guess that's it. It's been a fine season. Please take care of this place, whoever uses it. It is a unique place indeed. Radio 10-7 and I'm gone. South winds and 60 degrees at 1200 hours. Chuck Cameron.

Peri: That's our show. Headwaters is a production of Glacier National Park and is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. We could not make the show without them. You can learn more about what they do at Glacier.org. Headwaters is made possible with help from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, and so many people throughout the Glacier community, especially the natural and cultural resource teams. We're grateful for all of you. Our music this season is by the brilliant Frank Waln. The show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in our show notes. Special thanks this episode to Lora Funk, the whole Belly River staff, including Ellen the Mule, and the trail crew for letting us use their cabin. We appreciate Chuck Cameron reading his logbook entries, and the park's archives staff for giving us access to them. And shout out to Alex Stillson for always being willing to lend a hand. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving us a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

Peri: In this episode, we shared a few log entries from Chuck Cameron, former Belly River Ranger, and a mentor to Lora. Well, this year, he's retiring.

Lora: He's done really incredible things, saved lives—like literally saved lives. And has meant a lot to a lot of people. And I've heard a lot of Rangers say, I want to be like Chuck. And that kind of gives me hope.

Peri: In our next episode, we sit down with Chuck, and hear about his legendary career in Glacier..

We meet a ranger who lives in one of the wildest corners of Glacier—a place where age-old tools and skills are still practiced daily. But do traditional skills, or this way of life, still have a place in a rapidly-evolving world?

Headwaters is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and Peri Sasnett.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Episode 3

Living Seasonally: Advice from a Lifelong Ranger


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Michael Faist: Have you ever met somebody for the first time, introduced yourself and had a nice conversation only to walk away and immediately forget their name? I have. It feels like one of the great shared human experiences to have that guilty conversation with yourself. Was it John? Jim? Shoot. Which makes it all the more surprising when you meet someone who seems to be immune to that phenomenon. Someone like Chuck Cameron.

Chuck Cameron: My name is Chuck Cameron. [squirrel chirping loudly] There's a squirrel.

Gaby Eseverri: [laughing] There's a little squirrel.

Michael: [in the field] All right. One more time without the squirrel [laughing].

Chuck: Yeah, without the squirrel. [clearing throat] My name is Chuck Cameron, and I'm a wilderness ranger here in Glacier.

Michael: Chuck has been a ranger in Glacier longer than I've been alive, and he's a bit of a local legend. Even so, after meeting me once for 30 seconds at a party during my first season here, he remembered my name months later, shook my hand and was happy to see me. Which felt nice because I'd heard Chuck's name a lot. He's the sort of person that everyone you meet knows and loves, and the incredible stories you hear about them don't seem to line up with the calm and mild-mannered person you've met. But while Chuck has led a long and storied career here in Glacier, the most surprising part of that career is that the park terminates him, every fall. Well, kind of. A common question we get from visitors is what does it take to be a park ranger? And while there is no one answer to that question, as there's no one type of park ranger, a good answer is you've got to be willing to move every six months. Ninety five percent of Glaciers visitors come between May and October. So it makes sense that the park doesn't really need most of its staff in the wintertime. So to find a career in the NPS, a lot of people move across the country every six months, bouncing between summer and winter jobs. My friend just told me last week he's moved 48 times. And for most, the ultimate goal is to land one of the few competitive permanent positions in the Park Service. I've always seen that as the path to an NPS career. But it wasn't Chuck's.

Michael: [in the field] And how long have you worked here in Glacier?

Chuck: This is my 42nd season.

Gaby: 42nd?

Chuck: Yeah.

Gaby: Woah! That's a lot of seasons. I'm on-I'm on season two [laughing].

Chuck: You-You only have 40 to go, and we'll be the same [Chuck, Michael and Gaby laughing].

Michael: Chuck's been a seasonal his whole career. One of the few people I've met in Glacier who can say that. [theme music fades in] I wanted to sit down with him because I think his unusual path says a lot about the unusual job that is working for the National Park Service. Equal parts, delightful and stressful, noble, yet often bizarre. But I also think that few people could have had the career that Chuck has. And I want to know how he did it. [theme music plays, with the strumming of a string instrument, a flute, and drumbeats].

Michael: You're listening to Headwaters, a show about how Glacier National Park connects with everything else. I'm Michael. [music fades] And today I invited lifelong Glacier Ranger Chuck Cameron over for dinner.

Michael: [in the field] [laughter] Yeah, let's go to the porch.

Michael: Chuck's a laid back guy, very tall, the warm smile, and he's easy to get along with. You can tell just by looking at him. He showed up to dinner wearing an aloha shirt cooler in hand,.

Michael: [in the field] [someone cracks open a canned beverage] Serve yourself, we've got pulled pork and coleslaw sandwiches.

Michael: The plan my fellow producer, Gaby, and I came up with was to sit around the campfire with Chuck and share stories. But unfortunately, a much larger fire had just started a—wildfire seven miles away, so we were under a strict burn ban. No campfires. So instead, I made pulled pork sandwiches and we settled down on a porch with a view.

Chuck: Thank you. That was delicious.

Michael: [in the field] You're Wilderness Ranger now. What was the first job you had here in the park?

Chuck: I worked on the trail crew as a Laborer in Many Glacier in 1982.

Michael: Was that the first time you ever came to the park?

Chuck: The first time I'd ever been to Montana.

Michael: Woah.

Gaby: Really? From where?

Chuck: Well, I worked actually at Rocky Mountain National Park in 1980 and 81, right out of college. But I was looking at the map, and I saw Glacier National Park, and I like the sound of the name. It just sounded cool. And it was in Montana, and I'd never been here. So I threw in an application and they called me up and offered me a trail crew job.

Michael: There are 745.9 miles of trail in Glacier, and each year the park hires 50 to 60 people across 12 different crews to maintain all that mileage. They clear dead and downed trees, brush the trails to minimize how much thimble berry and thistle you have to walk through, dig drains to move water off and make steps. Honestly, they do a lot of work that often goes unnoticed.

Chuck: I liked being out for ten days at a time with the same people, and you build this sort of bond with this crew you’re on because you're working, cooking, eating, sleeping in all kinds of weather for ten straight days and you learn to rely on each other a bunch. It's just a really unique work situation, I think. You know, I never really thought like everybody working at JC Penney, like hung out after work and cook-went home and cook dinner together.

Gaby: Shared the same room.

Chuck: Share the same room, or slept the same tent or…

Gaby: Yeah.

Michael: During his time on trail crew, Chuck worked on a lot of trails, but he highlighted one especially odd project.

Chuck: Uh, I think the most craziest season I had on trail crew, we cut the International Boundary Swath in 1987 and [someone in the background says “wow] I was a crew leader on the east side and it hadn't been dealt with in 20 years.

Michael: Glacier’s northern boundary is the U.S.–Canada border, and since the 1860s there has been a swath, a gap through the trees to mark where it is.

Chuck: It marks the international boundary and it's has monuments, steel obelisk monuments spaced out the entire 5,000 mile international boundary.

Michael: To keep trees and brush from filling in the swath, it's needed periodic maintenance in 150 years it's been here.

Chuck: And it's a 20-foot-wide swath cleared of all vegetation, so you can see from monument to monument, basically. Yeah, we spent 80 days, ten-day hitches at a time doing nothing but clearing the boundary.

Michael: [in the field] Jeez.

Gaby: Wow.

Michael: So Chuck and his crew were cutting it out by hand in the late eighties. But I'd heard a rumor that in the sixties, someone decided to use Agent Orange to clear the swath. The infamous ingredient used in napalm.

Michael: [in the field] …said at one point, they used Agent Orange to clear the boundary swath.

Chuck: They did, that's what they had done the time before we cut it by hand. They defoliated it from the air, which wasn't very accurate. And so the boundary swath was this like snaking thing through the. And so our job was to straighten it out and so we surveyed it as we went from monument to monument.

Michael: You're redrawing the line.

Chuck: Redrawing the line, yeah.

Peri Sasnett: That’s a lot of responsibility.

Chuck: Well, it was and it was kind of nutty because sometimes the swath was just going through the forest. There was no like, cut. It was just point A to point B. [someone laughs in background] We just up the side of one mound and down the side of the, you know, [someone in background days “wow] and we went around beaver ponds. We handed tools up cliff bands, you know, five-gallon cans of gas up through these cliffs, you know, [someone chuckles and someone says “wow” in background] to get to the next bench and keep going.

Michael: Because normally trail crews working on trails requires a lot more thought and care into where the trail is placed than many people realize, and so the boundary swath is kind of atypical. It's like, yeah, straight ahead-

Gaby: Straight across.

Chuck: Yeah, our-our slogan, and we made a T-shirt, was, uh, “total destruction is the only solution,” [lots of laughter] [bass line fades in] which is it's a line from a Bob Marley song about nuclear war, and that's kind of how we felt about it.

[bass line continues and fades]

Michael: But like all seasonal jobs, Chuck's season on trail crew came to an end. Every fall, you've got to find something else to do. This is when a lot of folks crisscross the country to work in warmer southern parks. But those jobs are few and far between and pretty competitive. It's not really a sustainable solution for most people.

Michael: [in the field] But, uh, what did you-what do you spend your winters doing? How did you string together the other six months of the year?

Chuck: That worked out. I was really lucky in that regard because I got a job on Big Mountain, and I worked on the ski patrol there for 26 years.

Michael: Big Mountain is home to Whitefish Ski Resort, less than an hour from Glacier.

Chuck: Ski season and this season fit together extremely well, and about the time I'd get sick [clears throat] of ski patrol and in April they'd lay me off and I'd get to come here and do something completely different. And then about, you know, late September, I get sick of working here, [laughter] and they'd lay me off here and I'd have a couple of months off in the fall to go do whatever, and then I'd go back skiing again.

Michael: Ski patrol in the winter, trail crew in the summer. And Chuck’s season cutting the border swath highlights that a lot of work in Glacier is extremely physical.

Gaby: So was this your-was this year hardest hitch?

Chuck: Yeah, that was my-I felt invincible at the end of that summer.

Gaby: I bet.

Chuck: I thought, if I can do this, I can do anything.

Gaby: Yeah.

Chuck: So then I quit trails and got a Ranger job. [everyone laughing] Basically.

Gaby: That’s-I mean that's cool a way to go out from trail crew.

Chuck: Yeah.

Gaby: Yeah.

Michael: After his summer on the border swath, Chuck got a job as a Law Enforcement Ranger. He went to Law Enforcement Academy with one of his trail crew friends. And after that, got a job in the Belly River, a remote part of the northeast corner of Glacier.

Chuck: And I worked for a guy named Dave Shea, who was an incredible wealth of knowledge, a scientist just, you know, knows everything about everything. And, yeah, a great guy to work for. My first year in there, so that was awesome. He started here in ‘67, I think, or something.

Michael: [in the field] Was that intimidating? Like to have your first Ranger job kind of… with him?

Chuck: No, it was great. He's so humble and just so knowledgeable and not afraid to share knowledge. You know, like, he would just take me out and show me all these things. And Belly River, the old wagon roads, the old cabin sites, the tracking and birds and just... Yeah, he-he's amazing. And he just took me under his wing, and I spent the whole summer with him.

Michael: This is the sort of job I feel like most people picture when they imagine being a park ranger.

Chuck: You know, we patrolled every day because that's why you're there. You know, we were up one valley or the other… into the campgrounds, talking to all the visitors, checking permits, um, digging out fire rings, cleaning pit toilets, just making sure everything's still working.

Michael: [Chuck’s voice fades out in the background] If you want to learn more about life as the Belly River Ranger, we interviewed Lora Funk, who has that job now, in our last episode. We'll have a link in the show notes. Lora learned from Chuck, and Chuck picked up the tools of the trade from his mentor that first summer.

Chuck: It was great. And then unfortunately, at the end of that summer in 1988, we're sitting around in the behind the ranger station having dinner, and he said, “I just want to tell everybody this is ViVi’s and my’s last summer here.” And I'm just like, what? I just got here, you-you can't leave. You know, this is my first year. I want to keep working. You know, I was going to plan on working with him for a long time. It was good for me. I got the Lead Ranger job in there, you know, and spent the next nine years in there. But it was hard for me to adjust from being trail crew, you know, the kind of the renegades of the Park Service, right? You're kind of out there, out of uniform, doing whatever, digging in the dirt and, you know, and then to a Law Enforcement Ranger.

Michael [in the field]: Yeah.

Chuck: Wearing a uniform.

Michael: In the uniform, in the campgrounds.

Chuck: You know, people come to the Ranger Station when they're in trouble or need something, and so the typical day can be very atypical very quickly if somebody shows up at 8:00 at night.

Michael: And to hear Chuck tell it, there was a bit of a learning curve to becoming this new type of ranger.

Chuck: I was hiking back down from Helen Lake, I think, and I got to the foot of Elizabeth and there was a beargrass flower in the trail, the whole stalk and the flower. And I thought, mmm, that's kind of weird. And I just walked by it. And then there was another one. And then another one and another one, and I'm like, this is not natural. So I started picking them up and I had this huge bouquet of bear grass flower stalks in my arms. I don't know that I could have carried 150, but I had 100 on my bed in my arms. [laughter]

Michael: Following the trail of beargrass flowers, Chuck found a Boy Scout troop at the nearby campground.

Gaby: You've had the entire trail time to just get angrier and stew...

Chuck: Every one I picked up.


Michael: A lot of work on trail crew is physical, but working with the public, keeping people in the park safe, can require a lot of empathy and patience. Chuck's known for his people skills today, but all skills take practice.

Chuck: So I walked in there and I'm holding these things and I didn't handle it very well because I was taking it personally, which is a huge mistake when you're a law enforcement ranger. You cannot-I learned that this was a good lesson for me then. Don't take it personally. It's not about you. It's about, you know, education, and, you know, I've learned that. But then I'm like, does anybody know what these are? And this kid looks at me, he goes, yeah, that's bear grass. I said, yeah, and it used to be alive till all you guys killed it all. And I look over [someone says “uh-oh”] and this kid is got his jackknife out and he's carving his initials in the bench he was sitting on in the campground, and I'm like, can you knock it off? [laughter] Can you quit doing that? And he looks at his buddy and he goes, I don't think he likes us. [group erupts in laughter] Very astute.

Michael: For ripping up 150 beargrass flowers, the troop leader got a $50 fine. Chuck's the first to say that he took that incident personally because he cares about the park and the Belly River. He was essentially its caretaker after all.

Chuck: We saw some great northern lights over the years…the stars, the full moon. You know, it's just, it's magical sometimes. It really is. Yeah. Never got tired of it.

Gaby: It feels like kind of like romantic. Do you remember it that way? Did it feel that way or was it sort of tougher and rougher than-than what we imagine?

Chuck: I think the anticipation was always really great. It's just like, wow, you know, first trip up to Elizabeth Lake or up to Helen or wherever you were going and knowing nobody'd been in there maybe since October. You know, stuff like that just made it really adventurous.

Gaby: Yeah

Chuck: What I liked about it, you know.

Michael: But despite all the things that kept Chuck there for nine summers, he couldn't stay in the Belly forever.

Michael: [in the field] All this to say what pulled you out of the Belly?

Chuck: [chuckles] Life. [bird sings] So I was in there-I left there in ‘96, but I got married in ‘94. I had bought land in-in ’89, and by that time in the mid-nineties, I was starting to try to build a house and my wife got pregnant. And so I was in Belly River with a pregnant wife trying to build a house outside of Whitefish, and it just wasn't working out that well. [bird continues to chirp]

Michael: For context, the Belly River Ranger Station is a three-hour drive and six-mile hike from Whitefish.

Chuck: It was too hard to do that, and so, um, I decided to leave after the summer of ‘96 and work on the house, and our son was born in January of ’97 [bass line fades in], but my wife and I climbed Mount Merritt while she was pregnant with our son.

Gaby: Wow.

Chuck: So that was pretty cool. [laughs]

Michael: That's unbelievable.

Chuck: Yeah, I have a really good picture of us sitting on the summit of Mount Merritt.

Michael: Now that he was closer to home, Chuck moved on to another position: bear crew. [baseline fades out]

Gaby: What was the bear team?

Chuck: Our job was to default to wildlife calls in the McDonald district.

Michael: And there are no shortage of these types of calls. Each year, there are hundreds, some years, nearly a thousand bear related incidents in the park. That's everything from bears causing traffic jams on roads to more serious incidents, like getting into improperly stored food.

Chuck: You know, the bears get all the press, but we did all kinds of wildlife stuff. Goats and sheep and marmots and skunks and bats and, you know, anything that anybody was having an issue with wildlife, the bear team would get to go deal with it.

Michael: [in the field] Do you have any memorable, like specific wildlife encounters from that time?

Chuck: Uh, yeah, lots. Well, one of the funniest ones, if you want to hear a funny one, was the auto shop called one day and said, we have a marmot in our auto shop over here.

Michael: If you don't know marmots are big squirrels. Montana's version of the groundhog.

Chuck: And this marmot had crawled up into the engine well of one of the road crew trucks and ridden all the way down from Logan Pass and ended up in the auto shop. And like, okay, I'm on the bear team. We'll go get this marmot. So it was in their breakroom over there, and they had it trapped in the break room and it was behind the refrigerator. Well, so I had a live trap and I thought, okay, we'll pull the fridge out and put the trap down and the marmot will step in it like they should, and it'll all be done. Well, the marmot had no interest in leaving the back of the refrigerator, [laughter] so we pulled the refrigerator and I was kind of leaned up on top of it, sort of poking down there with a stick, trying to get this marmot out of there. But he had gone in under the compressor of the refrigerator like there was no back on it down by the floor and he'd gone way up in there. He or she. Gave the trap to this guy, and I put on leather gloves and I reached in there and I grabbed this marmot by the hind legs [shocked laughter] and I started to pull him out from under the refrigerator, but this marmot grabbed the refrigerator with his front feet and he would not let go. [group erupting in laughter] And he's squealing like crazy, making some god awful noise, and so I'm yanking this marmot. Finally he lets go and I just stuffed him in this life traps and slammed the door and oh my god…

Michael: Did you drive it back to Logan?

Chuck: We let him go at Packers Roost. I'm not going all the way up there. You're just going to climb in another engine. [group erupts in laughter] Unbelievable. Marmots are strong. I don't know if you know that, but marmots are really strong.

Michael: So far, Chuck's career has focused on, among other things, physical work and people skills. Bear crew required getting to know the park's wildlife up close and personal.

Michael: [in the field] So did you-was it in college or in Law Enforcement Academy when you learned how to wrestle a skunk or leg talk down an aggressive bear? How did you learn how to do this?

Chuck: Trial and error. [laughter] Never gonna do that again. Um, I don't know. You just, you get thrust into it and you just sort of do it, you know, figure it out. I wasn't afraid to ask questions. You know, if we had something like that, I needed to talk to the biologist about, I would certainly go talk to the biologist about what you think we should be doing here. But I didn't go to school for wildlife biology or anything. I have a liberal arts degree, so I wasn't college training by any means. It was on the job training basically my entire career.

Michael: Finally, I wanted to ask Chuck about climbing. He has a shout out in the “Climbers Guide to Glacier National Park,” which is essentially the local mountaineering Bible.

Michael: [in the field] When did you-when did you climb everything? Because it seems like you climbed a lot. [laughter]

Chuck: I tried to climb every peak in the Belly and I didn't quite get there, but yeah, well, when you're in there nine years, you have a lot of time to climb, right? [laughter] Uh, actually my boss in there told me that if you don't climb up Mount Cleveland this summer, you're fired.

Michael: Mount Cleveland is the tallest peak in Glacier, and it's been the site of some infamous accidents.

Chuck: Uh, he said that visitors are climbing these mountains. They're going to get hurt or disappear. You need to know the routes. You need to know where they're going. So you need to get out there and start climbing all these peaks. I said, great, I'll do that.

Michael: Chuck has a lot of funny stories from his time in the park, but there were a lot of serious days too. Thanks to his knowledge of climbing routes and the park landscape. Chuck started helping with search and rescues, and he was good at it. Good enough that the park asked him to get certified as a helicopter manager, and he's been helping with search and rescues on the ground and in the air ever since.

Gaby: Had you had interest in going into search and rescue or was it sort of just like a function of being Law Enforcement in a national park?

Chuck: No, I like it. It's uh, it's a really interesting part of my job. I really-I enjoy it. So, no, it was more than willing… [audio fades under Michael]

Michael: Unfortunately, search and rescues happen every year here in Glacier. In the last three years, there have been over 200. And they're not just climbing accidents. Folks get lost on trail, and are reported missing by friends and family. Others wind up in trouble from exposure to heat or the cold.

Gaby: When you worked search and rescue, what were the outcomes that you expected, especially when there is like those low percentages of…finding…?

Chuck: It's based on time. Time, right? How long is this person been out there and what was their plan? If we even knew what their plan was.

Michael: Searches often include huge teams of people covering all the places that person might have been.

Chuck: People can survive for pretty extended periods of time, and based on the weather, what kind of shape they’re in, they have any food with them. But if they fall 500 feet off a cliff, they're not going to survive. And so if you can search an area really thoroughly, day one, you know, everybody's like, we're going to get this person. Day two, we're going to get this person. Day three, they're still viable. You know, we know this person can still be alive. Once you get six, seven, eight, ten, nine, 15 days down the road and it's like, this person's probably not alive anymore. You never want to feel that way. You know, you always want to know that they're still alive, you can find them. Drives you crazy when you can't, you know, It's like, where are they? They still could be alive. Now, where are they?

Michael: [in the field] I came across an incident that the guy, he was trying to get to Longbow Lake in the North Fork.

Chuck: Oh, yeah.

Michael: Oh, you knew who he was?

Chuck: I found him. [laughs] He was a baker at the Polebridge Mercantile, and he went on a hike to Longbow Lake and never came back. And so we started looking for him, and we had ground teams, and uh, Longbow is above Akokala, off trail. We had a helicopter in the air.

Michael: Chuck was actually assigned to a ground team with the subject's nephew.

Chuck: And they sent us up on the ground up this creek drainage. Oh my God, it was a horrendous bushwhacking. And we were just beating the bush, going up this creek and yelling this guy's name. And we're out there yelling, yelling, yelling, thinking, you know, he's not out here. This is stupid. And then we hear all of a sudden, we hear a voice up in the woods. And I’m like, did you-I looked at this guy. Can't remember the kid's name. Did you hear that? He goes, yeah. So we start yelling. He goes, Dan, Dan. And we hear this voice. Yeah. Holy crap. [laughter] And so we bushwhack our way up to where we heard this voice and there he is. And he has this huge gash in his head. He'd been out 48 hours maybe at that point, um, had no recollection of what happened to him. Um, It appeared to me he fell off a cliff or something from his head trauma. Once we found him, I think everything that was keeping him going left. He was just like, I'm rescued now. I'm just like, done. And anyway, we're in the middle of this lodgepole thicket, basically, an alder thicket. And I was like, okay, now what are we going to do?

Michael: The trees were so dense they couldn't lower a litter for the guy down through the trees, let alone land. So instead, Chuck asked for chainsaws.

Chuck: So anyway, they flew us in a couple of chainsaws, and we spent like 2 hours cutting a landing zone out of the woods right in the middle, wherever. 40-, 50-foot diameter hole out of the woods, maybe in a couple of hours and we brushed it all down.

Michael: This allowed the helicopter to land and take the guy to the nearest hospital.

Chuck: And he went he ended up in the hospital for like 11 days. He had a brain bleed. Yeah, he had a major issue going on. He wasn't going to make it, maybe another day, but…

Michael: [in the field] But he made it.

Chuck: He made it. He’s alive and well.

Michael: Chuck's colleagues are quick to say that he's the kind of person you want involved in a search and rescue because he cares so much, even if the result is ultimately to give a family closure. And thanks to folks like Chuck, most search and rescues in Glacier end like this. Maybe someone's a little banged up, but they're alive. Out of the over 200 that have happened here in the last three years, 96% of the people have survived.

Michael: That must’ve felt pretty good.

Chuck: It felt great. Found one alive. Saved him. Yeah, it was awesome. But I did miss the Willie Willie Nelson concert on Big Mountain that night, though, [group laughs] which I had tickets to.

Gaby: You saved a life but you also missed Willie Nelson.

Chuck: Missed Willie Nelson on Big Mountain.

Michael: Through all of the search and rescues, the bear jams and stubborn marmots, Chuck stayed seasonal.

Chuck: Made it easy for me. I didn't have to move. I built a house. I had a family going, but I didn't have to find a job. I didn't have to think about what I was going to do at the end of the season, which is really stressful. And I live that life for a while on trail crew, and it gets old, you know, you got to pack, you got to go find a place to live, you got to find a job. And it's stressful and it drives people out of being seasonal in the Park Service, I think. But for me it was easy because I never had to move. I just drive east in the summer and north in the winter, you know, from my house, and it was no big deal.

Michael: And while he dodged the difficulty of moving every six months by settling down in Whitefish, moving isn't the only hard part about these jobs. Seasonal positions usually don't provide full benefits. They don't come with a retirement plan. Each year you come back, more of your friends move on, off to another park. And there's a limit to how high you can climb the career ladder as a seasonal.

Gaby: We talk about seasonal turnover and like how hard seasonal life can actually be. And so why-why stay through it all?

Chuck: Uh, I don't know. You know, I've never really been a… I'm content a lot. I'm not necessarily the grass is greener over there kind of person. I've never even applied to another park, ever since I started working here.

Michael: It's worth noting Chuck has support and stability at home. His wife has a year-round job in fire communication, but at work Chuck points out that as you move up the ladder, you can lose a lot of the duties that drew you to the job in the first place.

Chuck: Yeah, I like being in the field. You get a permanent job here and not all of them, but in the ranger division, if you go permanent, you're going to be pushing paper a lot more than you are when you're not permanent.

Michael: Of the rangers I've known who are long time seasonals, all of them had a permanent career on the side. Teachers and professors who have the summer off, or even a lawyer who can choose their own caseload. All of them found some way to squeeze in being a seasonal ranger. All of them except Chuck.

Chuck: I tell people I made a career out of not having a career. [group laughs] Basically. I wouldn't trade it for anything, though. No regrets. You know, there are some great permanent jobs here, don't get me wrong, but there's just the way overloaded people working here and it's just-you see it, you know? And I just never wanted to try that.

Michael: [in the field] Yeah.

Michael: But I'd say if Chuck has a secret to how he stayed seasonal so long, it's how much he loves this place. And all of it too. The scenery, the wildlife, the plants and the people.

Chuck: I just like it here. I just like the whole persona of what Glacier is. Always have, from the minute I got here. And don't get me wrong, I've had some bad days here. You know, there's been some days where I'm just like, oh, man, I got to get out of here. You know, but that just doesn't last long, you know? Yeah. We owe it to the park to take good care of it and do the best we can. I really firmly believe that. And so whether it's small world stuff or big world stuff, and there's big world stuff going on like climate change and all that. My world is very small world. You know, I pull weeds. You know, I clean out fire rings. I pick up trash. I educate visitors, that's a huge part of it, super important part. Building advocates for the Park Service. If I can get somebody to, like, buy into the idea of the Park Service and advocating for it, you know, success.

Michael: [in the field] I think that is a nice segway into the rumors I've been hearing about this maybe being your last season. Is that true?

Chuck: It is true. It's not a rumor. I'm wrapping it up.

Michael: It's not called retiring when you're seasonal. What is it called?

Chuck: Quitting. [group erupts into laughter] They’re going to try and hire me back and I get to say no.

Michael: Chuck loves Glacier, and it's clear Glacier loves him right back. He invited us to his retirement party, which happened a couple of months after our interview, and we arrived to find every parking spot full. Cars lining the road to the venue and people from every stage of his career who'd shown up to celebrate. Here are just a few of the nice things they had to say about him. He's humble. He hates leading. But everybody looks up to him. He's trusted. [haunting violin music fades in] He spends more nights out camping in the park than his colleagues half his age. He's a mentor, a moral compass, and he never forgets a name. And over and over again. We're going to miss him. Chuck's career captures what it's like to work for the Park Service, and he's been a role model for a lot of the people who work here today. Our last question for him, what comes next?

Chuck: You know, I've been stuck in the Glacier rut for so long, I've never even been to the Cabinet Mountains. You know, um, there are all kinds of little mountain ranges around Montana, we got like 54 state parks. I've only been to, like three of them. I just want to do go look around and see what else is out there, you know, and maybe just have the time to do it and feel like doing it.

Gaby: I guess on the still-on the same question of reflection, was your career everything that you expected or...

Chuck: I don't know that I had any expectations. I think it was just this new adventure to Montana. [laughter] You know, you just go check it out, see what happens. Yeah.

[music builds, then fades to play softly under the credits]

Peri: Headwaters is a production of Glacier National Park and is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. We could not make the show without them. You can learn more about what they do at Glacier.org. Headwaters is made possible with help from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, and so many people throughout the Glacier community, especially the natural and cultural resource teams. We're grateful for all of you. Our music this season is by the brilliant Frank Waln. The show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in our show notes. Special thanks to Chuck Cameron and everyone who shared memories or stories of Chuck at his very fun retirement party. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving us a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

We sit down with Chuck Cameron, a lifelong Glacier Ranger, to learn about his incredible and unusual career.

Headwaters is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and Peri Sasnett.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Episode 4

Surviving a Near-Death Fall in a National Park


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Gaby Eseverri: Note: this episode deals with an intense accident in Glacier. Please take care while you're listening.

Morgan: I remember this distinct feeling of getting off that hitch, and having that weekend to myself, and just being completely content with life. I remember that moment of just like, Oh, I'm so happy and I feel so good with where I am and who I am right now.

Gaby: So what happened on the walk back?

Morgan: I was on an incline, and when you walk on an incline and snow, you kind of like lean in: kick, kick, kick, dig, kick, kick, kick, dig. So I had kicked into the snow, that there was enough where I had kicked in and exposed it that I actually kicked in to ice. And I stepped on it, and it just took me out immediately.

Gaby: You fell.

Morgan: I did.

Gaby: You fell off the Highline.

Morgan: I began to slide. Yes, I fell off the Highline.

Gaby: Every community—a high school, a workplace, a national park— has its set of stories: local legends, colorful rumors and cautionary tales told in hushed whispers. They come and go, as people do, but I think some of these stories are etched into the fabric of these places. When I moved to Glacier last year, I started to learn the stories and characters of my new community from the stories we've told on Headwaters, to the old locally-famous characters I see referenced everywhere. Like Joe Cosley, the notorious park ranger and poacher. Or Josephine Doody, the moonshine mogul. One of these stories is that a trail crew employee once fell from the highline trail onto Going to the Sun Road and lived. It's almost beyond belief. And it felt a little taboo to know this about one of my neighbors. To know what happened, but not know them.

Music: [somber flute music starting]

Gaby: To know what felt like their secret, but not their telling of it. This year, I became friends with that person. And I quickly realized that they don't see it as a secret. This story that I saw as a dark piece of their past was something that they brought light to. And in doing so, brought light to so much more. You're listening to Headwaters, I'm Gaby. This is a show about how Glacier National Park is connected to everything else. In this episode, we talk about how one event can change a life. This is a story of Morgan Bell's relationship with Glacier: a career on trail crew, and how a single day, a single step, changed everything.

Gaby: Do you get the sense that you'll go down in park history? Park lore?

Morgan: I think, with such a substantial experience and story of survival, yes. I think my name will be associated with this place for a very long time. My name is Morgan Bell. I am a concession management specialist here at Glacier National Park, and I have been employed here for 22 years.

Gaby: What brought you to Glacier then? What brought you to Montana?

Morgan: I had received a letter from Glacier National Park in the mail advertising positions for trail maintenance.

Gaby: Had you ever been to Glacier?

Morgan: I had never been to Glacier. In all honesty, I had never even heard of Glacier National Park.

Gaby: [laughing] Okay, cool. So when you came out here at 22 to work trails, this place sort of represented adventure.

Morgan: Yeah, it really set a stage for me to be my own person. It was my first time on my own.

Gaby: 22. Yeah. So what was working trails like here when you started?

Morgan: It was super intense. It was exposing, not only to the elements, but emotionally, you know, like personal level exposing—of being embodied in the woods with strangers for six months.

Gaby: And you're physically doing a lot of work because you're clearing trails?

Morgan: Yeah.

Gaby: Yeah. What does that actually mean? And what are you actually doing?

Morgan: It consists of typically a season that runs from April to October. And you, primarily in the spring, are focusing on clearing downed trees that would have fallen through winter storms.

Gaby: Okay. So to get them ready for visitors.

Morgan: Yeah, yeah, for hiking. So we'd go out and clear trails with chainsaws, sometimes crosscuts. Clean all of the drains so that water can move off of the trail. We build structures so all of the bridges that you cross across creeks and rivers.

Gaby: So it's taking a lot of you physically to be able to do all of that.

Morgan: Physically and then mentally. I mean, you're put into the wilderness and working hard and building relationships. But it really laid the foundation and gave me a glimpse into my, like my ability of self, what I could and couldn't do. It was a really strengthening period for me.

Gaby: So tell me about this culture of trails.

Morgan: There's a lot of pride in it. There's a lot of ownership and there's a lot of longevity.

Gaby: If you're a newbie, it's like, Are you going to stick around?

Morgan: Are you going to stick around?

Gaby: Yeah. Are you going to be a, what do you trail people call themselves, trail dogs?

Morgan: Trail dogs.

Gaby: Okay. [laughing]

Morgan: Yeah. Yeah, trail dogs. It's a right to become a trail dog. You have to work for it. It's a sense of pride to become one. Yeah. To become part of the pack. There was an authenticity to the relationships that you could build with individuals in such extreme environments. It was a community that provided instantaneous support. It was a wave of, like, experiences with each other.

Gaby: Hmm.

Morgan: We have ten days where it just pours rain on us.

Gaby: Everyone's unhappy. Everyone's miserable.

Morgan: Everyone's unhappy. Yeah. Yeah. But that somehow connected us, and we still got the job done. We still had fun. We still made our meals together. Yeah.

Gaby: So you moved here when you're 22, you started trails.

Morgan: Mm hmm.

Gaby: At some point, you became crew lead.

Morgan: Yeah. So typically, each crew, depending on the district, is made up of anywhere from 4 to 6 individuals. My crew that year was myself (the crew lead), and then I had a maintenance worker, and I had two laborers. I had a lot of, I was very excited and had a lot of pride to be a trail lead.

Gaby: How old were you when that happened?

Morgan: 32. I really started to see how Glacier had shaped me into the individual that I was becoming. I can hike a trail, like I can in my mind, I can envision a trail without being on it because I've been on it so many times.

Gaby: That makes me think of knowing our homes in such an intimate way.

Morgan: Mm hmm.

Gaby: And so these trails are sort of. Yeah, like a home.

Morgan: It is home. It is home. You know, I have a favorite tree. I have a favorite rock.

Gaby: Aww.

Both: [laughing]

Morgan: And I have memories built in certain areas right? There's like, those keynote moments that are kind of ingrained in my being. I became very integrated with Glacier. I identified with it. There's an intimacy of how I connected with Glacier. My literal blood, sweat and tears were put into the ground.

Gaby: From working trails.

Morgan: From working trails. Trails exposed me to the deepest parts of myself. It built a level of strength and identity within me to understand myself. That was like a level of intimacy. Who would I be as an individual if I wasn't shaped.

Gaby: By trails.

By trails. It solidified that this was where I was supposed to be. I'm all about universal signs. [laughs] And there was a moment before I came to work here. I was working in a physical therapy office at the front desk. And there was a calendar that I had, and one of the photographs I really admired. And so once the month had passed, I tore that page out and stuck it on my wall and would just look at it. Fast forward, and I'm standing at the top of Logan Pass, and I look around and I was like, [gasp], this is that picture. And so that was a pivotal moment for me where I was just like, This is where I'm supposed to be.

Gaby: Logan Pass is the highest place you can drive to in Glacier, home to the highline trail. The highline is cut steeply into the mountainside, and parallels Going to the Sun road for several miles. When I hiked the trail, I was surrounded by beargrass and other colorful wildflowers in bloom, and I was sweating as the warm summer breeze hugged me. When Morgan and her crew were there on that day in 2012, it was still spring: gloomy and snowy, and her cheeks were pink from the cold mountain air. She was there to get the trail open, clearing it of snow and debris to get it ready for the thousands of eager boots that hike the highline every summer. This is no easy task on any trail. But now imagine one with drop offs so steep that it feels like every butterfly in the world made its way to your stomach. As if that weren't enough. Out of snow and ice to the mix.

Morgan: The morning had started, July 3rd, 2012, but it was raining and it was like a low cloud cover. Definitely still spring-summer in the high country. Historically, trail crew is responsible for blasting snowfields on trails of high use. So we walked out, got to our destination—the last snow field we needed to assess—and then we geared up and begun our walk back to the trailhead. One of my trail members was in front of me. I was second in line in the group of five, and him and I were just chatting up a storm. We were just like having a really good conversation. And we had crossed a number of snow fields by this point and we had approached our last one that we needed to cross. I got pretty far across it, and I could see there's seasonal water. This part, section of the trail, seasonal water flows. What had happened is that water had froze, and created like an ice layer. I was on an incline and when you walk on an incline in snow, you kind of like lean in, kick it, kick, dig, kick, kick, kick, dig. So I had kicked into the snow. But there was enough where I had kicked in and exposed it that I actually kicked in to ice. And I stepped on it, and it just took me out immediately. It was fast. Like, it wasn't like a "whoopsie" slip, it was like a slip. Hit the ground. Start sliding.

Gaby: You're still on snow and ice.

Morgan: I'm traveling, still on snow and ice. Yes. And I was crossing, the snow had kind of collected in a couloir of sorts, or like a you know, a natural chute that had been created through this water feature.

Gaby: Okay.

Morgan: So snow ran from the trail all the way to the road. It's not fluffy, It's not soft. It's not playful. It's icy, hard-packed, compacted snow. Very.

Gaby: Rough.

Morgan: Rough and hard.

Gaby: And if anything, it's only making you slide faster.

Morgan: Faster. Yeah. And the slope of which I was sliding was also steep. I hit the snow immediately, and began to slide. And I recall when I first fell, I was on my back and I was going headfirst, downhill. I attempted to self arrest with the hand tool I had, which was a shovel. So it's a method of putting it across your body and trying to dig it in and use it as a break. I didn't have crampons or an ice axe. That wasn't something that we typically carried with us. I was able to like, spin myself around with my shovel, and then I was feet first going down, trying to break.

Gaby: So now you're seeing.

Morgan: Now I'm seeing.

Gaby: The ground.

Morgan: The ground and where I'm going. But I'm like laying on my back still and trying to use my shovel. At some point, my shovel was ripped out of my hand. And I lost it. And I remember in that pivotal moment, it was so fast, but everything was like so slow in that moment. And I remember just being very aware of what was happening, but extremely like, methodical in my actions. So once I lost my shovel. I flip myself back onto my stomach. And so now I'm traveling. Feet first on my belly. And my only attempt to slow myself down was to expand. So I put my arms out, starfish, essentially. Put my arms out really far. Began to dig in with my hands and my nails. My feet started to, like, kind of really push my toes into the snow. I remember, like the sensation of my face dragging on the snow, and the sound of it, the speed of it.

Music: [low, dramatic bass music starts in the background]

Morgan: And like the snow that I was gripping and moving across, like flying around me. And like, screaming, it was incredibly loud. Really, really intense, primal fear, like loss of control and completely terrified. What my crew members experienced as well is that they heard me yell, I can't stop.

Gaby: So they're hearing you while they're still standing on the highline?

Morgan: Yes. And they're watching me. They can see me sliding down. At a certain point, they lost sight of me and didn't know what the outcome was, but knew that I had made it to the road because from the highline they could see the road itself, but they could see vehicles going around.

Gaby: Something.

Morgan: Something.

Gaby: On a slippery patch of hard snow and ice. Morgan slid 350 feet from the highline. That's more than the entire height of the Statue of Liberty. Then she free fell another 12 feet onto unforgiving pavement. Onto Going to the sun Road.

Morgan: I remember a majority of the slide and at some point I lost consciousness, on the snow field. And I came to on the road. I don't know the duration after I fell, like if it was seconds, minutes. I remember like being on all fours, you know, on my belly and just kind of like lifting my head and seeing blood everywhere, like pooled up on the on the road and all over my face. I was like, Oh, my gosh, okay, I'm on the road. And at that very moment, it was like these little black shoes came running up and came within my view. And I was almost like in Child's Pose, hunkered down, and this individual was saying to me, like, are you okay? Where did you come from? I don't know how clear I was in communicating, but I recall saying I fell from the highline. I'm trail crew. I was on the highline. I slid. I recall laying down instantly, feeling a lot of pressure in my head. Intense pressure in my head, in my face. Just holding my head.

Music: [music fades, shifting to background flute music]

Morgan: And I recall people coming in. So visitor service assistants from Logan Pass came down to assist. They started performing an assessment on me of my injuries and stabilizing me, you know, my C spine and everything like that. The individual who had come upon me on the road was actually a registered nurse from Billings. From what I understand, Rangers got on site and Alert—which is an emergency helicopter—was called, and took off immediately to come LifeFlight me to the hospital. And so I was put on a board and put in the back of the shuttle bus and transported to Big Bend. And once Alert was on site, they put me in an induced coma and got me in the plane or in the helicopter, and we took off.

Music: [dramatic flute concludes]

Morgan: I would never be who I was again. Even with complete healing, I would always be different. It would never be the same. That trails would never be the same, that my life and my activities and my existence as I knew it would never be the same.

Gaby: Do you remember waking up in the hospital?

Morgan: Mmhmm.

Gaby: Was it where you confused or.

Morgan: No, I was incredibly ashamed. I remember my supervisor, who I have great admiration for. He was there in the room. They got the call that I had woken up. I was in the ICU, and the first thing I said was I'm sorry. [laugh] I remember him just being like, will you stop it? You know? Like, why are you apologizing to me? Like, no apology is necessary. I felt embarrassed. I felt ashamed. I felt that I had let the team down through my actions. Because I understood the consequences of what had happened not only to me but to the program as well.

Gaby: In the days following the park, halted all trail crew operations while they investigated the accident. For the next season, there were new safety guidelines in place for snow travel. And every year since, trail crew does mandatory snow and ice safety training where they practice using ice axes and crampons, and setting up fall protection. Morgan's accident changed the trails program and the culture of snow safety throughout the entire park. Heads up. Morgan is about to describe her injuries. If you're not interested in listening to the details, you can skip ahead 2 minutes.

Gaby: So when you woke up at the hospital, what were the physical injuries?

Morgan: Starting from the top, traumatic brain injury.

Music: [low base music starts playing in the background]

Morgan: So I had had a swelling of the brain. So to stop that, what they had done is shaved my hair, just the top portion of my scalp, front portion, and created a laceration from my right ear to the apex of my head.

Gaby: Like, they cut that open.

Morgan: They cut that open well and essentially peeled back down and drilled three holes into my skull, which alleviated the pressure of the fluid building up inside of there. While they did that, I had also sustained multiple fractures to my face. And one of the more sustainable fractures that I had was completely shattering my forehead. So they went in and pieced it together with metal pieces that ironically are called Dog Bones. I broke my nose. I lost my front tooth, chipped it. I had multiple lacerations on my face, the most extreme being my upper lip, which had been torn off and my cervical area and neck. I had,uh, bilateral dissected carotid arteries, which essentially is the bands around my carotid arteries had exploded. I then had a right dislocated shoulder and a lacerated liver. So majority of the injuries were head and neck. Every single one of them was life threatening.

Gaby: Did you feel like you looked different? Like it was a different person that you were looking at after the accident?

Morgan: Yeah. And that was really hard to look at myself. Really hard to look at myself after the accident. [emotionally] A lot of like, sadness for what I had done. It was just hard. It was hard to like, I don't feel myself as vain, but it's hard to look at yourself with, in a different context, when something on your face changes or on your body change. Essentially a stranger. The shell of me had changed. I had identified with myself for so long as someone in the mirror meant to be looking and seeing the holes in my head and the scar on my forehead.

Music: [flute music comes in in the background]

Morgan: And the abnormal angle of my nose and the shift of my eyes and all of it. The missing tooth, the shaved head.

Gaby: So there is this reckoning that you're going through with identity.

Morgan: There was a reckoning of the identity not only like physically, but a reckoning of the loss of my identity of self and who I presented myself as. What I did.

Gaby: Yeah.

Morgan: Who I was. It was wiped clean in one fall.

Music: [flute music concludes]

Morgan: This loss of self and identity, and my former relationship with Glacier, for a very long time challenged me and put me in very dark places. You know, depression came naturally with it. I get covered by the darkness, and there's times that I can let it put me on the ground and be at the depths of it. Ultimately. There's an essence of my being that shines brighter.

Gaby: Did the fall at any point feel like it defined Glacier for you? Like you were sort of avoidant of this place because it was too intense, to go to Logan Pass, or too intense to go through the entrance station?

Morgan: Never.

Gaby: Never.

Morgan: No. I'd be remiss to say that it wasn't. Moments of anxiety driving up the road and approaching the shoot.

Music: [background synth music begins]

I know that none of this occurred out of vengeance, that I did something wrong to deserve this. I was eager to come back and connect, such an integral part of my being. It was a loss. I was grieving. I was grieving Glacier. I was grieving that I wasn't able to immerse myself in it. And that I had to be home. There was nothing I wanted more than to be here. This place means a lot to me, and I care immensely for every square inch of it. And so, I have apologized to Glacier. We've come to an understanding together that that wasn't intentional. I have a direct line of sight of the garden wall from the foot of Lake McDonald. And while you can't see the exact location that I fell, it's still the general area. And I have allowed the wind to carry my words up valley. And I have allowed the wall's words to carry down to me. I honor it. Dubbed the chute, like, "Oh, shoot." [laughs]

Gaby: Oh, chute.

Morgan: Yeah, "Oh chute!"

Gaby: That's what you call it when you go by it?

Morgan: Yeah. You know, I. Yesterday I drove the road and I said hi to it as I passed it. I spotted it I was like, Oh, there it is.

Gaby: Oh, chute.

Morgan: The Oh, chute. And I don't pass it and associate it with the memories of falling. It's just like, wow, there is that pivotal point. The memories of the fall [sniffle] aren't associated with it anymore.

Gaby: I don't think anyone would have blamed Morgan if she decided to leave this place after experiencing what she did. For all its beauty, Glacier has seen some truly horrible things: Morgan's accident, and so many others. This place has stories that I will never really know, or for that matter, understand. Maybe all places and communities do. But I think Morgan is right that to really know a place, a community, means honoring that darkness.

Music: [music fades out]

Morgan: There's not a conversation where it's like, me without Glacier. It has been such an integral part of my life for two decades on so many levels. It's where I have worked. It's where I've experienced loss. It's where I fell in love. It's where I raised my daughters. It's where I have some of my closest relationships and life memories embodied. It is here.

Music: [swelling string music begins]

Morgan: The epitome of a trail dog is like strength and tenacity. You know, and I was exemplifying that like tenfold by surviving. It was just the circumstances,.

Gaby: Right.It was ice.

Morgan: It was ice. It was an accident.

Gaby: It was an accident.

Morgan: Yeah. I sometimes ponder with the idea of like, was it intentional? Did it have to be me and did I get to survive? For the purpose of what I am now. It was supposed to be me. So it's it's really curious. Like, where would I be?

Gaby: Yeah.

Morgan: Where would I be without this experience? Where would I be without this place? So I appreciate you guys. Thank you very much for letting me share my story.

Gaby: Well, we love you.

Morgan: I love you guys, too. Thank you so much.

Music: [Dramatic music swells, and plays out under the credits]

Peri Sasnett: Headwaters has a production of Glacier National Park and is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. We could not make the show without them. You can learn more about what they do at Glacier.org. Headwaters is made possible with help from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek, and so many people throughout the Glacier community, especially the natural and cultural resource teams. We're grateful for all of you. Our music this season is by the brilliant Frank Waln. The show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in our shownotes. Special thanks this episode to Morgan Bell for sharing her story so candidly and gracefully. We also appreciate Duncan Lennon and Cameron Aveson for all of their insight into the trails program. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving us a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

Morgan Bell spent 10 seasons working on Glacier’s trail crews—one of the toughest and most demanding jobs in the park. Until a single day—a single step—changed everything.

Headwaters is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and Peri Sasnett.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

Episode 5

Art, Science, and Alpine Potatoes


Lacy Kowalski: Headwaters is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

Michael Faist: [to Lucas and Alyssa] Do either of you have a particularly good pika impression?

Alyssa Quinn: Lucas does.

Lucas Moyer-Horner: I do. I can give it a try. "Eep! Eep!" Eh. Kind of like that. The thing is, there's different "eep" dialects.

Michael: [to Lucas] How interesting.

Lucas: Even within the park, sometimes you'll hear one that sounds like it has a hoarse voice and or one that you sort of assume must be a really young one, because it has a really kind of a meek and high pitched eep. And then others are pretty strong eeps. But but they're all eeps. They're not whistles like the rodents do.

Michael: Pikas are the cutest animals in Glacier National Park. No contest.

Lucas: Pikas are lagamorphs. So the order group of mammals that they belong to called lagamorphs includes rabbits and hares. Pikas are about the size of a Idaho potato, classically, is how folks like to describe them, and it fits well.

Michael: They're like little fuzzy Idaho potatoes. I mean, even their poops are cute.

Lucas: Pikas’ poop is the only one that is almost a perfect little sphere and pretty much the size of a peppercorn. So if you see tiny little peppercorns, that's for sure going to be like poop.

Michael: [to Lucas] I've heard people joking about using old pepper grinders as they're like a collection container.

Lucas: Seems dangerous. [both laughing]

Michael: This is Lucas.

Lucas: My name is Lucas Moyer-Horner. I'm an instructor with the University of Utah, and I'm also a pika researcher.

Michael: And Alyssa Quinn.

Alyssa: You can call me Alyssa. I am a writer of primarily fiction, and I am currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Kenyon College.

Michael: The two of them have spent a lot of time in the mountains looking for pika this summer, and they're also a couple.

Lucas: The very first time we met was me giving a bear safety talk, and Alyssa was in the audience.

Alyssa: Yeah, and I thought he gave a very good bear talk, like the best bear talk I had heard. So I was like, I need to get to know this guy.

Michael: [to Alyssa] Bear talks can be convincing. Life-saving advice.

Alyssa: He gives a very calm bear talk, which was reassuring. [both laughing]

Michael: Lucas and Alyssa came here this summer because of a mystery. Pika might be in big trouble. If you search for them online, you'll see headlines like this: "pikas disappearing from parts of the West;" "the world's cutest mammal on the brink;" and "the American fur ball being threatened by a warming climate." But if you search for pikas in the mountains here, I'm not quite sure what you'll find. That's why Lucas and Alyssa are here, to help us learn more about what's happening to pika in Glacier. [theme music begins to play] But I wanted to talk to them because they argue science alone isn't enough to understand pika or the threats they face. And so, if not science, what else could help us? [Headwaters theme music plays, with flutes and drums, as pika "eep" sounds play]

Michael: You're listening to Headwaters, a show about Glacier National Park and how it connects to everything else. I'm Michael. In this episode, we're exploring how science and storytelling can shed light on the American pika. And my guides are Lucas and Alyssa.

Lucas: I think that one hike we did where we walked through some talus was the only time I tried to find a hay pile. And I was lucky enough to find one.

Alyssa: Yeah, we saw two... We saw two pikas together, which was a very rare occurrence. Yeah, that was exciting. So, yeah, they just flock to you now.

Michael: As you'll hear, Lucas and Alyssa come to a love of Pika from different spheres of the brain. Lucas's lens is science, while Alyssa brings the mind of a writer. For a few months this summer before work pulled Alyssa elsewhere, she helped Lucas conduct pika surveys. [to Alyssa] Was this your first time surveying pikas this summer with Lucas?

Alyssa: Yes, it was.

Michael: [to Alyssa] How'd you like it?

Alyssa: It's very fun. It's very hard work. It's.... Yeah, I definitely was a blob, I slowly de-blobbed over the course of the summer, but now I'm back to blob-ifying again until next summer. The... It's exhausting because you hike these sometimes very massive peaks, and that's fun. You get to the top. It's gorgeous. You're excited, you've hit the peak, you're kind of ready to turn around and head for home, but instead you have to spend multiple hours up there doing the survey. And that can be really strenuous, too, because you're clambering over these giant boulders up and down, up and down, and trying to keep track of where you've been.

Michael: Our story starts back in 2007, when Lucas, then a PhD student, led the first large scale pika study in Glacier.

Lucas: Our extent of our research is the entire park. So the 1 million acre Glacier National Park is where the surveys take place, and we try to cover as many different patches as we possibly can.

Michael: That word "talus" describes a hillside of loose rocks and boulders, and are the only places that pika live.

Lucas: Basically, they can only be found where there are piles of big rocks. They use the spaces between those rocks as a refuge from extreme temperatures, whether it's too hot, too cold. And they also can use those areas to escape from potential predators.

Michael: So the first step is to identify where this talus or pika habitat is even found.

Lucas: Yeah, I think I've probably covered around two thirds-ish of the park. That's been one of the ongoing efforts was to get up high on ridges and peaks to try to look and see where talus occurs in the park.

Michael: Once they know where the talus is, they'll visit each patch and look for pika.

Lucas: And we're looking for any signs of a pika. So that could be seeing a pika, hearing a pika finding a pika's hay pile, or finding pika scat.

Alyssa: We sometimes go by the Pika Poop Patrol because we are also collecting pika poop.

Michael: Pika poop is currently being used by other researchers studying pika genetics to see how different pika populations are connected to one another. It's not Lucas's project, but he and Alyssa are helping out.

Alyssa: Yeah. How many Ziploc gallons of books are full of poop now? In the cabin?

Lucas: In the cabin? I think we're up to four.

Michael: That's four gallon sized bags of peppercorn sized poops.

Lucas: Conveniently pikas, they're active during the day, so we can survey for them during the day and be more likely to see them and hear them. And they also are solitary and defend their territory from other pikas. So that means if you find if you see a pika, you know that there's not going to be another pika within about a ten meter radius of that pika.

Michael: This summer, 15 years later, he's surveying the same spots all over again to monitor how they're doing and see how pika populations have changed over time.

Lucas: So we'll go to the GPS location where this survey started 15 years ago, and then we'll attempt to survey the same part of the patch that they did. Hopefully the entire patch.

Michael: Alyssa has experienced this work firsthand in the field, and she's also created some of her own written work based off of Lucas's research. Like a poem titled Ochotonidae, the Latin name of pika.

Alyssa: So the poem is a cut up poem, which is a poem that takes an existing text, in this case, I took Lucas's paper "Predictors of current and long term patterns of abundance of American pikas across a leading edge protected area." Catchy title.

Lucas: Thank you. [laughing]

Alyssa: You're welcome. I took that article and I cut out a bunch of pieces of language from it and then rearranged those pieces to form a new poem. And I allowed myself to change capitalization and punctuation. But no, no language.

Michael: The poem spans several pages, many of which look like Alyssa took white out to most of Lucas's paper. The few scattered words left behind tell their own story.

Alyssa: His is longer. [all laugh] Mine has a lot of whitespace. There's small phrases, words and phrases sort of pasted across the page, separated by large gaps.

Michael: We asked if she'd read an excerpt for us.

Alyssa: Here we go. [subtle synth music plays] "We acknowledge that scale and size are efforts to avoid division by zero, to minimize the error of man made structures, julian date, observer bias, train tracks. And finally, we acknowledge that our ability to identify patterns has been extremely null, especially in centuries made of days."

Michael: This isn't the only piece Alyssa has written about pika, and she'll read a short story for us later in the episode.

Michael: [to Lucas] Lucas, are you much of a writer?

Lucas: No. As you can tell from the title of the paper that they used. [all laughing]

Michael: The two of them approach this topic from such different vantage points, but each helps the other see their own work in a new light.

Alyssa: It's the absolute best thing in the world to have him around and to have his very different perspective sort of constantly there. There are times when he'll sort of drop a piece of knowledge that he has that I'm like, "You knew this thing all along and you haven't told this to me yet?!" Like this amazing sort of biological factoid that you have just been sitting on for years.

Lucas: It's exciting. It's like new perspectives on life and interactions and networks, and it can kind of sort of reinvigorate my interest in my own investigations and science that I'm doing, think about things in new ways, and I think that can help your science be better science. As a scientist who part of my work is looking at the effects of climate change, and it can sometimes seem like, you know, you're writing your notes in your diary as the Titanic is going down. About, you know, just how big the hole is and what caused it and all these things. Art has opportunity to be much more impactful.

Michael: Alyssa and Lucas are both driven by a concern for pika, as these little potato shaped animals grapple with climate change. And each of them approach their work with scale in mind, knowing that their results, whether in research or creative writing, are driven by the scope of their project.

Lucas: And so, you know, it really depends on how much you're zooming in or out, what it is you're observing, and what types of questions you're asking.

Michael: Alyssa mentioned this specifically with her cut up poem.

Alyssa: One reason I wanted to try this was to think about what it might-- since I'm interested in scales of space and time, so what happens when you zoom really far out or really far in? And so I wanted to try doing that to a paper. What would a zoomed out version of this paper look like?

Michael: So to understand the threat climate change poses to pika, I wanted to start with the big picture. We know what pika are, but what are their lives look like? [to Lucas] On a social level, Why do you think pika are so endearing to people?

Lucas: Why are pikas so cute? You know, humans seem to really like baby animals, and I feel like pikas, when they're fully grown adults, still seem like they're little babies. So that's [laughing] that's my analysis. And they're mammals, so they're fluffy.

Alyssa: I think people also like this image that they are hard working. They work all summer to collect this hay and to store it. Um, and that seems industrious to us. It seems like they they really, you know, deserve to survive the winter if they work that hard. I think it's easy to kind of attach that-- that meaning onto them as well.

Michael: That industriousness Alyssa mentioned? They have to do so much work gathering hay all summer because they don't hibernate over the winter, like so many other mammals here.

Lucas: They are going to stay awake and survive in other ways during the winter, unlike rodents who love to just sleep, you know, two thirds of their lives, which is a pretty cool approach too. Pikas, since they can't hibernate, have to collect food to make it through the winter. And so that's what a haypile -- that's the primary purpose of a haypile is they'll collect vegetation, store it, usually under a sort of a big airy rock where it can dry out, and then presumably just hang out underneath the snow, which is really good insulation, and eat their haypile during the winter.

Michael: [to Lucas] Yeah. One way I've heard it described as an analogy to try to communicate how much food pika are setting aside is that if they were as big as we were, they would be collecting the equivalent of several school buses worth of food every year.

Lucas: Right.

Michael: If you see pika frolicking through rocky hillsides, it's usually because they're collecting plants to eat or trying to pillage their neighbors hay piles, despite the fact that they're related to most of their neighbors. If you hear them make their telltale "eep," it's a predator response.

Lucas: So I mentioned, you know, the kindly pika neighbor that warns they're cousins and mom and dad and other relatives that live nearby by eeping. But the problem with eeping is that that alerts the predator to your individual presence. So you're really endangering yourself by warning your neighbors. So a pretty altruistic move. But there's been studies where people have introduced like images and stuffed predators to see how pikas respond. And most often the one predator that they did not eep in the presence of was the weasel.

Michael: [to Lucas] Hmm.

Lucas: And so the thought there is that weasels are such good predators on pikas that it's not worth eeping, because it's going to get you. [bpth laugh]

Michael: But besides being cute, busy, and altruistic pika are known for being extremely sensitive to heat.

Lucas: Yeah, pikas just can't handle getting warmed up very well. The thought then is well, pikas will avoid being active above the rocks when it's hot outside because it'll cause them to overheat. And if that is the case for much of the summer, then they might not be able to collect enough vegetation to survive the winter under the talus for their haypile.

Michael: Around the time of Lucas's first study, researchers observed pika elsewhere in the U.S. were disappearing at lower, warmer elevations.

Lucas: And so that was one of the initial kind of alarm bells saying, hey, perhaps there's some impacts here of temperature on pikas.

Michael: [to Lucas] So pika have a really limited ability to thermoregulate like we can sweat when we're hot, dogs can pant, but pikas have to live in an environment that can keep them cool. So higher elevations or staying under the rocks when it's hot outside. And changes to the temperature outside could affect where they're actually able to live, right?

Lucas: Yes.

Alyssa: I would add that they are considered ecosystem sentinels, meaning that they can sort of indicate the status of an ecosystem affected by climate change. Temperatures get above a certain level, I think, lucas It might be 68 degrees?

Lucas: Yeah.

Alyssa: A pika is going to begin to experience physiological stress. And also if it gets too cold in the winter due to, for instance, a decreased snowpack in the mountains caused by climate change, then the pikas don't have enough insulation when they're under the rocks. And so they can also die of cold. And so thinking of pikas as ecosystem sentinels, it's been interesting for me because that means that they're not only an animal to study, they are like a metric, like mercury in a thermometer. And so they're a way of reading an environment as well.

Michael: I've always thought of science as a tool of illumination. Lucas's research is like turning the light on in a dark room by taking a census of pikas in Glacier. He'll reveal how they're doing, shining a light on the big picture. But when you zoom in and look closely, there are still places that light doesn't reach. [synth beat begins to play]

Alyssa: It's pretty easy to begin to forget what your object of study is. I mean, you're engaged in these sort of daily routines of surveying and, you know, looking for these signs and following these procedures. And at least I found myself, like, forgetting that there is an actual sort of living being somewhere on the end of of this data.

Michael: From a professional academic distance, the consequences of pika decline can feel abstract. Reading scientific papers that quantify their demise, my first thought is that one day I might not be able to see them anymore. Not the difficult reality of what happens to a pika who can't take the heat.

Alyssa: And so, yeah, I do hope that that is something that art can bring to the table. [synth beat finishes playing]

Michael: Alyssa channeled these thoughts into a short story called Detection Probability, which I asked her to read for us.

Alyssa: All right. Detection Probability. The day before they declare their love, he takes her up a mountain. They are looking for Ochotona princeps, the American pika, which he conducted research on years ago, before his grant ran out and his postdoc ended and he took the job here, teaching section after section of freshman biology. She wants to see a pika very badly, because she is in that stage of the relationship where she is hungry to lay claim on all that happened to him before she entered his life, desperate to be able to imagine his life in all its distant invisible weaving, right up until the point it crisscrossed her own. She is twenty-nine and he is thirty-three and she thinks of the many years they existed on this earth simultaneously but without each other, traveling their untouching paths. It is difficult to give reality to his life before her, difficult to infuse it with solidity. The other night, in bed, she flipped through an entire photo album while he poured her bourbon and fed her spoonfuls of chocolate ice cream and she said, Who is this? Where is this? What year is this? Now, on the mountain, he says: “Look in the shady spaces under rocks. And keep an eye out for hay piles.” They climb over talus in the sun. They are at an elevation of 8,000 feet, on a south-facing slope in the American west. Near them but out of sight are several ground squirrels, one hoary marmot, a black rosy finch, two Clark’s nutcrackers, 300,000 worker ants, fifty-seven miller moths, thirteen checkerspot butterflies, and one wary wolverine. Also nearby but out of sight are several hundred pieces of colored microplastic, a floppy hat lost long ago, an oxidized Coca Cola can, and a rotting map of the region, its pages waterlogged and warped so the contour lines ripple up in waves, rising like topography, like some ragged paper range. “I can’t see anything,” she says. Tonight, after coming down the mountain and driving through the summer dark back to town, they will lie next to each other in his bed and each will want to say the words—I love you—but they won’t. Each will want to say it but instead they’ll lie in silence trying to imagine what the other one is thinking. They’ll steal glances at each other, struck suddenly by the other’s opacity. Who is this person lying naked next to them? Who is this stranger? Is there a mouth behind those lips, are there eyes behind those lids, are there organs below the skin of this stomach? And they will feel suddenly that the months they’ve known each other are nothing, nothing at all, that this person still remains dark and impenetrable as the interior of a mountain. And they will fall asleep this way and dream strange dreams which in the morning they will pretend they have forgotten. All of this will happen but not yet. “I can’t see anything,” she says. “I’ve seen them here before,” he says. The pika they are looking for is in fact on the far side of the mountain, three thousand feet higher up. The sun is hot, hot, hot these days and the alpine air is thin and ragged with the heat. The pikas are migrating higher and higher to survive. He knows this is the case elsewhere but for some reason he doesn’t think about it happening here. They continue looking under the same rocks. Three thousand feet above them, a pika carries a mouthful of vegetation back to its hay pile, which lies drying in the sun. A stockpile for winter. When temperatures drop, the pika will burrow underground to be insulated by snow, emerging only to retrieve its secret hay. But this year the winter will be warm. There will be very little snow, and the paradox of this is that there will not be enough insulation to protect the pika. Huddled underground it will grow still, then even stiller, then turn to a corpse from the cold. The hay will go soggy in the warm and early spring, will begin its years of slow decay. All of this will happen but not yet. “We might be too low down,” he admits. He’s explained to her about pikas’ sensitivity to climate, their migration to higher elevations. The problem, he said, is that mountains are cone shaped. The higher up you go, the less space you have. She imagined all the plants and animals of the alpine ecosystem being drawn upward as if by a magnet, growing increasingly condensed, until they reached the peak and ran out of room. She imagined them clustered there at the top, tangled up in each other, fur and leaf and blossom and wing, and then she imagined them lifting off the mountain, rising up off the earth, streaming into the air and away. A kite string of flora and fauna, floating higher and higher, piercing the atmosphere, scattering into space. “I’m sorry we didn’t see any,” she says as they climb back into the car and head for home. “Next time,” he says. The sun is sinking in an orange flare. “Tell me again about your summer of research,” she says. He tells her. She tries to imagine it. The sun sets and now it is night. Alyssa: This is fiction, just so everyone knows.

Michael: [to Alyssa] Okay. [all laughing]

Alyssa: This is clearly not us at all. [synth beat plays to mark a transition]

Michael: We often turn to art to see the world from a new perspective. And Alyssa's story challenges common thinking that the best way to comprehend something is from a bird's eye view -- at an almost impersonal distance. But by blending the fates of pika and the people studying them, Alyssa closes that gap.

Alyssa: The real shared thread is the limits of knowledge. Whether we're trying to know another person, or trying to know a nonhuman species who hides beneath rocks. We are always limited in our ability to know the other, and we have to rely on imagination to know anyone or anything. And so the characters in this piece, they are unable to access the pika because climate change is messing things up. And so it's not that the world doesn't quite work the way that they've learned it works, and they are also, to an extent, unable to access each other even as they are falling in love. There is this perpetual distance that they are aware of and trying to crack open, and that that sort of dark center that lies at the core of of all things essentially is the connection between the two.

Michael: Science tells me often and in painful detail about waves of heat crashing around the pikas' shrinking mountain islands. Despite that, the pikas' suffering is invisible to me. I hear them eep as I hike up the mountain. And maybe someday I won't anymore. Alyssa's story lingers on moments that research often seems to ignore. Describing the suffering felt by pika that's implied by these studies, but that's easier to look away from -- applying what we've learned through research to a story that's personal, intimate, even. In the end, Lucas and Alyssa suggest that truly understanding what's in store for Glacier's pika, or reckoning with the impact of climate change on any living thing, demands searching for the story beyond your experience -- asking how the big picture is felt on a small scale, and using science and creativity in tandem.

Alyssa: It's been said by many people that the climate crisis is in part a crisis of the imagination. We lack the capacity to think long term. We lack the capacity even to think to next week, let alone decades from now. So again, these questions of scale that we are not particularly good at conceptualizing. And so I think that literature and hopefully, you know, innovative literature, literature that's trying new things, can help us to strengthen those imaginative capacities. I don't want to put too much on the back of literature. [chuckles] That's a lot to do to save the world. I think there's other smaller things that it does, too, such as just articulating the griefs that a lot of us are feeling right now. [somber synth music begins to play] Navigating a world where we see so many things we love falling away and just giving voice to that experience, I think is also a valuable task that that fiction can accomplish. [synth beat continues to play]

Peri Sasnett: Headwaters is a production of Glacier National Park and is supported by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. We could not make the show without them. You can learn more about what they do at Glacier.org. Headwaters is made possible with help from Lacy Kowalski, Melissa Sladek and so many people throughout the Glacier community, especially the natural and cultural resource teams. We're grateful for all of you. Our music this season is by the brilliant Frank Waln. The show's cover art is by our sweet friend Stella Nall. Check out Frank and Stella's work at the links in our show notes. Special thanks this episode to Lucas Moyer-Horner and Alyssa Quinn, along with Kylie Caesar and the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center, for introducing us to their work. Besides sharing this episode with a friend who might appreciate it, you can help us out by leaving us a rating and review in your podcast app. Thanks for listening.

The cutest animal in Glacier may be at risk of disappearing, but it's hard to study an animal that lives under rocks, high in the mountains. How can we understand the hidden parts of the world around us?

Headwaters is created by Daniel Lombardi, Michael Faist, Gaby Eseverri, and Peri Sasnett.

Glacier Conservancy: https://glacier.org/headwaters Frank Waln music: https://www.instagram.com/frankwaln/ Stella Nall art: https://www.instagram.com/stella.nall/

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