Trust Research Fellowship: A day in the life of your park researcher

Meet Ellen Frondorf – a graduate student at Bemidji State University and one of the many researchers who have utilized our park as a living laboratory thanks to support from Trust donors. Learn more about our Research Fellowships here. Ellen and her assistant spent part of their summer in Shenandoah researching the regeneration of oak and pine species after wildfires.

5:45 am the alarm goes off.

Eat breakfast, pack a lunch, grab my water bottles out of the freezer, load the gear in the car and we’re off. South on Skyline Drive we head to Brown’s Gap. We have a four mile hike in and then a one mile hike off-trail further into the wilderness. It is hot and the gnats are in full fury.  I can’t see my feet as we hike through the thick vegetated backcountry and the thought of snakes cross my mind more times than I’d like to acknowledge.

Courtney uses a densiometer to measure overstory shading. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Frondorf)

This was a typical start to my day this summer in Shenandoah National Park from late May to mid-August 2017. My assistant, Courtney, and I resided at Pinnacles Research and Stewardship Center (renovated by the Trust in 2015) as we sampled 100 plots in six previously burned areas of the park. We collected data in the hopes to elucidate information about oak and pine regeneration from last year’s Rocky Mount fire, that burned a little over 10,000 acres, back to the Rocky Top fire, that burned approximately 1,400 acres in 2002.

Shenandoah National Park is comprised of many fire-adapted oak and pine vegetation communities. Fires in the park, whether they are wildfires or prescribed burns, help create conditions favorable for the continuation of these species. Just like plants in a garden, oaks and pines grow better in certain environmental conditions. Consequently, at each plot, my assistant and I counted the individual oak and pine seedlings, along with measuring environmental factors affecting growth including shading, soil thickness, and seed source availability.

Back here at Bemidji State University, located in the north woods of Minnesota, I have started to analyze the data. As park managers have developed specific goals for oak and pine regeneration, I will share my research findings with the natural resource and fire personnel of the park so they can continue to make informed policy and management decisions.

Ellen explaining plot sampling protocols during an outing with Trust donors (Photo courtesy of Shenandoah National Park).

I am incredibly grateful for the Trust’s support throughout my project and wish to thank all the donors for enabling this necessary scientific research. I will share another update on this project as I make progress on the analysis.  Enjoy the great fall colors of Shenandoah National Park. I hope the gnats have subsided.