Working in the Age of Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a seismic shift in the way many of us go about our daily activities and engage with our work environment. For GBI, the coronavirus outbreak resulted in a suspension of most field activities and an increase in work-from-home. In order to provide a good picture of how various operations have been affected by the pandemic, we reached out to our field personnel. We are proud to present their brief narratives, and even prouder to have such dedicated and adaptable people keeping GBI up and running.

Mariah Walzer, Research Associate, Death Valley National Park

What do you do with an archaeologist who isn’t allowed to play in the dirt anymore? According to Tumblr, you could let them destroy your yard looking for buried treasure in suburbia, create a sandbox scavenger hunt, or shatter a teacup and let them put it back together. The reality is even less glamorous: paperwork. Archaeology, especially archaeology for the National Parks, is a lot of paperwork, even outside of a global pandemic. But in normal times, you do some preliminary paperwork, go out in the field, and then come back to the computer and write your reports. Without the ability to safely work in the often remote, desert lands of Death Valley National Park in these times of COVID-19, my job became about reviewing the potential of research permit requests and park maintenance projects to affect archaeological resources. These reviews involved searching GIS databases for known sites and previous surveys in the area, researching the history of the area, puzzling out engineering terminology in project descriptions to understand what exactly will be done, writing evaluations, and leaving blank spaces when fieldwork is required. I went from ten hours a day out-of-doors to ten hours a day sitting on my couch with my laptop. (As I’m sure many of you also learned, there is only so long you can sit on a couch and be comfortable. Many interesting work set-ups were experimented with, most of them not approved as “ergonomically sound.”) As much as I knew that the work I was doing was still important, I have to admit that breaking the teacup sounded like a pretty good alternative some days.  

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Angie Piccolo, Research Associate, Archives Technician, Zion National Park

As an archives technician, the COVID-19 suspension of field activities made work difficult, but not impossible. The projects I work on are physically located in the office, but I was able to bring materials home and complete tasks while teleworking part-time. My coworkers and I cleaned the office daily and staggered our work schedules to maintain social distancing. This made for a very quiet, yet very productive work environment. Finally, our team communicated through conference calls and Zoom meetings to stay updated on projects and to just check-in with each other.

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Traver Detras, Research Associate, Biological Science Technician and Restoration Intern, Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge

Photo courtesy of Traver Detras

I’ve worked at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge seasonally through the Great Basin Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 2016 as a biological science technician and restoration intern. Most of my regular duties are physical in nature, occur outdoors in the field, or typically involve operating equipment such as ATVs and tractors. As such, my job rarely puts me in close physical contact with others except for my immediate coworkers and volunteers. I was placed under a two week quarantine upon beginning my term and kept at least a six-foot perimeter from others. In the past, our team would meet for weekly meetings but these gatherings have been indefinitely postponed. We also avoid sharing vehicles or work spaces. I also share living quarters with a coworker and we occupy separate sides of the structure and avoid using the common area concurrently and clean and disinfect after using common areas. We will be doing a bird banding project at Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge starting in June and this necessitates a team of 3-7 people to assemble on a weekly basis. In the past we’d shared vehicles and been in close physical contact but this year we will not share vehicles and will wear N95 masks when in close contact.

Overall, because I so frequently work alone, much of my work remains unchanged from the past but all of us at the refuge have made changes in our daily behavior to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

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Jake Weinberger, AmeriCorps Member, Naturalist/Environmental Educator, Galena Creek Visitor Center

Prior to COVID-19, I worked with my co-workers to understand and mock teach several Spring Break camp lessons dealing with environmental education. Once we learned that Spring Break camp was canceled due to COVID-19, we shifted gears and began writing new curricula/lesson plans for the upcoming summer camp as well as adapting existing lessons into online lessons for kids at home. We had worked on this task for a few weeks before being furloughed for another few weeks. After we received word that summer camp was canceled, and with the small business loan, we are now back to work and in the process of creating environmental education-based activities for the new camp-in-a-box program!

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Photo courtesy of Amber Laird

Amber Laird, Research Associate, Restoration Technician, Death Valley National Park

Before field exemptions were granted, I used my time teleworking to set forth and create new relationships with other parks that also had an interest in the prevention and restoration of illegal off-road driving disturbances.  Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park OHV program participants now meet on a regular basis to discuss goals, ideas and progress – on a conference line, of course.

Following granted permissions, I began fieldwork again.  I spend my time in the field monitoring Death Valley for illegal off-road vehicular disturbances.  I normally do this job individually and do not have to worry much about other human interactions.  However, with no one else in the park it sure is eerie!  Also, I now use a pump of hand sanitizer after the opening of each locked gate.  You can’t be too safe!

Additionally, the ecology team at Death Valley now holds meetings at the Furnace Creek Golf Course in order to maintain social distancing.  These walks facilitate the sharing of work plans, with some bird-watching on the side.  I vote that these meetings remain in place when the pandemic is over.

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Gabe LeMay, Research Associate, Bryce Canyon National Park

Fortunately, COVID-19 has so far only caused slight disruptions to my work at Bryce Canyon National Park. Not long after the GBI field work suspension, the park itself also closed to visitors. However, because a large part of my responsibilities concern the creation of an integrated pest management (IPM) plan, I was able to get a decent amount of work done remotely from my residence in the park. Research and writing were my main aims until I received a suspension exemption waiver, at which point I was also able to assist in IPM field work around the park, which was slightly surreal with no visitors milling around.

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Kristin Forgrave, Research Associate, Death Valley National Park

My work changed for about a month and a half as I was teleworking and not in the field, so my main springtime plant monitoring was cancelled because it’s season dependent (and is too hot to do now). I ended up working with another division in the park to make a plant ID guide booklet for visitors instead, which I could work on from home. After being approved for field exemptions I was able to work in the field again which hasn’t been too different from before, except for when working with other people. We’ve all had to drive separately to maintain proper distance.

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Katie Guttman, Research Associate, Lake Mead

Over the last few months, the way I worked changed drastically. As the caretaker of a national park’s museum collections, I was one of the last people in my department to begin working from home. When the park instituted work from home, I had to come up with new and innovative ways to complete my tasks. Most of the work I do while in the office involves handling physical archives and artifacts, but I took this opportunity to clean up and familiarize myself with our digital archives. Working from home was hard, but I’m glad I got to work on a project that would normally be pushed to the back-burner.

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Photo of Samantha Wynns courtesy of NPS/Robert K. Sharp

Samantha Wynns, Research Associate, Science Education Technician, Cabrillo National Monument

In February of this year I had the honor of becoming a new hiree by GBI as a Science Education Specialist for the National Park Service at Cabrillo National Monument. Cabrillo’s science education programming was almost fully booked with hundreds of students anticipating a field trip to the monument. And then COVID-19 disrupted all of that: field trips and public programs were cancelled; schools and the park were closed. This has been a challenging time for all, and for me in large part because I could no longer execute the job I was hired to do, in the fashion I was hired to do it.

Suddenly, I found myself working from home just as parents were faced with the abruptness of school closures. Recognizing the need for relevant, educational content that students could access virtually, I quickly pivoted to online engagement: I converted several in-person programs to a virtual format and built some new curricula. By partnering with organizations such as Nepris, who connects classrooms to professionals, I was able to offer these standardized curricula to students in dozens of classrooms from 15 different states. I was also able to serve local schools and reached out to all those with cancelled field trips to offer virtual engagement instead. Public engagement at the park shifted to Facebook Live events and social media posts, and all of those “maybe someday…” projects on the back burner, such as curriculum development and grant proposals, could finally be tackled.

We have a saying in the Science Education Department at Cabrillo, “Keep calm and adapt on”. This period of constant change and uncertainty has allowed me to practice our creed with gratitude for the support of my Chief and GBI.

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Emily Hassell, Research Associate, Lead Social Media Technician, Joshua Tree National Park

As a predominantly office-based role, social media work at Joshua Tree maintained some semblance of normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, one crucial element to high-quality media posts proved difficult: photography. It was a challenge at first to gain permission and establish protocols for photography fieldwork. Our protocols included contacting our Incident Command Leader to be included on the park-wide Incident Action Plan the week before fieldwork was to take place, checking in with multiple park partners and fellow GBIs before and after leaving the park, taking personal vehicles, working alone or with members of our households, and continually checking for signs and symptoms. All in all, our work hasn’t changed much, but the focus of our social media messaging has shifted to include safety and health practices.

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Katy Meyer, Research Associate, OHV Restoration Coordinator, Joshua Tree National Park

This season at Joshua Tree NP the Damage Mitigation Team was formed to quickly address human-caused damage to the desert environment within the park. As a pilot program we needed a fair amount of office time to strategize, create orientation documents for future groups, and establish roles and responsibilities for each GBI and NPS crew member. While the suspension of field activities put a halt on fieldwork during our last bit of good weather for the season, it allowed the team to refocus and do this administrative work. In the long run that will be really helpful for the Park and future crews. We were still able to get out in the park recently and put in 50 wood posts, and I later went back and strung 1500 feet of cable to nearly finish up a road-delineation and Wilderness protection barrier so…we’re still meeting fieldwork goals. Now fieldwork just comes with masks, social distancing, and a little extra sweat now that it’s heating up.

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Vance Imhoff, Research Associate, Ecological Restoration Specialist, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge; Fisheries Technician, Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office (Las Vegas)

I currently split time between Ash Meadows NWR (AMNWR) and Ecological Services (ES) at the Southern Nevada Fish and Wildlife Office. At Ash Meadows I’m an Ecological Restoration Specialist (ERS) and with ES I’m a Fisheries Technician (FT). Prior to the Covid-19 shutdown my work with USFWS was varied. As an ERS, I remove invasive plant and animal species from the refuge, I restore areas with native plants, and I help with any maintenance or project work that comes up. Just before teleworking began, I recently helped put up some exclosures to test whether herbivory is contributing to the decline in Ash Meadows blazing star (Mentzelia leucophylla). After teleworking, I helped write a grant targeting invasive species using preventative measures as well as removal and replacement. This $25,000 grant has been funded and as part of it, the refuge will be receiving a concrete wash pad, a power washer, and a significant amount of funds to have Song Dog Nursery grow out some native plants for AMNWR. Working on the refuge is very hands on, so teleworking did significantly change my responsibilities.

Working for ES has largely stayed the same, except that I would be doing a little more field work now, as temperatures are rising. Last year I worked on Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly surveys along with many different threatened and endangered fish surveys. Recently, I’ve been helping with Section 7 formal consultations from agency partners. ES reviews any actions (new construction or maintenance) that may affect listed species. This part of my job changed less, but it has been challenging at times due to teleworking. It is harder reaching out to coworkers with questions when you are working from home, but with email, chat, and video chat, things have been going rather smoothly.

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Sarah Kapel, Research Associate, Spring Mountain National Recreation Area

I have been very lucky to transition the majority of my work from the office and in the field to working from home.  Before, my job typically involved overseeing NCC crews and volunteer groups on various restoration projects coordinated with the US Forest Service.  However, with the suspension of field work, those restoration projects have had to be to put on hold, freeing up time for other projects to be completed.  The majority of my work during the field work suspension consisted of working from home, completing tasks that had been put on the back burner for quite some time.  For example, I have gone through inventory of what seed is available to the Spring Mountains and some of that seed hasn’t been organized in decades.   I was also very grateful to get permission to do limited field work to conduct biological monitoring for the US Forest Service.  This work was considered essential as it was time sensitive to monitor before the endangered butterfly flight season.  With biological monitoring, my job was to educate construction crews on site to avoid endangered butterfly larval hosts, as stepping on these plants can impact the endangered butterfly.  I am very anxious to get back into the field and do the work I love, but I am even more grateful to be able to do it safely.

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Jessica Samuelson, Research Associate, Visitor Services Specialist, Pahranagat and Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuges

Still from one of Jessica Samuelson’s nature journal videos

The last few months have definitely changed my “typical” work day. I am part of GBI’s RA program as a visitor services specialist at the Pahranagat and Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuges in Southern Nevada. Before COVID-19, my job involved running the visitor center, developing and presenting educational programs to students and the public, and managing the refuge volunteers. Around mid-March, the visitor center closed, schools went virtual, and my volunteers suddenly had nothing to do. Since the public was no longer able to come to the refuge, we decided to use our Facebook page to reach out to the public. During April and part of May, the page hosted “Sunset Saturdays” through a live video of the sun setting somewhere over the refuge. I also created a series of nature journal videos to help people investigate the natural world in their own backyards.

Luckily, my volunteers were real troopers. Though they obviously could no longer welcome people the visitor center, they assisted by pulling weeds along trails, answering and returning phone calls, and addressing whatever other projects came up.

Now that Nevada is beginning to open up again, a lot of my focus has turned to ways that we can welcome the public back to the refuge while keeping visitors, staff, and volunteers as safe as possible.

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Sam Bellis and Laura Azzarello, Galena Creek Visitor Center Staff

To ensure our community can continue learning about science, nature, and conservation, we have created and published several distance learning lessons on our website (GalenaCreekVisitorCenter.org) for kids, and kids at heart. Many of these activities can be done inside the home and involve common household items. Each lesson plan includes the designated age range (lessons for grades K-12 available), school subjects covered, procedures and discussion questions, and additional resources for further learning. These PDF files are free for all and can be downloaded and distributed by parents, guardians, and teachers to engage students in fun, education activities while distance learning.

Furthermore, given that our typical Visitor Center programming has been halted, we are also finding ways to bring you ecology and cultural history information at home. The center has create a new blog which highlights interesting topics about wildlife, plants, cultural history, and other interesting topics. These short blog posts provide insight into the Galena area we know and love. We highlight both the online learning resources and our blog posts on our social media accounts (Facebook: Galena Creek Visitor Center; Instagram: @galenacreek). Follow both to stay up-to-date on the Visitor Center!

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Top photo showing the Joshua Tree National Park North Entrance (Twentynine Palms) during the closure with a law enforcement ranger vehicle, April 23rd. Provided by Emily Hassell.

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