Kristen McCarty holds a mojave desert tortoise carcass at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada Kristen McCarty, a desert tortoise conservation specialist at the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, examines a juvenile tortoise carcass at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 13, 2021. McCarty supports the CEMML Las Vegas team, a team under Chris Herron’s purview as principal investigator. The Team monitors Nellis AFB and the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) for signs of Mojave Desert tortoises. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sean Hetz)

Chris Herron began his academic career at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington as an Environmental Studies major. He later transferred to Colorado State University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in Rangeland Ecology, Rangeland and Forest Management, then a master’s in Rangeland Ecosystem Science, Restoration Ecology from CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. Chris is now a principal investigator with CSU’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML), where he oversees large-scale environmental projects for the Department of Defense (DoD) in Louisiana, Nevada, California, and elsewhere. He recently celebrated 12 years at CEMML.

CEMML: Tell me about your background. Were you always interested in environmental work?

HERRON: It goes back to some of my earliest childhood memories. I just liked being in the outdoors from a very young age. I remember growing up in Pennsylvania and going on hikes with my grandparents around the water treatment plant where my grandfather was an engineer. We’d pick blackberries and then come home and make blackberry pie with my grandmother.

I did a College for Kids course in aquatic ecology when I was in elementary school. I just remember being fascinated by the ecology of wetlands and finding tadpoles and salamanders. Growing up, I spent a lot of time hiking, rock climbing, backpacking, things like that.

CEMML: How did that early passion factor into your choice of colleges and what you wanted to study?

As part of his early role with CEMML, Herron installs a thermocouple sensor at US Army Hawaii Garrison to measure soil heat flux during a prescribed burn. The data collection was part of the development process for a new wildland fire fuel model in support of fire management on the garrison’s training lands. (Photo from the CEMML Archive)

HERRON: I decided to go to The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. It was a tremendous experience, with a lot of time in the field, and I really enjoyed it. But it wasn’t the right fit for me at that time and I ended up coming to CSU.

When I got to CSU, I knew I wanted to stick with ecology and natural resources. I was really interested in forests, so the rangeland and forest management double concentration appealed to me. I had the opportunity to study plants in rangeland ecosystems, shrublands, forests, woodlands, the whole gamut.

One of my first experiences there was working for CSU’s Fire Ecology Lab in 2005. I then joined Mark Paschke‘s Restoration Ecology Lab in 2007 and did my Master’s degree from 2007 to 2010. I studied the restoration of rangelands after wildfires, looking specifically at seed mixes to combat cheatgrass (a highly flammable, invasive grass) with native annual species.

CEMML: How was the transition from graduate school to CEMML?

HERRON: I knew at the time that I really wanted to be doing field work. That was always my passion. I had zero interest in being in the office. When I was wrapping up my master’s degree, I was looking for opportunities and my wife and I were just about to have our first child. So, I needed a job, and it needed to be a somewhat decent job.

I was fortunate to find an opportunity with CEMML under Andy Beavers. He was hiring for a wildland fire management assistant. It was a student hourly position. I put together a resume and walked it over to his office. We ended up doing an impromptu interview while I was there. It felt like a good connection and a good fit. Not long afterwards he offered me the position.

I worked in that student hourly position for several months until he was able to hire me full-time. I worked with Andy steadily on wildland fire projects, doing quite a bit of statistics work and data wrangling for the first 2 or 3 years. Then I started to work with other principal investigators on different projects. My plant identification, data analysis, and technical writing background really came in handy.

I started to do more field work—classifying and mapping vegetation. I got to go up to Alaska and do some stormwater assessments and some snowmelt water quality projects, which was really interesting. I went to Hawaii to do some stormwater assessment projects. It really helped me expand beyond my initial education and experience.

CEMML: Was there a particular vision that you had for your career as you were obtaining your degrees at CSU? If so, how did that vision evolve?

Top photo: CEMML Biologist Chris Melder drills an artificial nesting cavity for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker at Fort Polk, Louisiana. (Photo by Kirk Gardner) Bottom Photo: Baby woodpeckers are banded to track their numbers. (Photo by Chris Melder)

Red-cockaded woodpecker management is one of several endangered species projects Herron oversees at CEMML.

HERRON: I remember thinking when I was in my master’s program that I wanted to start my own restoration ecology consulting firm. But I realized that I really wasn’t interested in the amount of regulatory work that was involved. I just wanted to be out in the field. At that point, I thought I could be perfectly happy as a wandering field tech for my entire life.

But as we get older, things change and our perspectives and our needs change as well. Of course, with my family, I realized that I had some other needs. Early in my time with CEMML, I did start my own nonprofit as a side project, which I ran for about 3 years, doing various volunteer projects within the Fort Collins and Larimer County area. I was able to use that experience to help advance my career within CEMML.

I started to ask for more responsibility, managing projects, seeking out new opportunities and writing proposals, which eventually led me into the principal investigator role starting in 2017.

CEMML: Can you speak to some of the unique opportunities or interesting projects that your work with CEMML has provided?

HERRON: When I started as a principal investigator, I did a lot of work in Louisiana and the broader Southeast as well as out West. That experience led me to managing three large primary projects, at Vandenberg Space Force Base in central California, Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Test and Training Range in Las Vegas, and Fort Polk in Louisiana.

Each of those three projects is interesting and stimulating for different reasons. The DoD is required to manage their lands just like any other federal entity. They must follow the same rules and regulations as any other federal land agency, and they do a very good job of managing their resources. They work directly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.

But what’s most exciting about working with the DoD on their lands is that very few people get to see those landscapes. We think about wilderness as being this pristine, untouched area, and that’s true. However, DoD lands are maybe even more that way, especially if they’re on very large installations. Yes, they have training missions, but there’s a lot of areas where training doesn’t take place, and those areas remain relatively untouched. They become hot spots for biodiversity. They become important habitat for threatened and endangered species.

These lands provide an amazing opportunity to go out and see things that other natural resources professionals and other people never get the chance to.

CEMML: What’s a challenge that is specific to working with the DoD?

HERRON: The number one challenge that I deal with is scheduling time to get out into the field, because the military mission will always come first. We must work within the confines of their training schedule and their rotations and things like that.

There are also clearances required to get onto some of the training ranges. You can’t just go out and say, well, tomorrow I’m going to go do this, or next Monday we’ll conduct a survey over here. Whatever you intend to do, you must plan it well in advance. That’s very different from access to other federal lands.

CEMML: Speaking of differences, can you talk a bit about how CEMML’s funding works and how that is different than a typical grant as part of a university research project?

HERRON: Well, they’re quite similar in some ways. Principal investigators at CEMML must write proposals and put together budgets in the same way that any academic unit would. Our approaches are similar in that respect. The major difference lies in the purpose; on the academic side, you’re writing a proposal to address a question or hypothesis or a particular research need. For us, we are writing proposals to provide support, to help the DoD manage their resources. We collect data to inform management actions, whereas academic research typically seeks to go beyond that and determine why something is happening.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker conservation at Fort Polk, Louisiana
Click to learn more about CEMML’s Red-Cockaded Woodpecker conservation efforts at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

We gather data and information so we can inform the installation manager about the status of whatever flora or fauna. We don’t collect nearly as many specimens as academics do. We’re more focused on compliance overall.

But that’s not to say that we don’t have opportunities to do research. The reality is we are collecting a ton of data and information that could be used for a research project somewhere down the road. I don’t see what CEMML does and what the academic community does as completely separate. I see them as running in parallel. In some instances, there are opportunities to reach across and pluck information out for a research project.

CEMML: Some of your projects require seasonal hiring. Can you describe your seasonal hiring needs as a principal investigator and what some of those opportunities look like?

HERRON: We do hire quite a few seasonal employees throughout the year. Seasonal hiring is based on the location. For example, on the Central Coast of California, our seasonal positions start in early March, to support a snowy plover project. Employees interact with the public where the beaches are closed due to nesting. In other places, the season might be May through October. The seasonal positions really vary depending on where they’re located and what type of flora or fauna you’re managing.

Resources for Students & Recent Graduates

Click the link for early-career job and mentorship opportunities and information about CEMML’s Military Lands Management Graduate Certificate Program

CEMML: What kind of characteristics are you looking for in somebody to take on those roles?

HERRON: When I hire seasonal people for field work, I’m really looking for people who have shown an interest in being outside, hiking or birding or something like that. Almost all this work is outdoors, so you’ve got to be comfortable with that. I do look to see if someone has prior experience, but that’s not always the most important thing. Nor do these positions necessarily require a degree in environmental sciences. But I love to find people who do have that kind of background because they tend to be more passionate about the role.

Herron’s projects also include habitat restoration work. Pictured here, CEMML staff member Mike Amato plants vegetation along a stream at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to restore habitat for the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. (Photo by: Chris Herron)

People who are capable of hiking all day and dealing with the stresses of field work are key. Sometimes the work isn’t easy. You’re working in all sorts of conditions, so finding people who are adaptable, who are excited about the work, is important. What separates the people who do well from the people who don’t is 1) being okay with sleeping in a cheap motel or camping, 2) being fine with getting dirty, and 3) being genuinely excited by the challenge of the work.

CEMML: What would your advice be to somebody who’s getting their bachelor’s or master’s degree in natural resources and looking to gain experience?

HERRON: I think that question gets at some of the most important advice that any student can get. It’s important to start getting experience and it doesn’t matter with what. I got my start in a lab, sifting soil samples, looking at biomass of roots. It was pretty mindless, but it also gave me some experience to get my feet under me. For students coming out with their bachelor’s degree, just make sure you are getting some experience, whether it’s volunteer experience  doing some bird surveys or vegetation work or trail work. It doesn’t matter. Find those seasonal tech jobs and start to build your resume.

Be prepared to start at the bottom. I remember finishing my master’s degree and applying for a number of jobs, and I just couldn’t get anything. I thought, what’s going on? I’ve got a master’s degree, I’ve got 5 years of experience. That should be a shoo-in for something. But it wasn’t. I started at the bottom with a pretty low-paying job, but I got my foot in the door, with CEMML in this case. I proved my value by working hard, by taking on whatever projects people threw at me. I was able to build my career in a way that was meaningful and met the needs of my growing family. So that’s my best advice. Make sure you get experience. Be prepared to start at the bottom and work hard. Be ready to show that you deserve more than just an entry-level position.

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