My Journey in Minnesota Valley My Journey in Minnesota Valley
06 October 2022

My Journey in Minnesota Valley

Written by: Gonzalo Ayala

  Hello all, I hope this article finds you in good health. My name is Gonzalo Ayala, and I am currently a wildland firefighter intern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Region 3, Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. I am originally from Livingston, California, located in the San Joaquin Valley, two hours south of Sacramento. I am entering my 4th year at Cal Poly Humboldt, formally known as Humboldt State, majoring in Wildlife Conservation and Management. I have experience working with rehabilitating wildlife, working on community science programs, and assisting college professors in research works. I consider my internship a distinctive experience as it allowed me to interact with an influential U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge and staff that enjoy sharing their knowledge and work completed in the Service. I also have the opportunity to shadow the staff members to view the daily life of, say,  a biologist, fire technician, or refuge maintenance worker. I have been able to participate and create a helpful experience that can assist me in pursuing my goal of educating the public of the United States of America on how we can help conserve our ecosystems and maintain them for the benefit of our future.


  My first week of the internship marks a new journey in adjusting to a new time zone and learning about birds and mammals unfamiliar to me on the western coast of California. One of the perks of working with the refuge is the opportunity to be housed within a unit called Rapids Lake. This bunkhouse is located within an oak savanna ecosystem and consistently witnesses wildlife in a natural habitat, such as Barn Swallow, Killdeer, White-tailed Deer, Bald Eagle, and a variety of songbirds. An intro week was held by the internship coordinator and staff of Minnesota Valley to get to know the history of the refuge, along with the Native American history that was once present throughout the state of Minnesota. I was invited to join a staff event to get to know the neglected history of the Dakota people and the various Indigenous tribes around present-day Minnesota while learning and visiting cultural sites around the Twin Cities. I got to understand the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mission statement along with the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge mission statement and I was able to compare the differences and similarities between the mottos that make Minnesota Valley a unique experience as an urban refuge. Along with working in “The State with a 1000 Lakes”, a fun lake day was provided to learn or review how to kayak and canoe under supervision and performed rescue activities for training purposes. The first week was full of training essential to completing tasks on the internship that needed to be completed daily.  


  My experience started off working with the fire program under Ryan Williams, a Fire Technician, and Dan Paulson, a Fire Management Officer. Under both, I learned the basic understanding of wildland firefighting, such as the basic terminology and strategies to combat fire with fire, the various chains of command, and the ins and outs to be successful in tackling wildfires. I was also given tools like an Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) that supply a healthy amount of field reminders like the 18 Watch Out Situations that can always be used as a support system while battling a fire, as well as the Incident Management Situation Report (SIT report), which help share and organize nationwide fire conditions and highlight the areas that are in greater need of fire fighting resources. I was able to help clean and maintain specific fire fighting vehicles like a Canycom and wildland fire engines as well as tools like the Pulaski ax and a combi tool. Minnesota Valley (MV) has acquired the unique skill of using fire as a management tool for its various refuge sites. While fire has been a natural occurrence, the Native Americans were able to control and operate the fire as a tool to manage land for the benefit of ecological diversity. MV still uses this tool to increase the population of native plants such as Butterfly Milkweed, Prairie Larkspur, and Large-flowered Beardtongue while eliminating invasive plants that provide no benefit in creating a native prairie within the oak savannah.


  I next transitioned to work with the Maintenance staff on projects such as trail and refuge maintenance. The Maintenance team is tasked with the general functional checks, servicing, repairing, or replacing necessary devices, equipment, and machinery used by all refuge personnel and staff employed at Minnesota Valley. As well as being tasked with building and supporting utilities in Minnesota Valley refuge facilities, the team has expert knowledge of power tools and heavy-duty machinery such as industrial backhoes, skid steers, and dump trucks. Their skills are crucial to upkeep the refuge property and the projects being completed on refuge land. One project I assisted on was removing a ditch below a flood-prone refuge trail thanks to beavers manipulating tree limbs and interrupting the stream to the river. The ditch was a staff-thought idea, completed and maintained by the staff that served its purpose to be used as drainage but was spoiled by ecological engineers like beavers and muskrats that blocked the waterway leading to flooding of the trail. Once finished, we re-leveled the affected trail with gravel that has a specific size pebble that can assist in grip purposes and included covering an exposed area of geo grid structures to support the pond's soil structure. Another project I helped on was fixing refuge signage, the job was taking into consideration county road regulations while also maintaining proper signage leveling and placement to refuge property. I enjoyed working with the Maintenance staff as it reminded me of the small stuff needed to complete the bigger picture.


  This experience has just begun and I am excited to be able to bring it back to my local community and implement it in an adapted format. An internship such as this one allows me to expand my thinking and take learned experiences to become a much better critical thinker, coming up with different techniques and ideas that are more efficient in the circles I will interact with. In the coming weeks, I will begin working with the Biology team on Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) land, Minnesota Valley FWS, and private land, Minnesota Valley Trust. Along with learning about new ecosystems with new plants, insects, mammals, and birds, I am excited for this portion of the internship as I will be working with biologists attempting to recreate a native landscape to benefit the American people.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Location: Minnesota Valley NWR

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