In Glacier, C-Falls, Whitefish students learning the GIS ropes

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Students from Whitefish float the North Fork of the Flathead recently. (Photo courtesy of Galen Jamison)

Gone are the days of student field trips in Glacier National Park where kids just romp around in the woods, looking for squirrels. Today’s field trips are about real science.

Students from Columbia Falls and Whitefish are getting some hands-on training in Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest on geographic information systems.

GIS is a data gathering and management system often used by the Park, Forest Service and a host of other private and government enterprises. It allows data from a variety of sources to be layered onto a single map.

For example, a host of Whitefish seniors, led by longtime science teacher Eric Sawtelle, recently floated the North Fork of the Flathead for three days, gathering data on the 685,000 acre watershed.

Using iPads, cell phones, and ARCGIS software, they gathered the data as they floated down one of the finest rivers in North America.

In years past, the greatest concern facing the pristine watershed was the threat of mining, noted senior Galen Jamison.

International agreements between the U.S. and Canada have largely tempered those fears, but there are still other threats, like climate change and development, he noted.

Jamison and fellow students Cole Porterfield, Lauren MacDonald, Sophie Marchetti and Emily Clark were all members of the excursion from the border to Polebridge.

Development is a big concern. Recreational housing in the North Fork has increased tenfold since from 1998 to 2008. The North Fork has been discovered. The Polebridge Ranger station saw more than 100,000 visitors pass through its gates this summer alone.

It was so crowded that the Park Service routinely closed the roads to Bowman and Kintla lakes because there was no place to park.

On their float, the students analyzed the viewshed from the river, took water quality samples, including aquatic insect data, noted where illegal campsites were and whether there were noxious weeds at them.

The river water quality was within acceptable ranges, the students noted at a recent talk in front of the public and park management staff.

The data on illegal campsites an their location was of particular interest to Park managers.

But technology aside, Mother Nature still plays a big role in the logistics of data gathering in the field, Jamison noted.

They had planned to float from the border to Big Creek, but low water and freezing temperatures had them bagging the trip at Polebridge.

They ended up dragging the rafts more than floating and their equipment kept freezing as well.

The Park first started working with Whitefish students in 2015 and Columbia Falls in 2016, noted Glacier GIS specialist Richard Menicke.

Menicke reached out to the schools as part of the Park Service’s 2016 call to action to get youths more involved in national parks.

The computers and software for the program were funded by a $18,900 Glacier Conservancy grant to Whitefish in 2015 and about $12,500 in grants to Columbia Falls in the past couple of years.

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