National Parks of the Pacific Northwest

Emma Downing

Artistic and Creative Endeavors


For my STEP signature project, I went on an amazing road trip from Seattle to San Francisco and stopped at National Parks along the way. I spoke to park rangers and naturalists to learn about the various conservation and environmental management methods used in the diverse ecosystems. Visiting Olympic National Park, Crater Lake, Mt St Helens, the Redwoods, and Point Reyes National Seashore provided a unique experience with a vast variety of habitats.

Having the opportunity to go on this trip was extremely rewarding and transformational. Not only did I gain a deeper understanding of some of the ways to preserve the environment, I developed on a personal level as well. While I was first starting to plan my STEP project, I enrolled in a field work geography class. In this class I was able to learn about trip planning resources provided by the OSU libraries along with ArcGIS to set up a route. Once I decided on a rough draft of where I would travel, it took a very long time to work out the details of exactly what I would do at each location to get the most fulfilling experiences. My organization skills rapidly developed while putting all the plans together. Once the trip commenced I began journaling, which I have never done in my life. Having a field journal along with photographs allowed me to preserve memories of my observations. Another way I changed throughout the project is that I came out of my shell in certain situations. I am usually a pretty reserved person and do not enjoy talking with strangers. However, I was determined to learn from the park rangers and naturalists so I mustered up the courage to start conversations. Once I initiated communication, I realized that it was actually really easy to talk to them because I was so interested in the subject matter.

While on the trip, I was able to see so many unique places and the organisms that lived there. Observing such natural beauty influenced me into slowing down and just taking in the scenery. Instead of stressing myself out over every minor detail like usual, I seemed to adopt the generalized west coast way of life and chilled out a bit. After all, the magnificence of some of the parks would leave anyone in an awe inspired and calm state after visiting. Having the chance to view the ecosystems and animals has given me an even deeper appreciation for nature than I had previously had. I have always been environmentally conscious and knew I wanted to pursue a career in preservation, but actually seeing these places in person has led me to realize how important it is to maintain the habitats’ prosperity. Visiting Crater Lake had a major impact on my awareness. It is the cleanest large body of water in the world and I definitely believe it. The water was extremely clear and the blue tones were probably the most vivid colors I’ve seen in my entire life. The beauty was so far beyond compare that it almost looked fake. Knowing that places as breath taking as Crater Lake exist has left a lasting impression and solidified the importance humans should place on maintaining such beauty. It led to me thinking about how other ecosystems could be as pristine and healthy if pollution and human impact were not as harmful. Along with the settings I observed, I was also able to witness diverse wildlife in their natural habitats. I had the chance to see wild orcas, harbor seals, sea otters, California sea lions, Stellar sea lions, starfish in tidepools, Tule elk, and Roosevelt elk. The fact that these amazing animals were in the wild made the encounters even more special to me. I was able to understand the importance of maintaining their ecosystems by seeing just how dependent these species are.

While on the trip, I had the opportunity to discuss environmental issues and management with several helpful park rangers and naturalists. The first professional I spoke to was Lee, a naturalist on a whale watching boat which she described as a “floating classroom”. I asked her about some of the problems the whales in the area are facing and she was happy to help. She told me about how acidification was such a major problem in the Salish Sea. Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide is absorbed into the water from the air, and the pH lowers as a result. The Salish Sea is prone to this detrimental effect because the narrowness of the straights causes upwells that bring even more organic matter to the surface. The acidity dissolves the shells of shellfish, sending rippling effects throughout the food chain and hurting larger marine life such as whales. As of right now, the main focus of environmentalists is researching and monitoring the problem. They have developed a Salish Sea Model which is a computer simulation that tests the ecosystem’s response to higher carbon dioxide levels. People are being informed of the issues and told that they should try and reduce their carbon footprint. The same changes in everyday life associated with greenhouse gas reduction apply to ocean acidification prevention as well. Before my conversation with Lee I had heard of acidification but never realized what drastic effects it had on entire habitats. As an ecological engineering major, I have wanted to pursue a career in water quality or environmental remediation. After learning more about acidification, I believe it sort of combines my two main interests and would be a good fit for a possible career area.

One of the next places I visited was Mt St Helens. At the visitor center I spoke with a ranger named Duane Lovette. I asked him about how scientists have worked to protect or revitalize the area after the eruption. He explained to me that after the volcano erupted, excess sediment and flooding was an issue. The high levels of sediment destroyed plants and were deposited into the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers. The new sediment levels in the rivers caused detrimental effects on fish populations along with a higher chance of flooding. To combat this issue, a dam was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Toutle River as a sediment retention structure. In recent years, the spillway behind the dam was raised to efficiently handle the levels of sediment deposited. This conversation was very interesting to me because it included work engineers had done to benefit the environment. This past semester I was enrolled in a fluid mechanics course, and the explanation of the dam connected some of the topics from my class with real life problem solving methods.

While visiting the Redwoods State and National Parks, I stopped by the Thomas Kuchel Visitor Center where I met a park ranger named Steven Kraus. I asked him about some of the environmental developments associated with the Redwoods and he explained how genetic sequencing could lead to a healthier population of trees in the area. Environmentalists in the region use selective harvesting to manage forests. In dense areas, certain trees are removed to provide adequate space for surrounding trees. To ensure genetic diversity is maintained among the trees, the Save the Redwoods League has came up with the Redwood Genome Project. By sequencing the Redwood genomes, the forestry managers can be informed as to which trees should stay and which should go to make the most durable groves with a high level of diversity. This discussion was amazing to me. I had never really thought about exactly how much scientific thinking went into forestry management. Knowing that the work is so complex gave me a deeper appreciation for the people who spend their lives working to protect the ecosystem of the Redwoods.

During my time in San Francisco, I visited the Sea Lion Center at Pier 39. After watching the sea lions playing by the pier, I spoke to naturalists Alana and Nigel about how the center works to protect the marine life there. They told me that one big issue the sea lions face is plastic pollution. In the past, they have seen sea lions entangled in plastic lounging on the floating docks outside. In these instances, people from the Sea Lion Center have saved those marine mammals and freed them from the garbage. Not only do they help sea life in the bay, but the Sea Lion Center sends groups out into the Pacific to collect plastic waste. At Pier 39, the fatal effects of plastic are heavily advertised. The four R’s (reduce, reuse, refuse, and recycle) are encouraged to visitors. It was very surprising that such a large community of sea lions and an educational center dedicated to them existed in such close proximity to a major metropolitan area like San Francisco. Seeing the two side by side further cemented the idea that people have a major impact on the lives of the species around them. This visit was also special to me because even though people were able to see the animals they were leaning about up close, they were not confined in a zoo or aquarium type setting and chose to reside on the docks. Small changes to everyday life, such as a reduction in plastic use, could have a huge effect on the way people and other species interact with one another in close areas.

This project was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Having this once in a lifetime opportunity allowed me to grow as a person as well as gain inspiration for my future career. I am now confident in my abilities to clearly communicate with fellow environmentalists on certain topics. Planning such a trip all on my own allowed me to learn how to use planning resources and become a more organized and motivated person as well. I am already a part of the Engineers for a Sustainable World club at OSU, but after my trip I would love to join an organization such as the Sierra Club to spend more time out in nature. The most impactful part of the STEP project was having the chance to see all of the National Parks and diverse wildlife in person. I had already appreciated nature but observing such natural beauty first hand was life changing. Knowing that the world can be so beautiful awakened a sense of urgency to protect it. After talking with the naturalists and park rangers in Washington, I can see myself moving there in the future to pursue a career revolving around ocean acidification. I’m hoping that in the future I can work alongside people like the ones I met to work towards a common goal of environmental protection.

The pictures I took and the journal entries I kept have allowed me to memorialize my experiences throughout this project. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I was provided and will always remember my once in a lifetime adventure.




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