Laci M. Gerhart Barley

Home » Continental Wood Nitrogen » I Got 99 Problems, But a Permit Ain’t One

I Got 99 Problems, But a Permit Ain’t One

I considered titling this entry ‘How to Plan Your Field Research’ but let’s be honest, when is it a bad choice to make a Jay-Z reference? Or, if you’re like me and prefer the Hugo version, a reference to a Thai bluegrass Jay-Z reinterpretation (yeah, you read that right).

Anyway, the title is aptly chosen as field work constitutes at least 99 problems – and that’s just in the planning stages. Let’s organize them into chronological order during the planning process:

1) Picking a field site and sampling location

For the Continental N project, we want sample locations in all of the lower 48 states. Many, we have been able to ask, beg, wheedle, cajole and nag our Novus network, and personal contacts to sample for us. That still leaves us ~30 states to sample ourselves, mostly throughout the upper midwest and deep south. For each state, I first looked at the Organization of Biological Field Stations and National Atmospheric Deposition Program stations, to see if that state had any. Some states also had Long Term Ecological Research stations. If possible, it’s nice to sample in/near these stations, so that we can link our tree ring data to near-by measurements of environmental factors (temp, precip) or atmospheric nitrogen deposition. Starting with these sites is also beneficial because they usually list contact personnel for research permissions, which makes the job of finding whom to contact for approval much easier.

But sometimes, there’s no LTER, and no OBFS sites in a state (all, though, have NADP). Even when OBFS and NADP sites exist, sometimes they are located in urban centers, or in agricultural land (which are no good for us). So, for a few states, I had to play ‘find a publicly owned stand of trees’ on Google maps. This usually brought me to a national forest, or wildlife refuge, etc. Again, they usually have decent websites with contact info so I can at least get the process started.

I like to color-code things based on how far along they are in the process. Generally, green means go, while various shades of orange, yellow or red indicate various issues yet to be resolved

I like to color-code things based on how far along they are in the process. Generally, green means go, while shades of orange, yellow or red indicate various issues yet to be resolved

2) Start the awkward phone calls

Unless you have the name of the actual person in charge of research permitting, a cold email (particularly to a general informational email like <park>@<governmentagency>.gov) is likely to get ignored. I’ve found it’s always good to call, it somehow is more likely to get a response, even in this day of technological advancement. Repeated phone calls to strangers get awkward fast. Particularly when you usually start with a general informational line (especially for the national forests, etc) and the first three people you talk to will seem to have never heard of research, or trees, or Kansas. Be prepared for everyone to get confused, yourself included. But stick with it – if you’re willing to repeat yourself, and answer any seemingly odd question that is asked, you’ll make it through to the right person, eventually.

3) Get the Permit

This stage of the process varies considerably. Some people will just want to know what you’re sampling (often, as soon as I say ‘trees’ they are less worried – animal research requires many more hoops), other times, they have a long and complex online permitting system where you will have to document the number of oxygen molecules you plan to breathe at the field site (that’s only partly a joke). On opposite ends of the spectrum, I had one research station literally just say “That sounds cool, I don’t need a proposal, just call me before you get here, so I know to open the gate” while on the other end, the National Park Service has a formal online portal for requesting permission at any of their properties. The Forest Service also has a fairly detailed survey, even for just a special use (and not a formal long-term research) permit. These agencies want to know exactly what you will be sampling, how you plan to access the site, the anticipated effects on the study organisms and the surrounding habitat, your intended use of the data, and the history and anticipated future of the full project.

4)Oh $#!* – I need money!

Oh, yeah – sorry. Having an awesome idea doesn’t necessarily mean you have the money to do it (let’s not even talk about NSF funding rates right now). It’s at about this stage when you realize all of your work thus far is moot if you have no money to a) get to the sites, and b) run any analyses once you come back. The trip I’m planning (outlined below) will cost just under $3,000 in gas and lodging, for which I was fortunate to get money from the Academic Excellence Fund at K-State.

5) The Final (Logistics) Frontier

So now, I have the permits ALL approved! And, I have the money to pay for the trip! Now is actually the most complicated part – logistically organizing a large field-sampling trip. As you see in the map below, I’ll be sampling in 14 states. As always, my color coding means something. Blue tags are NADP sites, red are OBFS, green are members of both programs, and yellow are neither. Each colored line represents one day’s travel (averaging ~8 hours of driving per day). We’ll start in Manhattan, go north through NE, SD, ND, then east a bit and down through IA, MO, AR, east through TN and NC, then back west through SC, GA, AL, MS, LA and TX, then back home to Kansas. Nearly every day consists of a morning drive, sampling in one location, then continuing on to a second location where we still say the night. I’m not sampling in Minnesota, Oklahoma, or Kansas because we already have data from those states.

For each end day site, we’ll need a place to stay. I’m hesitant to book hotels, because if we get behind, all the reservations will be off. Instead, my priority list for housing is 1) at the research station where we sample, 2) friends/family, 3) hotels, likely not reserved in advance. That last makes me nervous, because I’m anal retentive, but people do it all the time and it seems to work out ok. The places we’ll be going are not generally spring break hot spots (woo hoo, Big Springs Fish Hatchery, here we come!), so I don’t anticipate much trouble finding open hotels.

The Plan

The Plan

So what’s left to do? Looks all put together and ready to hit right? Well, mostly. I still need a field assistant. Since this trip will be over K-State’s spring break, it may be hard to convince a student to spend their *entire* spring break in a car with yours truly. I’m debating my options on this – we could do an open search, or try to recruit someone based on a recommendation.

More importantly, you have to have several back-up plans. Things *always* go wrong in field work. I’ll be going in March, so weather may be a problem. At the very least, things often take longer than you expect. Since I’m teaching a class in the spring, I’m on a tight timeline and can’t get afford to get delayed. I’ve built in a ‘lazy day’ (from Arkansas to Tennessee) where I can make up some time if I get behind. I’ve also scheduled this as a 10-day trip, but I have 11 days between my teaching days, so I can budget it an extra day if necessary. But if numerous locations prove problematic, I have to be careful to not get too far behind. This is where an assistant will be especially handy. If we have to drive through the night at any point, we’ll need to trade off for sleeping purposes.

This where you just remind yourself that field work is an *adventure!* and no matter what happens, it’ll at least make a funny story later.

Check back here starting March 14th for real-time updates on the trip!!!

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1 Comment

  1. Kendra McLauchlan says:

    So many funny, and true, and funny and true things here! Thanks for explaining the process and planning that goes into science.

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