« Return to this article

Know the West

Calling all citizen scientists


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

When I was a kid, my three sisters and I were compelled to go on what we called “forced marches” all over the country, from Death Valley (which we dubbed near-to-Death Valley) to Cape Cod National Seashore, where the August sand was so hot that our Jellies—you remember, those plastic shoes that were the preamble to Crocs—seemed to melt and to fuse with our tender feet. We gave copious blood samples in the mosquito-infested Everglades and tramped around maze-like groves among the mercifully-shady Sequoias.

We stopped to read every placard the park service had installed on interpretive trails (attention rangers: your hard work is not in vain), we examined leaves and rocks, we identified “v”- and “u”-shaped valleys, and watched wildlife. And we sisters complained consistently about our dry mouths, our rumbling bellies and our overall need to lay down somewhere, anywhere.

While it sounds like we were juvenile delinquents on a work crew, we were simply on school vacations with our mom, a first-grade teacher.

These memories played in the slideshow of my memory when I read recently about Citizen Science Projects, a venture of a group called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC). They partner athletes with researchers needing scientific data from remote locales, including past and present projects in the Arctic, the Amazon, the Congo and on Mount Everest.

But, for those of us who aren’t going to be summiting K2 anytime soon (or ever), there is still work to be done. ASC also dispatches “citizen scientists” year-round in any geographical area to collect data, a process that often can be too costly or too time-intensive for researchers. Participants can propose a project, or ASC will give them a scientific mission in the volunteers’ preferred geographic area and find researchers who will benefit from their boots on the ground. It all starts with ASC’s easy to use web portal.

Not only is the result meaningful in adding to a body of scientific knowledge but ASC believes, as I do, that once we spend time getting to know an area, we’re then connected to it (psychologists call this “place attachment” and it’s instrumental for children in developing their identities and sense of belonging). We are then, presumably, more interested in what happens to these special spots and more likely to advocate for their protection. It’s no coincidence that, after years of family field trips, I co-authored a book called Disappearing Destinations about a lot of the places I’d been.

Once you’ve run the rapids of the Arkansas River, or picnicked on its banks, camped or hunted in a national forest, backpacked in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains or seen wolves roaming the Wyoming wilderness—all places that currently have management decisions pending that are open for public comment—you care enough to be engaged, to spend a few minutes emailing your opinion to the relevant officials.

Although my family still jokes about those compulsory walks of our youth, truth be told, I’m lucky enough still to travel with my mom. I’m half-worried she’ll read this post and insist we embark on a Citizen Science Project this summer. I’m half-hoping she will, too.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for their content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Images of the author and her sister on a "forced March" at Cape Cod, and of the author and her mother on a more recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.