Former Watershed Camper Fights Wildfires

November 27th, 2019

Chris Ives, a former camper at The Watershed Nature Camp from 1991-1995, recalls picking wild blueberries and then consuming a stack of blueberry pancakes on an overnight camp trip in the Pine Barrens.

Raised in Belle Mead, he remembers other childhood experiences at the Watershed that sparked his interest in the outdoors, such as listening for night owls on the reserve. He also delighted in netting critters in the Stony Brook and, on another camp trip, hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap.

“Even though my parents were somewhat outdoorsy as far as central New Jersey goes, I was usually surrounded by houses” in suburban Montgomery Township, he said. “Just the openness and world of nature was revealed to me at camp and I discovered there was much more to explore.”

Today, Chris works in the field of wildland firefighting as a squad leader on a 20-person interagency hotshot crew in Durango, Colo. The 36-year-old credits the Watershed for fostering his love of the wilderness and starting him on his career trajectory.

His Watershed experiences “had such a huge influence on me and were instrumental in making me the person I am today; my love of nature, my environmental ethic and my desire to work with others in the outdoors,” he said.

After graduation in 2005 from Kings College in Pennsylvania, Chris, who is an Eagle Scout, worked for four years at Philmont Scout Ranch, a large Rocky Mountain ranch run by the Boy Scouts of America in Cimarron, NM. He did trail building, restoration projects and environmental education with the Boy Scouts where he taught them about native flora, fire ecology and wildlife ecology. During the winters, he started working for the Conservation Corps doing trail building and forest thinning with a chainsaw. He then landed a position on a hotshot crew in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Heber-Overgaard, Ariz., doing prevention and controlled burns for fire suppression and combating large wildfires.

The hotshot crew work “is mentally tough because one minute you’re in a holding pattern waiting for things to play out and the next minute you’re going 90-miles-an-hour,” he said.

After working in wildland fires and Conservation Corps, Chris had many questions and felt “powerless to shape some of the policies and decisions.” He decided to get a master’s degree in forestry, graduating in 2016 from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. 

He did research work on fire mosses, a trio of pioneer species that colonize well in areas after high-severity burns. His work, which landed a feature spot in NPR’s Earth Notes, explored the use of these mosses as tools for post-fire restoration. He hoped to figure out how to colonize these plants after a wildland fire because the plant’s roots retain moisture, stabilize the soil and help a succession of grasses, shrubs, and trees restore the land.

After graduate school, Chris returned to firefighting in the leadership position of squad leader, both in Arizona and currently in Durango.

“Eventually I would like to get back into the ecology and preventative side of things. Being a squad leader on a hotshot crew builds strong fire management skills and I wanted that field experience,” he said. “There is a big disconnect between researchers and practitioners on the ground. I’ve tried over the course of my career to bridge that gap.”

He speaks with students and groups interested in the Conservation Corps, drawing from his memories of exploring the outdoors at the Watershed.

“I am glad I had those early experiences at camp because it definitely put me on this trajectory. And I guess I wouldn’t have known any of that was out there.”


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