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High School student's tree mapping project valuable for reservoir staff

Staff writer

Engineers at Marion Reservoir have an accurate picture of the damage this past summer’s record flooding inflicted on more than 200 trees at Marion Reservoir thanks to the determination of a high school student.

Ava Weisbeck, 18, a fan of science and the outdoors, asked to shadow assistant lake manager Kevin McCoy as a part of a Career Connections class at Hillsboro High School.

McCoy, in search of a project for his student, mentioned the need to mark trees that had been harmed by high water as the two surveyed damage caused by this past summer’s flooding. Identified trees would be revisited in the spring and evaluated for removal.

“Well, that is something I could do,” said Weisbeck. “I said ‘It sounds like the perfect project’ – so they sent me out with a roll of tape.”

Plot points

Hillsboro’s science and engineering teacher Scott O’Hare, suggested Weisbeck use geographic information technology to create a map of the damaged trees as a class project.

He teaches a geographic information system mapping class, an upper-level elective course for tech-interested students.

The idea appealed to Weisbeck, who quickly began teaching herself to plot location points using a Garmin eTrex handheld, one of 10 available through O’Hare’s class.

“I walked around the perimeter

outside of the school plotting trees there first,” she said. “It was trial and error.”

O’Hare said Weisbeck has shown a lot of persistence with subjects she cares about.

“She has a passion for environmental studies and is driven to do things that are part of where her interests lie,” he said

But mastering the handheld often proved frustrating even for the tech-savvy teen.

The Garmin needs to link up with three satellites before it will register a location and there were days when Weisbeck couldn’t get a strong enough signal.

Worse still, the handheld would also refuse to work if she stood under a too-heavy canopy of trees. The device needs a clear pathway to a satellite in order to register a location within a three-foot margin of error, she said.

“Some days I took two steps back,” she said.

McCoy said he was impressed with Weisbeck’s determination to learn unfamiliar technology and tackle tough tasks on her own.

“It was interesting to watch the school provide her with the technical knowledge to accomplish what we needed from a natural resource management project,” he said.

More than 200

The sheer magnitude of the flooding at the reservoir also proved daunting. Hundreds of cottonwoods, elms and evergreens that stood in record high water for months were potentially damaged.

To rise to the challenge of finding and identifying them, Weisbeck spent afternoons four days a week from mid-September to early November exploring the reservoir’s trails and coves.

She wrapped deciduous trees, such as cottonwoods that had dropped all their leaves in caution tape to mark them as potentially damagedm and plotted their location on the Garmin. She did the same with pines and evergreens that were more than 50% brown.

“Pretty much any sapling that was growing, and there were quite a few, needed to be marked,” she said.

The destruction wrought by floodwaters was shocking.

“This section, in Cottonwood,” she said pointing to the map, “It may have been the water coming into the channel, but there were so many massive cottonwoods completely down and uprooted.”

Shattered concrete picnic tabletops were strewn through empty campgrounds that were coated with “an insane amount” of blue-green algae.

Weisbeck said she learned to watch her step around that and other hazards as she encountered the occasional deer.

“I am super allergic to poison ivy, so getting around that was fun,” she said. “I had to make sure I was wearing pants every day.”

A workable map

The months Weisbeck spent patiently gathering data paid off when she uploaded her coordinates into ArcGIS and began laying her plot points on a satellite image of Marion County. She had her map.

“It did not take long once I got all the points plotted,” she said. “I spent a week-and-a-half or two weeks on the actual map itself.”

McCoy said he could not be more pleased with her efforts.

“I think she did an outstanding job,” he said.

The 44x40-inch poster she printed for the staff takes up nearly all of the conference room table at the office. It will be a great resource for staff, McCoy said.

“We can grab her map and go out and reassess all of those damaged trees and see which ones are a safety hazard as compared to ones that came out of the flooding and continue to grow and thrive,” he said.

Weisbeck said she is grateful for the experience because she no longer worries about a career. She plans to attend the University of Wisconsin – Stephens Point this fall, and study in the college’s department of natural resources.

“It gave me some hope,” she said. “I have been so worried about being stuck and not doing something I love. And to see this play out… I could be doing this for a job.”



Last modified Jan. 29, 2020

 

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