Local hydrologist awarded | SteamboatToday.com

Local hydrologist awarded

Forest Service's Schnackenberg honored for watershed work

Tom Ross
Hydrologist Liz Schnackenberg, of the Routt National Forest in Steamboat Springs, recently was presented the Regional Forester's Award.
Tom Ross

— Liz Schnackenberg is excelling in a highly technical field where a tiny insect has altered the rules for the remainder of our lifetimes.

Schnackenberg is a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Steamboat Springs. She recently received the Regional Forester’s Award in recognition of her contributions to the watershed program in the Routt National Forest.

At first glance, it might seem Schnackenberg’s colleagues in the forestry field would be more concerned than she is with the impacts of the mountain pine beetle. But the insects that have killed many thousands of lodgepole pine trees also are altering watersheds in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.

By killing trees, the beetles are adding moisture to local watersheds.

“Trees are water pumps,” Schnackenberg said.

Every tree killed by the beetles means more moisture finds its way into groundwater and stream supplies.

The dead pines, when they were healthy, reduced the water that finds its way into mountain streams through their roots and needles, a process called evapo-transporation. Pine needles also trap snow.

“Some of that moisture never made it to the ground before it evaporated,” Schnackenberg said.

Increased water supplies are a good thing on many levels. But the dying “water pumps” are part of a complex system. For example, all that newfound water must flow down narrow stream channels that aren’t sufficient, in some cases, to contain it, Schnackenberg pointed out.

Schnackenberg has been permanently employed with the Forest Service since 1996. She is involved in a wide variety of water-related issues, from working on the Colorado River cutthroat trout management plan in the forest near Steamboat, to acting as team leader on a Forest Service effort to mitigate the urban impacts of a wildfire impacting Santa Barbara, Calif.

Also this year, she was called on to lend expertise in several emergencies, including a local ditch blowout, a major dam repair and erosion problems.

Her willingness to tackle difficult missions helped her receive the Forester’s Award, according to her colleagues.

“Despite her heavy and complex workload, Liz has consistently shown an unwavering commitment to ecosystem stewardship, providing a balanced hydrology program representative of multiple-use management and on-the-ground accomplishments,” Forest Supervisor Mary Peterson said.

Schnackenberg describes herself as being averse to conflict but adds that collaboration with colleagues is the most rewarding aspect of her job. Those traits may have helped her win the award. Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Ritschard said Schnackenberg is able to step outside her role as a hydrologist, whose primary mission is protecting water resources, to understand the competing goals of other specialists. The experts she works with come from within the Forest Service and from outside agencies.

“She is able to balance the needs of timber, range, cultural resources and recreation while still protecting the watershed,” Ritschard said.

Schnackenberg’s job comes with some obvious psychological rewards.

“During the summer, I spend a lot of time in the field,” she said.

That means tramping across hillsides and meadows in the interest of watershed protection.

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