The classroom where some 100 Steamboat Springs High School students were learning about forest ecology and a beetle epidemic had a fresh layer of snow on it, but that didn't slow them down at all.
The sophomores, juniors and seniors had hiked into the forest on Buffalo Pass on Friday to collect data from two acres of trees. The information will be used by the U.S. Forest Service to understand the health of the two 80-acre sections of the Routt National Forest.
The field trip wrapped up an ecology section the students were studying.
"We're using this project as a real-life application for all the information they've learned," biology teacher Jen Lowe said.
The data collection was technical and to prepare themselves, the students had conducted research going into the project.
"They're tracking the stands of trees, with a particular emphasis on the beetle epidemic," Forest Service spokeswoman Diann Pipher said.
The young biologists broke into groups of seven or eight and each walked into a stand of trees. They marked a point in the woods and identified it on a map by using a compass. From that point each group measured 37.2 feet out and marked off a circle with that radius. Data was collected from every tree in the circle, including its species, its condition, height and diameter at chest height.
The students even calculated the age of larger trees by taking a core sample to look at the rings of the trunk.
"We've also taught them how to determine if the tree is infested with beetles," Pipher said.
By looking for bore holes where beetles have dug into the bark, the students identified if the tree is supporting beetles. That's of particular interest to the Forest Service, which is dealing with a spruce beetle infestation triggered by a 1997 windstorm as well as a natural population swing of pine beetles. Both incidents have the power to kill thousands of trees.
One of the stands that the students studied was treated for the spruce beetle by peeling and burning infected trees in hopes of suppressing massive infestation.
The other stand wasn't treated.
Each year, biology students will return to the site and repeat the project. In time, the Forest Service and the high school will be able to track the beetle activity in both stands of trees and determine if suppression efforts were successful.
They'll also be able to determine what types of trees the beetles are attacking and if that is changing with time.
In all, about 32 plots of land, all one-tenth of an acre in size, were sampled. The Forest Service will enter the data in a computer that will calculate information about both stands of trees.
The students also will enter the information into a Geographical Information System computer program to do some tree tracking of their own.
The program has a map that students developed to plot the stand of trees. The map will show each sample plot, with data from each. Pictures also were taken of the area using a digital camera, which also will be included in the computer program.
If all goes well, the students and the Forest Service will get a good idea of the diversity of the tree stands, the average age of the trees, how healthy the stand is and the average size of the trees.
"It will give us a snapshot of what those stands of trees are like at that point in time," Forest Service silviculturalist Larry Kent said.
With data coming in every year from the project, all that information will be updated and a chronological study of the stands will be available.
"We can draw a lot of information from this," Kent said.