Patches of rust dot the timbered slopes of Medicine Bow National Forest, marking the ravages of the bark beetle. Through the imperiled forest, a man moves silently, examining beetle bores, kneeling to extract core samples, and mapping locations in his battered, spiral-bound notebook.
The swarming mosquitoes and horseflies are his only companions. On this hot June day, he's sweltering inside a long sleeved shirt and jeans. But tedious as his work sometimes gets, Ernie Lawson (BS/BA '11) isn't one to complain about any activity that takes place outdoors.
"Just being up here makes me feel close to home," says Lawson, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe who grew up tramping through the Wind River Range with his two older brothers. "It's like camping, a little vacation."
Lawson studies the relationship between climate change and the recent beetle outbreak, work that has forest management implications stretching from British Columbia to Mexico. Soon the recent graduate hopes to bring his natural resources expertise home to the Wind River Reservation.
"To me, it's a privilege," Lawson says of returning to his roots. "I feel with my background and upbringing, I have a connection there."
Growing up in Kinnear, Wyo., instilled in Lawson a deep appreciation of nature and the outdoors—and a strong work ethic. Throughout high school, he worked part-time on ranches, irrigating, fencing, feeding, and branding. After graduation, he followed his family to the oil fields, where he worked for six years.
The oil industry introduced Lawson to new areas of resource management. It also introduced him to his future wife, Melissa Vickery (BA '11). "She was a swamper, and I drove these hydrovac trucks," he says. As Vickery dug and Lawson vacuumed, a romance blossomed.
In 2006, Lawson and Vickery enrolled at Central Wyoming College, where he studied natural resource management and she began a degree in secondary education. In 2009, both transferred to the University of Wyoming. There, Lawson took a job as a research assistant, working under William Lauenroth, professor of botany, and post-doctoral research associate Daniel Schlaepfer.
The two botanists, who were modeling the impact of climate change on bark beetle populations, sensed Lawson's potential. "When I first started working for Lauenroth, he asked me if I wanted to do my own research project," recalls Lawson, a natural resources and American studies double major. "I was just an undergraduate with no background in botany. He's shown a lot of faith in me."
Lawson later extended his research job into two independent studies, obtaining fellowships from the Wyoming National Science Foundation and the NASA Space Grant Consortium.
Lauenroth and Lawson also discussed the resource management issues faced by the Wind River tribes. "He encouraged me to shift my direction toward the reservation and explore all the opportunities there," Lawson says. In pursuit of his environment and natural resources degree, Lawson also took a course in reservation resource management and accompanied classmates on three field trips to Wind River.
Now a recent graduate with a baby on the way, Lawson expects to face many challenges while working and researching on the reservation. Wind River's natural resources are governed by a complex system of federal, state, and tribal regulations. Water is also a contentious issue. The Wind River tribes and the State have engaged in decades of water rights litigation, some of which has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
But there have also been successes. Arapaho Ranch, a tribal-owned enterprise located on the reservation, is currently the largest certified organic cattle operation in the United States.
"This summer, UW is going to build an outreach building there," Lawson says. "Hopefully I can make some connections there and keep my ties with the university."
"It makes it all the more encouraging to work on the reservation knowing they want something sustainable and helping them to move in that direction."