Land & Environment

At the Trail's End: QCNR Graduate Alva Swanson on his Thoughtful Path to Graduation

By Lael Gilbert |

Manhandling heavy chainsaws, perspectives from a monster fish, and chance meeting in a hallway led graduating senior Alva Swanson to where he is today.

Editor's note: As Commencement approaches, Utah State Today is highlighting graduating students.

When he thinks back, Alva Swanson (BS Forest Ecology and Management) recalls three events that became pivotal in bringing him to where he is now, at the threshold of graduation from the Quinney College of Natural Resources.

The first is a big fish story. Swanson’s home is in the far north of Idaho, a community called Bonners Ferry. Carving down the center of town is the Kootenai River, where you can sometimes glimpse a native monster.

With long snouts, sharklike tails and bony armor, white sturgeon are a (sometimes) massive freshwater-locked fish species that settle into the slow eddies and deep, calm turns along Kootenai’s banks. It used to be that their lengths reached up to a whopping eight feet, with weights coming in at hundreds of pounds.

But by the time Swanson developed an appreciation for these prehistoric fish, they were on the brink of extinction.

In 2009 the nearby Kootenai Tribe hired fisheries experts to launch a major effort to restore 55 miles of the river so that white sturgeon could survive long enough to spawn (starting at 30 years old), and find habitat to grow and thrive (they can live up to 70 years). Swanson watched these efforts with admiration, aware for the first time that rivers, and their residents, might need saving.

The second event happened on the trails of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, where Swanson worked for several years on summer trail crews. He lugged a chainsaw up to 17 miles per day, clearing paths from winter blowdown. It was work that he liked, he said, which was lucky because there weren’t many other options for summer employment near his home.

It was either that, or working in the sawmill, and he preferred to be on the trail. The intense physical aspect of the job never bothered him. He likes to push his body to the limit, as he has done with long-distance running and mountain biking.

The daylong treks with the trail crew were often punctuated with conversation on diverse topics, and Swanson’s favorites involved forest ecology. There were a few people on the crew that could tell him which tree species required wildfire to regenerate, or to point out a 300-year-old Engelmann spruce on the horizon.

It was these conversations that really stuck in his mind, making him consider that a career in natural resources management might suit him. Swanson started in the fisheries degree program at USU, appreciating the foundations he was picking up, but wondered more and more about how to apply this knowledge.

The third event was somewhat less picturesque than the first two, though no less important. During class breaks, Swanson liked to peruse the Natural Resources building, reading research posters tacked to the wall of every hallway, to get perspective on how the basic science he was learning might be applied to his experience in the outdoors.

He was standing there one day, reading about innovations in the production of biochar, when the author of the poster, Forestry Extension Specialist Darren McAvoy, poked his head out of his office and struck up a conversation. As an extension agent, McAvoy’s role is to help private landowners make informed choices about how to manage their forest land, connecting them with the latest information on scientific and technical advances.

It was that conversation, Swanson said, that really cemented his desire to do a degree in forestry and to apply what he was learning in the places that he loved. His priority, he decided, was to help other people make that connection.

And now he will have that chance. Swanson graduates this spring. He has immediate plans to develop a breadth of experience with the Forest Service, in the areas of wildland fire and timber management, before he makes a deeper commitment about which specific area to aim his focus. He is open to lots of options for his future, he said, but knows his heart is already committed to staying in the West.


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


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