It’s not that she’s ‘outdoorsy’– being outside is Elyse Doty’s default. Her family jokes going inside is one of her occasional hobbies. That’s why, when Doty found the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, she felt immediately at home. She discovered a cohort of students who were as serious as she was about enjoying, absorbing and understanding the natural environment.
Since graduating in May of 2021 with a bachelor's degree in forest ecology, Doty has again surrounded herself with a team embedded in the outdoors. She’s a wildland firefighter on an engine based out of Missoula, Mont. where her crew protects forests of alpine larch and whitebark pine in the Lolo National Forest. Despite the sweat, grime, blisters and occasional blood this work requires of her, Doty doesn’t see fire as the enemy.
“The right kind of fire is so important to the health of our landscapes; it can make a big difference to an ecosystem if you can get it on the ground,” she said. “I’ll eventually get to the point in my career where I’m not just reacting to fire, but using it to make forests healthier, more resilient ecosystems.”
Wildfire combined with the fierce work of shutting it down can cause a lot of disturbance on a landscape, she said. But her academic experience has helped her to put this work into perspective. Understanding the nuance of how an ecosystem responds and regenerates helps her to create the least negative impact when she is on the job, she said.
For instance, she knows disturbing soil in a desert environment is much worse than disturbing the thick duff on the floor of a temperate forest. The delicate cryptobiotic soil takes exponentially longer to regenerate, so she watches where she walks.
Insights like this also helps her manage the emotional toll of the job. Now, she can watch a fire tear through trees, and “burn them to a crisp,” and understand that it is exactly what the area needs for aspen regeneration and elk forage.
“Depending on where it is, and what kind of fire it is, you can look at a destructive fire and see the good that it is doing,” Doty said. “It’s bigger than one tree.”
Doty’s experience at USU gave her skills outside a forest setting, too. One of the biggest things she learned from her academic experience is how to get quality information and how to vet what she hears, reads, and sees.
“I’m able to make sure that what I’m reading is validating what people are telling me,” she said. “I can look at research that people use to make a point, and think, ‘there’s more to the story than this.’”
According to Doty, her education at USU was as much about gaining a broad perspective as it was about learning information. It was about finding the place she belonged and opening the door to a career that could put her there.