Land & Environment

Off The Beaten Path: Quinney Scholar Anaís Barrientos on Finding Her Natural Capacity

By Lael Gilbert |

It was a moment of definite triumph, but it didn’t look like one. Somewhere on the periphery of a Montana wilderness splayed near the parking lot of a rural gas station lay an exhausted Anaís Barrientos, alongside her equally-spent colleagues. Empty candy wrappers, a crumpled pizza box and a half-guzzled gallon of milk were scattered haphazardly between them. It was a conclusion of an experience that cemented for Barrientos just how capable, mind and body, that she actually was.

A few days earlier the three-member stream survey team from the U.S. Forest Service left their truck at the end of a rock-strewn backcountry road, strapping various pieces of research equipment to their backs. From there they headed straight up the side of the mountain, no trails to navigate by and toting heavy packs. Barrientos bushwhacked, skittered across talus slopes, ascended one impossibly steep summit, descended to a valley below, ascended a second summit, (made a quick phone call to her mom for moral support when she happened upon a weak signal), and at last descended to their target, an “inaccessible” backcountry stream, to gather water quality and stream habitat data.

After a few hours of work, an uncomfortable night and a definite inadequacy of calories, the team retraced their steps to the vehicle. And then to the gas station for refueling before they did it all again.

This was the summer after Barrientos’ second year in the Quinney College of Natural Resources. She had accepted an internship with the U.S. Forest Service to gain perspective on exactly this type of fieldwork. Not every hitch in the backcountry was as intense as this one, she said, but afterwards, reclining with a Snickers bar in hand, she realized something important — as demanding as it had been, she could and would do it again if she needed to.

Now set to graduate with a degree in conservation and restoration ecology, a minor in watershed science and a certificate in GIS (mapping), Barrientos’ academic trajectory, like her time on the mountain, was a challenge with definite purpose.

She grew up backpacking, fishing and biking. Her parents, who have careers in law and technology, wondered initially about the practicality of pursuing a degree in natural resources. After two summers watching her engage in hands-on science with career professionals in the Idaho and Montana backcountry, they came around, she said.

Barrientos says that she prefers really big landscapes — towering mountain ranges, stretches of sandstone extending to the horizon, and strong canyon walls. During her time in QCNR, courses like Wildland Plants and Ecosystems taught by Peter Adler really opened up a way for her to appreciate the natural world on a new level, she said.

“It was so cool to be able to look at an ecosystem and understand what is actually happening, rather than just appreciating it as a nice view,” she said.

She began to decipher patterns like why a group of aspens grew on the valley floor but changed abruptly at a certain elevation. She could conclude why a stream moved a certain way, what plants you’d find growing around it, and what kind of insect and fish life you’d most likely find in the water.

She began to build skills in plant identification, learning the difference between a bristlecone and lodgepole pine. She became a pro at using a plant key. The bane of her existence, she said, was grass identification. The enigmatic little blades offered few clues to tell them apart.

During her time on campus she has built a community, she said. An important part of that was helping to establish a new chapter of a club called Backcountry Squatters, which gives women and nonbinary folks a space to be outdoors without feeling intimidated or dependent on others.

“It’s important to empower women to do things they enjoy and develop skills that they might not be able to in a male-dominated space,” Barrientos said. “I think it’s really incredible to be part of a community of people that have similar interests and are similar minded, and to be able to grow your skill set.”


Lael Gilbert
Public Relations Specialist
Quinney College of Natural Resources


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