Student receives internship award to conduct fire history research

March 13, 2017
Geography students
Tree samples

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Adam Donaldson, a junior geography major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville from Kronenwetter, Wisconsin, will soon be conducting fire history research that will inform forest management across the Midwest, thanks to a $3,420 undergraduate research internship award he recently received from the Lake States Fire Science Consortium, a multi-agency group that coordinates fire research and management across the Midwest as part of a larger network of consortiums that operates across the United States.

Donaldson’s internship proposal, “Investigating the Relative Importance of Climate and People in the Historical Patterns of Fire to Inform Management of Red Pine at the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center,” was written in collaboration with Dr. Evan Larson, associate professor of geography at UW-Platteville, and Kyle Gill, forest manager at the University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center near Cloquet, Minnesota.

Donaldson’s research will expand on a project he helped initiate as part of a geography seminar class taught by Larson. The class, with support from the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement, collaborated with Gill at the Cloquet Forestry Center to conduct a fire history study of a 44-acre stand of old growth red pine known as Camp 8. Their work resulted in a 276-year fire history that included 11 fire events between 1740-1905. The students also found through original land surveys conducted in the mid-1800s that an Ojibwe village was located just across a small stream from the study area.

“The seminar students did a tremendous job pulling together information from both tree-rings and historical documents to build the beginning of a compelling story about the relationship between people and the land in the Great Lakes Region,” said Larson. “This work set the stage for Adam to conduct research that will help forest and fire managers integrate the best available science into their planning and decision-making processes.”

Donaldson’s research will build on the preliminary data to provide a more complete investigation of the fire history at Cloquet Forestry Center to better understand fire as a historical ecosystem process in red pine forests as well as the influence of humans on historical fire regimes. Through his research, he will determine how the fire frequency in the area compares with surrounding old growth red pine stands, if climate is an important driver of fire at broader spatial scales and if humans influenced the historical fire regimes in the area.

“Red pine is a vital economic, ecological and cultural resource in the Great Lakes Region,” said Larson. “Research is increasingly illustrating that the fate of the species is intimately linked with fire, and that in certain places and at certain times people had a tremendous influence on patterns of fire activity. Understanding this is crucial to guiding the management of this species moving forward.”

This summer, Donaldson will return to the Cloquet Forestry Center to collect cross sections from fire-scarred stumps and dead trees across the property. Over the fall semester, he will surface and analyze all of the tree-ring samples to determine what fire history information they contain. “The preparation of tree-ring samples is a fantastic process,” said Larson. “We use belt and orbital sanders to progressively work down to a highly polished surface where individual wood cells are visible, then, by matching patterns of wide and narrow rings that form over centuries of growth, Adam will be able to identify the absolute year and sometimes even the season of fires that burned across the CFC over the past several centuries.”

The project will wrap up with Donaldson creating a final report and giving a presentation to Gill and the CFC staff. Additionally, Donaldson will be traveling to an international scientific conference to present his research in the spring of 2018. Together, these experiences will provide him with hands-on experience working with natural resource managers to better understand how scientific research can be translated into management efforts. This project also illustrates how the specialized skill set Donaldson is building can provide key information about the history of people, fire and forests in the Great Lakes Region.

“Adam’s research is a wonderful integration of the high-impact educational practice of undergraduate research with a pressing issue for forest managers and conservationists throughout the Great Lakes region.”

                       –Dr. Evan Larson

“Adam’s research is a wonderful integration of the high-impact educational practice of undergraduate research with a pressing issue for forest managers and conservationists throughout the Great Lakes region,” said Larson. “Conducting this research will help him develop his abilities in problem solving, critical thinking and communication while leading to an impressive list of accomplishments that improve our collective understanding of how the world works. These are the experiences that epitomize an education at UW-Platteville and produce highly-skilled graduates who go on to make our world a better place.”

“I was drawn to this research opportunity because I am interested in the relationship between people and the environment,” said Donaldson. “The most challenging thing is learning to read all over again, but trees make for excellent books.”

“I’d like my management decisions to be informed by forest disturbance cycles that have created some of today’s more desirable forest conditions,” said Gill. “Adam’s reconstruction of past events will be very informative for setting appropriate forest management goals and objectives. It also will be interesting to see if he can tease apart the role Native Americans played in the historical fire regime. This could help us to better appreciate their influence on creating the forest conditions early European settlers observed and documented as ‘untouched.’ Regardless, Adam’s work will help us to better understand red pine forest ecosystems for both management and educational purposes.”

This spring, Donaldson will present the research findings through a webinar and possibly at a professional conference, such as the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers or future Lakes States Fire Science Consortium-supported meetings.

For more information about Lake States Fire Science Consortium, go to: For more information about the Lake States Fire Science Consortium’s internship program, go to:

Funding support for the initial research conducted in fall 2016 was provided by Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement, a UW-Platteville initiative and funding source for campus-wide coordination, integration and leadership of community-based scholarship of engagement projects and internships that involve students, faculty, staff and community partners.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, Communications Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,, in collaboration with Dr. Evan Larson, Department of Geography.


Subscribe to news at University of Wisconsin-Platteville using our RSS feed.