SCIENCE:

Adventurers embrace their inner nerds to help the planet

Montanans Gregg Treinish and Deia Schlosberg backpacked the length of the Andes Mountains for nearly two years, traversing the rocky spine of South America on foot.

The two explorers pieced together a makeshift route that included portions of centuries-old Incan trails and paths carved by inhabitants of remote mountain villages they visited along the way, fording rivers and battling bouts of typhoid fever and dysentery.

After the duo's journey ended in 2008, the National Geographic Society named them "Adventurers of the Year." Yet Treinish said those accomplishments were accompanied by a nagging feeling of missed opportunity.

"I had a really selfish feeling," he said. "I wanted to do more for the planet and people."

More, in this case, meant finding a way to connect explorers with scientists. In January, Treinish established Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) to do just that -- recruiting hikers, bikers, climbers and other athletes to collect valuable scientific data on some of the planet's most remote ecosystems.

"Once I started realizing that other people had that selfish feeling, that they were out there for themselves and wanted to do more, the transitioning to a much bigger scale was pretty easy," said Treinish.

The group's advisers draw from both fields, including climber Conrad Anker -- part of the search team that located the remains of British climber George Mallory on Mount Everest in 1999 -- and University of Montana forestry professor Steven Running.

Climbing down from the ivory tower

Treinish describes ASC as "a dating service for adventurers and scientists." At just five months old, the group has already made several matches and has more under way.

In June, brothers Willie and Damian Benegas delivered samples of plant life collected from Mount Everest -- at an elevation of 22,300 feet -- to researchers at Montana State University and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Meanwhile, explorers are now being recruited to report sightings of ice worms on Pacific Northwest glaciers, track the movements of grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, and catalog the spread of an invasive plant, garlic mustard, throughout Europe, Australia, Asia and North America.

Treinish has also lined up 22 groups of hikers to document sightings of the pika, a small mammal thought to be threatened by climate change, during their trips on the Pacific Crest Trail this summer. The volunteers will be trained to identify pikas -- including the distinctive "Eep!" they emit when threatened -- and the hay piles the animals build each summer to stockpile food for winter.

All the projects are organized with the help of scientists who will analyze the data. Before the Benegas brothers climbed Everest, they were trained to collect plant samples by Montana State University microbial ecologist Tim McDermott and USGS microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez. The pika work is part of a larger effort overseen by the nonprofit Craighead Institute.

"It's kind of a blurry line between adventurers and biologists," said Lance Craighead, the institute's executive director. "For most of the people we know that do biology, it's also an outdoor adventure. But as far as hooking up with people that are just out recreating, it's all kind of new to us."

The Craighead Institute had begun contacting citizen-scientists to collect pika data before Treinish's group became involved. But ASC "seems like a more efficient way to do it," said Craighead, who now sits on the group's advisory council.

For Beth Holland, a biogeochemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the value of citizen science efforts like ASC's goes beyond hard data.

"It is a great way to build bridges between the scientific and the outdoor communities," she said. "There is so much about science that can seem to happen in an ivory tower."

Volunteers keep program running

Holland, who sits on ASC's advisory board, is now working to develop a smaller, more streamlined version of air-sampling equipment for future use by citizen-scientists on wilderness treks.

"The sampling with 'cans' is something we've done for a long time," she said, "but making them small enough and portable enough, thinking through what protocol needs to be used by someone outdoors, is what we're working on right now."

Holland hopes that one day, boaters will be able to take a cooler full of the redesigned air-sampling cans on journeys along rivers -- particularly in the West, where she says the recent explosion of coal, natural gas and coal-bed methane development is creating new air pollution hot spots.

"We're seeing air quality being compromised in areas where we never would have expected it," she said. That includes Wyoming's Wind River region, where ozone pollution in the town of Pinedale is now twice as high as U.S. EPA's eight-hour standard.

But readying that new technology for use by ASC explorers is at least a year off. In the meantime, Treinish faces a bigger challenge: finding the money to keep moving his project forward.

Interest is "overwhelming," he says, but "we don't fit into the very narrow restraints a lot of organizations have" for grant-making. "Listening, funding, getting general support has been a challenge."

Treinish, who says he's working 50 to 60 hours a week on a volunteer basis, is able to pay an assistant. In the meantime, he's trying to rustle up support for ASC by reaching out to private donors, contracting to recruit citizen-scientists for agencies and groups like the Bureau of Land Management and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and spreading the word at scientific meetings.

The time he spent in the Andes in 2006-2008 is never far from his mind.

"When I went to the Andes, I didn't have the resources or knowledge to know where to begin putting together a scientific project that would be beneficial," he said. "Had an organization like ASC existed, we absolutely would have made more of our 8,000-mile trek."