Nature’s own: A man thrives on environmental nurturing

Brian Close

Editor’s note: About 50,000 students, staff, faculty members and visitors converge on the University’s Twin Cities campus everyday. In the midst of this sea of people, it’s easy to think of the strangers passing by as just anonymous faces.
Every Monday during spring quarter the Daily will peek inside the lives of some of the strangers you see everyday. Randomly chosen from the University phone book, those profiled could sit in your class, ride your bus or pass you on the sidewalk someday. They share the University with you, and now they won’t be strangers.

When Karl Hammers was working for the United States Forest Service in Alaska, he walked for 10 hours a day, through thick brush in 40-degree weather, cold rain pouring on his head.
That was several years ago. Now, he’s a University graduate student working on his master’s degree in hydrology. But Hammers said he is most comfortable in the outdoors.
“I spent most of my childhood walking around the woods and exploring,” he said. “The wetter and dirtier I get, the happier I am.” The 32-year-old is thoughtful, pausing before answering questions. He seems to enjoy remembering people and experiences from his life.
While attending the University in the afternoons, Hammers is working in his field, locating drained wetlands for the Hennepin County Conservation District. He is using the location method he developed for his master’s thesis.

Early signs
Hammers’ budding interest in the outdoors solidified when he took Michael Chamberlin’s sophomore ecology course at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where Hammers’ father taught German.
Fascinated by Chamberlin’s knowledge of nature, Hammers participated in many of the extra-curricular camping and nature trips he offered.
“Karl was always an extremely enthusiastic student, and he participated in everything,” Chamberlin said. “His interest in the outdoors and in natural science knew no limits.”
During that time, Chamberlin was moving from faculty housing to a homestead farm he bought. He hired Hammers to help him shovel dirt, haul leaves and do other chores for a few weeks.
But Hammers wanted to continue helping him, as Chamberlin was the most interesting person Hammers knew at that time.
“He’s pretty amazing with just about everything,” he said. “I wanted to be as much like him as I could.”
Hammers continued working on the farm every weekend. Chamberlin paid him when he could.
“The payment I got is he would take some time out and teach me about ecology,” Hammers said.
He taught Hammers to identify birds and plants, some of which were edible. Hammers also said Chamberlin gave him a “strong work ethic and a sense of purpose.”
After graduating from high school in 1983, Hammers attended Northland College in Ashland, Wisc., for a year and a half, studying environmental studies.
While studying there, Hammers took an internship with Gordon Gullian, a ruffed grouse expert working in Cloquet, Minn. They mapped the sites of the grouses’ drumming logs, the sites of a territorial ritual.
Having tried several fields, Hammers transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he received a degree in forest management.

Northern exposure
After graduating from college, Hammers searched for a job with the United States Forest Service. He found a number of positions available in Alaska.
“There is a large turnover in Alaska, because of the weather and the isolation,” he said.
The weather in southeast Alaska, where Hammers was working, isn’t as most people picture when they think of Alaska. A temperate rain forest, it’s cold and wet in the winter and warm and wet in the summer.
Chamberlin, who praises Hammers’ stamina, said he has seen Hammers in every type of condition and climate imaginable.
“From backpacking cross-country in the dead of a Michigan winter to canoeing in the (Florida) Everglades — absolutely infested with the worst mosquitos we were ever in — he is absolutely undaunted,” he said. “In fact, he seemed to revel in the challenge.”
So Hammers went to Alaska, where he prepared commercial timber sales for the forest service. His job was to walk the boundaries of the parcels of land and ensure everything was prepared for the loggers to begin cutting.
The logging company, Ketchikan Pulp, had a 50-year contract to cut enough wood to keep their mills going. The government awarded these generous contracts to companies as an incentive to locate in Alaska.
Hammers enjoyed the work in Alaska, where he had the chance to ride in helicopters and float planes, and where there was enough wilderness to keep even him satisfied.
While there he camped in outcamps, trailers with eating and sleeping facilities close to the areas in which he was working. He would often stay in these trailers all week.
“We would work all week, coming back to the trailers at night, and fish and play cards,” he said. “The next week we’d do it all over again.”
While he became used to the rain as time passed, he began worrying that the forest service was becoming lax in its conservation efforts.
Because they were under contractual obligation to provide a large quantity of wood to the logging company, Hammers said, there was pressure to allow more invasive cuttingpractices to fulfill the contract.
“In my opinion, it looked like they were more concerned with the contract rather than managing the forest,” he said.
Hammers believed in the concept of sustainable yield, which means that for every tree cut down, one should be grown to replace it.
“I felt I was betraying everything I believe in,” he said. “I was very impressed by the people up there, but I think they were up against a rock and a hard place.”
After two years, Hammers looked for another job with the forest service, but found a shortage of jobs in the field.
Fed up with Alaska, he felt he needed to do something else. He found there were many jobs available for fisheries experts and hydrologists — experts in water systems.
Although hydrology required a lot of science, which made Hammers uneasy, he decided to go back to school in that field.
A co-worker told Hammers the University had a good hydrology department, and his uncle lived in the area, so Hammers decided to come to Minnesota.
Because he had been living in Alaska, he was required to pay out-of-state tuition, about $3,000 per quarter.
“When I saw the bill, I almost had a heart attack,” he said.
So after working in a Wisconsin factory for a year to get residency there, Hammers came to the University under Minnesota’s reciprocity rules.
Hammers began as an adult special student, to take the prerequisites for the graduate program and to raise his grade point average. He then applied for and was accepted into the hydrology program.

Lost and found
Hammers’ current job at the conservation district grew out of the Minnesota Wetlands Conservation Act of 1991, which states there is to be no more net loss of wetlands in Minnesota.
Wetlands are areas in which the earth is saturated with water for enough time to affect the soil and plants. In addition, they filter contaminants, hold rain runoff to prevent flooding and provide important habitats for a variety of animals.
With 50 to 75 percent of the wetlands in Minnesota gone, the Legislature decided that if a wetland had to be destroyed, developers had to restore another or create a new one of equal value.
The difficulty is finding old wetlands that have been drained. That’s where Hammers enters the picture.
Using aerial photos and several types of maps, Hammers locates sites that might be drained wetlands.
He then asks the owner of the land for permission to examine the field. He looks at the plants, the soil type and the land features to determine if it was ever a wetland.
If the land owner is willing to allow restoration, developers will lease the land and restore it.
Sometimes he has problems getting permission from farmers, who are concerned they won’t be able to use any of their land.
“There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides,” he said.
The job provides more than experience or money, it is also the subject of Hammers’ “Plan B” paper for his master’s degree.
In the paper, Hammers compiles the data from his field checks to see if his method of locating sites is a good predictor.

Camped out in St. Paul
Hammers’ typical day begins at 5:15 a.m., when he wakes up and leaves the house by 6 to avoid rush hour traffic on his commute from Chaska, Minn., where he lives with his uncle.
On days he doesn’t have classes, Hammers will sometimes go directly to work and stay there all day. On class days he brings paperwork to work on before class.
He is currently taking two classes: Minnesota Plant Life and Wetland Soils. Both are taught on the St. Paul campus, which Hammers prefers to Minneapolis, calling it “personal” and “laid-back.”
One sees the same personal attitude in Hammers. He carries extra campus maps to give to lost visitors.
“It seems once a day I get stopped for directions,” he said. “I just hand them a map and say here’s where you are and here’s where you want to be.”
At 7:30 p.m. he goes back home, eats dinner and does homework, finally going to bed at 10 p.m. There is little free time in Hammers’ day.
Richard Peck, Hammers’ friend from grade school, said Hammers has always been a hard worker, juggling jobs and studies, but that he is sometimes concerned about Hammers’ drive.
“Sometimes I worry that he doesn’t take time to smell the roses often enough,” he said. “But it seems he’s getting better lately.”
In addition to his work and school, Hammers has many hobbies including snowshoeing, camping, hiking, cave exploration and canoeing.
But they all fade in comparison to his favorite sport: SCUBA diving.
“Diving is the ultimate exploration because you’re in a whole new environment,” he said.
While he describes a Bahamas trip, where he once dived four times a day, as the most fun he has ever had in his life, SCUBA diving also gave him his scariest experience ever.
It was a rough day on Lake Michigan, with 6-foot swells. Hammers got geared up, exited the boat and waited for his diving buddy. While bobbing around, he became nervous.
“I was afraid I was going to drown waiting for my buddy to get into the water,” he said. “The most dangerous part of diving is on the surface.”
Hammers said he wishes he could dive more often, but he has a busy life on dry land. In the future, Hammers will continue working on his paper and prepare for graduation.
In addition to going to school, Karl is still keeping an eye open on jobs to apply for. He is considering working for the U.S. Geological Survey in North Dakota, measuring stream flows for use in flood control to monitor water quality and many other applications.
“There’s not as much politics involved in that, which makes your life a lot easier,” he said.