The definition of indomitable might as well read Lara Oles in the minds of those who know her. A biological scientist who teaches geographical information systems or GIS at the Forest Service’s Geospatial Service and Technology Center (GSTC) in Salt Lake City, she talks a fast game on any topic at hand, while still leaving many details untold and teases the imagination to understand the joys she finds in her work and play. Her love of animals from an early age guided her passion to develop a career as a wildlife biologist. A skiing accident, which would have crippled many, left her inspired and unshakable as she pursued both her career and a new hobby.
What attracted to you to working for the Forest Service?
I’m a wildlife biologist by training. I had a great 14-year career with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the Mississippi River in Wisconsin studying birds and ducks. Then a work detail with a fisheries program introduced me to geographic information systems (GIS.) This new tool was opening vistas in using data to manage the land. We use it to visualize, question, analyze, and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns, and trends. At that time, GIS was on a mainframe computer so I was very fortunate to learn how it could be used to help with my wildlife responsibilities. By the time the technology transitioned to desktop use, I was the go-to expert in my region so I started teaching my cohorts.
In 2002, for a change in scenery, my husband and I moved west to be near mountains and took jobs in Wyoming with the Bureau of Land Management. My job concentrated on the National Environmental Protection Act work involved in permits for oil and gas wells while ensuring protection for wildlife. In 2006, while recuperating from a skiing accident and assessing my career options, I decided to focus more on wildlife biology. In 2009, I accepted a job as a wildlife biologist on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
In 2012, I found my current job as a biological scientist at GSTC which allowed me to bring my field perspective to those using GIS and pursue my new hobby of equestrian dressage.
What happened during your skiing accident?
I fell off a T-bar and started sliding and couldn’t stop. I had many internal injuries and a spinal cord injury that completely paralyzed my right arm. Three days later, an ensuing blood clot on the spinal cord, partially paralyzed my right leg and I couldn’t walk. That was a double whammy - having to relearn to walk and learn to live with one hand.
How has GIS helped mitigate the risk of wildland fire?
I can’t stress enough how much GIS can save lives and help fight fire. The applications are wide including figuring out areas most at-risk for burns, identifying roads that could be used to hold a fire, or locating the safest places for a firefighter to stop a blaze or start a backburn. Every fire unit uses GIS in their work and many breakthroughs in GIS technology come from the fire community. Many of my students are involved in fire programs or managing fire and they all use Avenza to quickly upload current data from the ground for fire applications. We have an online tutorial which you can learn in an hour on the GSTC website.
As a GIS trainer, what are you focused on?
My niche is to work with beginners to help them learn GIS and to understand how it can be used for field applications. I created a course for people new to GIS and the agency to explain the Forest Service Enterprise Data Center and how to use this as a best practice for working NEPA projects and saving data. I spend a lot of time preparing to ensure the classes and training materials are updated with the most current information and are 508 compliant. With the constant flow of technology advances, we’re always building our training classes to keep up with revolutions in technology. We’re always innovating.
What innovation is currently attracting attention?
I look at maps as telling a story and we’re using a new tool called Story Maps using ArcGIS Online which allows us to use our spatial data in different templates to tell a story. You have to know a little bit about spatial data to begin with but we can tell stories through maps, narrative text, photos, images and multi-media content to tell geographic stories. We have so many different flora types, different species, different historic landmarks and their stories can be illustrated through a simple story map. Examples include a story from our Southwestern Region, the destructive southern pine beetle and careers in Alaska.
Equestrian dressage is a big interest of yours. How did you get involved?
I attended the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010 which also featured para-equestrian dressage. It’s considered the highest expression of horse training where both horse and rider perform a series of predetermined movements from memory. I thought since I don’t ski anymore I’d take dressage lessons and started driving an hour and half each way to the National Ability Center in Park City. Eventually, I was recruited to go to one of the Paralympic para-dressage training camps. That’s when I decided to take the job with GSTC and start training with a professional trainer.
How has your hobby developed?
I’ve competed in dressage since 2012. I train four to five days a week on horseback to hone my strength and skills. Last year, we competed in the Para Dressage Nationals and placed in the top 10 in the country. I have some really dedicated sponsors supporting me and we’re hoping to make the Team and represent the United States at the World Equestrian Games in Montreal in 2018. The Games are fun because you’re competing alongside all the best riders in the world. It’s almost more prestigious than the Olympics for horse people. Someday, I also hope to represent the United States at the Paralympics.
Who has had the greatest influence on your life and why?
I’d have to say my mother. Though she was not interested in animals, scared of dogs and not an outdoors person, she encouraged her children to follow their passions. She followed the Joseph Campbell philosophy of follow your dreams, find out what makes you happy and things will work out. She instilled self-confidence in me, my brother and sister and we knew we were loved and supported. With that, you are allowed to pursue many things and feel secure in your way.