When officials announced the top three competitors at the ninth annual International Junior Foresters' Competition in Moscow, South Tahoe High School seniors Emily Barnett and Tyler Myers had no idea they'd won third place.
"They said it in Russian, and we didn't have the translators. So we're sitting there and then we hear our names and we were looking at each other, like, 'What's going on?'" Barnett said.
Announcers called the Tahoe two students first - they'd reversed the top three before starting all the way from the bottom of the 52-presentation list - and Barnett and Myers both thought their project had finished last. It came as a shock when they learned they'd actually landed on the podium, the first U.S. team ever to participate in the event.
"We were like 'Ah, what?' I was really wishing I had understood my moment a little bit better. We missed our applause, we missed everything because we were so confused," Myers said, laughing.
The two teens received a medal, a pair of iPads and a certificate for their project, "The Effects of Fire and Forest Thinning on the Biodiversity of Understory Plants in the Lake Tahoe Basin."
Barnett and Myers combined field work, data analysis and a 20-page paper for the study that started during the 2011-12 school year. It grew from their participation in the Generation Green Program, a student club advised by teacher Maria Luquin and Lake Tahoe Management Unit Conservation Education Specialist Joy Barney.
The students worked with U.S. Forest Service Regional Ecologist Hugh Safford to conclude that canopy cover, litter depth - the amount of un-decayed organic material on the forest floor - and stem count all have significant effects on the biodiversity of understory plants in Tahoe. The work can help residents of the basin understand how USFS land management practices can help forest health.
"Now we're putting out the biodiversity facts, which makes our basin more resistant to diseases. It's another thing to help people understand that forest thinning is a good thing," Myers said.
"If we continue this project, we'll be able to get some more beneficial conclusions. Forest thinning and forest treatment is uncommonly studied," he said.
Safford called the project a "nice hors d'oeuvre" to a series of more comprehensive studies the USFS will publish in the next year. The hands-on research, conducted by the Forest Service, the University of Montana and UC Davis, started after the Angora fire, and Barnett and Myers' project is just the tip of the iceberg, he said.
Safford figured their study would finish in the top 10 to 15 percent at the Russian competition, but when he learned that they'd won third place, it was a "mind-blower" he said.
In order to snag a spot on the podium, the STHS seniors presented their project in front of a panel of 15 international judges. And despite the airline losing their luggage and learning at the last minute that the presentation they'd prepared would have to be cut almost in half due to time restraints, the final lecture they delivered went smoothly. The judges were especially impressed with their statistical analysis and knowledge of the different species.
"We were really calm and prepared. We had practiced it the night before, cutting it down to 10 minutes. We were struggling to fit everything in before, and then they were like, 'You have to cut down your presentation,'" Barnett said.
"We were so involved, we knew what we were talking about. A lot of the groups were a small part of like 200 people, but we did the project itself," she said.
It was interesting to see how the projects varied by country, the students said. Some presenters focused on the economic benefits of forests, and how practices like logging could be used for maximum profit. Others, like the Japanese competitor who studied shrine-building in trees, focused on culture.
On the final day after all the presentations and the award winners were named, the groups went on a tour of the Kremlin and the Red Square before the top three arrived at the city's music hall to claim their prizes.
Myers' grandmother, Lisa, who traveled with the teens as a chaperone, was in tears as the two students filed onto the stage in front of the state dignitaries and received their award from head of the Russian Federal Forestry Agency, Victor N. Maslyakov. It was the national Day of the Forest Worker and the country was celebrating with a concert that had filled the hall.
"I would have been proud just to be an American that day, but being a grandmother, it was 10 times that. It was like the Olympics. They were like pioneers, and they did their country proud," Myers said.
As Barnett and Myers continue their studies in Tahoe, they're already looking toward the future after high school. Barnett said she's thinking of studying environmental studies, while Myers wants to go into environmental engineering. Both said they want to stay in California, but the world outside the basin beckons.
It was the teens' first time out of the country, and that kind of trip can really change your perspective, Barnett said.
"Seeing other people from other countries ... It's a big world, but it's small all at the same time," she said.