Masters Projects: Where and How We Work
Field Naturalists get outside and find answers. Students bring their skills in science, fieldwork, communications and problem solving to bear on a genuine field project for a sponsoring organization. This constitutes our program's Masters requirement.
Projects take students far afield: to Puerto Rico to create a community-wide ecological assessment, to the High Sierra to track the tree-killing White Pine Blister Rust, to Maine to discover and map remote forests in Baxter State Park, or here in Vermont to develop innovative strategies for controlling invasive plant species. Students work in collaboration with a sponsoring conservation organization – The Nature Conservancy, the National Park Service, a state agency or a municipal parks department, for example.
The Masters product includes a professional report for the sponsoring organization, written academic reflections, and a journal publication or article in the popular mass media.
Projects from the 2018 Field Season
Conserving Vermont's Future
Eighty percent of Vermont is privately owned, average parcel size is decreasing, and two-thirds of landowners are families and individuals. Climate change and forest fragmentation are additional variables that will permanently alter the future character of the state. Working with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and Vermont Coverts, Carolyn Loeb spent her summer visiting a dozen private landowners, walking their properties with them, mapping important natural features, and writing ecological reports tailored to each person and place. At the same time, she introduced them to Vermont Conservation Design (VCD), a new statewide vision for an ecologically sustainable future. From this place of "ecological counseling," Carolyn helped landowners find feasible, ecologically-sound, personalized approaches to managing their land. She was also tasked with making concrete recommendations to the state regarding how to introduce VCD to private landowners. This fall, Carolyn continues her work with a GIS analysis that assesses how well currently protected lands meet VCD targets and examines individual towns to identify gaps and opportunities in meeting design goals. Check out some of her preliminary results here.
There once was a time when the Champlain Valley was blanketed by trees—vast, dynamic jungles of southern hardwoods and hemlocks, rooted in thick lakebottom clay. From this rich clay, Vermont's agricultural tradition also flourished, but the Valley Clayplain Forest today covers less than 10 percent of its pre-settlement range. Restoring these primeval forests to their native landscape is easier said than done. Chris Schorn, working with The Nature Conservancy, analyzed the success of the Vermont's first valley clayplain forest restoration project at the Hubbardton River Clayplain Forest Preserve in West Haven. In a landscape with a 350-yearheritage of sustained agricultural use, the deck is stacked against the future forest: in their struggle for establishment, the planted seedlings face depleted soils, competitive non-native haygrasses, and root-girdling rodents. Overcoming these barriers means redoubling efforts, recrafting strategies, and redefining restoration.
Birds and Fire
In the summer of 2018, as historic wildfires scorched the American west, Jason Mazurowski was investigating the role of fire through the lens of conservation. Over the past decade, The Nature Conservancy has employed prescribed burns to maintain 3,000 acres of pitch pine-scrub oak woodland in the Ossipee Pine Barrens Preserve in northern New Hampshire. A globally rare community, pine barrens provide refuge for threatened and endangered wildlife, including common nighthawks and eastern whip-poor-wills – two rapidly declining aerial insectivores. Partnering with TNC and New Hampshire Audubon, Jason surveyed nighthawks, whip-poor-wills and a suite of shrubland obligate songbirds. Jason's observations of nighthawk nesting behavior in the pine barrens has contributed to a better understanding of their statewide population and distribution. Combining this information with updated vegetation measurements, Jason will examine the role of fire in each species' habitat preferences, informing future management decisions and burn regimes.
The intersection of a river and a retired railroad in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, represents an ideal of conservation, where people and ecology are equally considered. Underserved populations are not uncommon in Vermont. Statewide, 44% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. How can we integrate marginalized populations into Vermont's progressive conservation agenda? Lauren Sopher did so by applying the pillars of just conservation: work that is ethical and effective. Lauren paired community meetings, one-on-one interviews, and events (Bend Block Party Event, Stories of the Bend Event, Historic Preservation Field Walk, Native Plants Field Walk, Community Presentation) with a landscape analysis. As a result, conservation recommendations were published in the Greensboro Town Plan. The best practice for conservation work is a partnership that includes a community.
Projects from the 2017 Field Season
Roads and Wildlife
In Western Massachusetts, three road crossings and one cramped culvert might stand between a bobcat and its next meal. Working with The Nature Conservancy and MassDOT, Andy Wood collected data to pinpoint places for wildlife-friendly road upgrades. Andy camera trapped mammals, measured culverts, and scoured the asphalt for roadkill—all the while tweaking survey methods for future citizen scientists. The upshot? Smart infrastructure linking the Green Mountains of Vermont to the Hudson Highlands of New York.
Learning with Phenology
Wildflowers in New England bloom an average of 10 days earlier than they did in the 1850s. Trees leaf out earlier and keep their leaves later. What will these changes in phenology – the timing of the seasonal life stages of plants and animals – mean for our Vermont forests? Will oaks replace our beloved sugar maples? Will fall foliage peak later? How will this affect wildlife? To engage more people with these questions, and maybe even find answers, Chelsea Clarke designed a phenology monitoring program for Shelburne Farms and piloted it with a local middle school. Visitors and students will use the new "Phenology Walk" to learn about seasonal cycles and climate change on a local scale, all while contributing valuable data to the National Phenology Network.
New Roots for the Florida Torreya
Only a handful of Florida Torreya - a spiky Christmas-tree like cousin to the yews - have reproduced successfully in the wild since the 1960s, and their extinction is likely without human intervention. A new conservation seed orchard, managed by Sarah P. Duke Gardens in central North Carolina, aims to help. Katherine Hale traveled to wild and cultivated Torreya populations in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina to learn what the trees would need be fruitful and multiply in a landscape a thousand miles north of their historical range. Armed with field observations and GIS data, she found the best possible location for the orchard and designed a plan for its construction and upkeep. Although it will take at least a decade for the orchard to mature, the next generation of Florida Torreya is on the way, with the first trees to be planted out in winter 2017.
Protecting Ginseng in a National Park
Most police departments don't have a resident botanist. But at Shenandoah National Park, where poaching threatens populations of American ginseng, plant protection is a top law enforcement priority. Prized in traditional Asian medicine, ginseng is now globally endangered due to centuries of habitat loss and overharvest. Maria Dunlavey helped prevent Shenandoah's ginseng from going the same route. Maria resurveyed ginseng populations, mapped the history of ginseng poaching in the park, and prepared a comprehensive ginseng field guide as a resource for rangers. Through it all, she enjoyed grappling with the practicalities of backcountry law enforcement, along with the cultural and ecological history of a plant that's been knitting hemispheres together for more than three centuries.
Projects from the 2016 Field Season
Trails for Travertine
Travertine Hot Springs, a 160-acre mosaic of sagebrush scrub, pinyon-juniper woodland, and delicate alkali meadows, hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, and you can tell. Trampled vegetation, illegal campfire rings, and two and a half miles of meandering informal paths illustrate the degree to which this place is enjoyed by the public. Julia Runcie helped the Bureau of Land Management and the Bridgeport Indian Colony design a trail system and a series of interpretive signs to guide visitors more gently through this fragile corner of eastern California. The next step is monitoring: how will we gauge the effectiveness of this approach?
Community health surges when residents are deeply and collectively connected with their landscape. But our "landscape" is so layered, complex, and perplexingly interconnected that it's tough to make sense of it. Somehow, oysters have everything to do with railroads, lightbulbs illuminate because of our trees, and Merino sheep explain the African melons at the market. Sean Beckett sought out the curious and compelling expressions of Burlington's identity, showcasing them in a big community-wide celebration of natural and cultural heritage called Burlington Geographic.
A River and Resilience
We cheer for sports teams and vote at community meetings by our town lines. Water knows no such political bounds; its flow impacts different places in the same way – especially in floods. Gabe Andrews' mission has been to change the way we see ourselves in places affected by water's path through the land. He has collected and mapped stories, assessed riverbanks and floodplains, and puzzled at municipal planning, all to enhance a sense of place in the New Haven River Watershed in western Vermont. With climate change and heavier storms looming, Gabe has partnered with schools, residents, and The Vermont River Conservancy to build resilience to rising waters.
Nutcrackers and NOLS
The raucous squawks of the Clark's nutcracker may not be musical, but they are capable of calling adventurers to action. Anya Tyson launched a citizen-science partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to investigate the habitat preferences of this seed-dispersing bird in Wyoming's western mountains. With user-friendly materials, face-to-face trainings, and accordion performances, she taught wilderness instructors about the crucial link between Clark's nutcrackers and the imperiled whitebark pine. The lesson came with a mission: each of us can contribute to conservation through our observations. Using the summer's successes and pitfalls as landmarks, Anya will craft a series of best practices to guide the field of citizen science deeper into the backcountry.
Forest, Farm, and Future
Blue Hill Farm in Chester, Vermont, hasn't been a farm since the early 1900s; instead, out-of-staters have summered there, built gazebos, and admired the cows grazing in the fields they leased to other farmers. But the new owners plan to change that. Blue Hill will soon incubate new farming business models while protecting much of the forest that now covers four-fifths of the 130-acre property. In these woods and meadows, Sonia DeYoung found bobcats, bears, and bobolinks, forest seeps and a unique floodplain, stone foundations and antique barbed wire—all things the owners want to keep on the land as they prepare the fields to be plowed once more. Sonia's landscape inventory and assessment will guide their process.
Conservation and a Timber Sale
Vermont's second largest timber holding is for sale. Flanking the remote summits of the northern Green Mountains, the Atlas Timberlands comprise nearly 26,000 acres of forest which, for the last 25 years, have been owned by The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Land Trust (VLT). After more than a century of sporadic harvest and regrowth, these forests will now be sold as individual parcels to a new generation of land stewards. But while the land will change hands, the ecologically uncommon sites will remain protected by conservation easements. Hannah Phillips spent her summer traversing the Atlas lands in search of these sites – logging bear-marked beech and bog orchids, creeping Chrysosplenium, and forest seeps. She emerged with an appreciation for the role our "common" hardwood forest plays in sustaining Vermont's tradition of working lands and with a fondness for black ash.
A Field Naturalist Curriculum
The term "Nature deficit disorder" typically refers to children, but what about college students? In an age of academic specialization and online classrooms, students are losing accesses to holistic, field-based natural history studies more and more. This summer, Ellen Gawarkiewicz was sponsored by the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources to work towards reversing this trend by creating and piloting a curriculum for a UVM undergraduate field naturalist summer program. Students explored wild places in Chittenden County to gain an array of lenses through which to read the landscape. The budding field naturalist team applied their training to community servive projects ranging from natural and cultural interpretation to invasive species management.
A Wild Watershed
Before mapping natural communities on thousands of acres of property, Lyra Brennan was warned about ticks, poison ivy, poison parsnip, rabid coyotes, quicksand swamp muck, rogue wolves, bear cubs, large snakes, territorial dogs, mosquitoes, and ghosts. She encountered approximately 75% of these threats, but was handsomely rewarded in return. Lyra found rare orchids nestled in Northern Cedar swamp hollows, chestnut oaks perched on dry ridge tops, and vivid oral history from families with ancestors who moved to Monkton, Vermont, in the 1700s. Lyra hopes to cast light on the many sides of Monkton by sharing the species and stories of Monktons' Pond Brook Watershed with the community. Her discoveries will also support Monkton's Agricultural and Natural Areas Committee as it works to keep Monkton wild and welcoming.
Projects from the 2015 Field Season
An Island Narrative
Ben Lemmond spent his summer in a foggy island ghost town in Maine. Hurricane Island, one of the last stops in Penobscot bay before open ocean — head East and you'll hit Portugal — was abandoned suddenly in 1914 by the town of 400-odd quarry workers who cut away the granite remains of an ancient unexploded volcano. You can still find dishes, wine bottles, dolls, shoe leather, and ice skates matted in the roots of toppled spruce. Today, however, the island is home to the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership, a science education organization and NSF-funded research field station. Ben was there to do what Field Naturalists do best: gather clues on the terrestrial ecology and compile them into a natural history narrative.
What's in a Name?
The rolling hills and stunning vistas of New Haven, Vermont, might make this small town a haven, but it's definitely not new. So, what's in a name? For New Haven, more than 10,000 years of human habitation and millions of years of geologic and ecological history have molded the town's land and culture. In collaboration with the New Haven Conservation Commission, Emma Stuhl spent the summer gathering information and planning events to help New Haven residents more deeply understand and celebrate the place they call home. She mapped and explored those rolling hills, interviewed and read about the residents, and organized a community forum. This fall, Emma will share her findings as she works with the elementary school and facilitates a presentation series.
Modeling for Wildlife
Black bear, bobcat, fisher, and other wide-ranging species don’t always tell us where they live and travel. Since habitat connectivity is an important feature of the landscape, Sam Talbot used sophisticated computer modeling to reveal potential wildlife corridors. His study focused on the region surrounding Lake George and southern Lake Champlain – an area rich in rolling forests, prime agricultural soil, and recreational opportunities. Given this landscape’s value for both wildlife and humans, modeling habitat connectivity will guide future land conservation decisions that allow wildlife to move unencumbered by barriers, such as roads and high-density development.
Mapping (and Muck)
The worst part of Shelby Perry's project field work this summer was the day she sunk into the muck behind a beaver dam up to her thighs, and then sustained dozens of grass cuts up each arm while struggling to climb out as her boots slowly filled with foul smelling black ooze. The best part was everything else. For her project, which was sponsored by the Vermont Land Trust, she identified and mapped state significant natural communities and special habitat features on nearly 15,000 acres of forestry land in central Vermont. The information she collected will be used to determine what areas deserve extra protections in easements VLT will be holding on the land.
Yoga and Nature
Sweeping views of the Berkshires and miles of trails await guests at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in western Massachusetts, yet surprisingly few visitors venture outside. Jessie Griffen is collaborating with Mass Audubon to transform Kripalu's grounds from a beautiful backdrop viewed through the windows to an essential part of the guest experience. This summer, she conducted an ecological inventory of the 125-acre property and mapped the trails. And she developed and piloted natural history programs, including sunrise birding and a pollinator citizen science project.
Projects from the 2014 Field Season
Fall River Stewardship
Emerging from volcanic bedrock east of Oregon's High Cascades, the Fall River has long been popular among hikers, birders and trout-chasing anglers. Field Naturalist Levi Old collaborated with Trout Unlimited to build a river stewardship organization, fix damaged streambanks for native trout habitat, and piece together the watershed's natural history. Levi facilitated two community-visioning workshops, built partnerships among land management agencies, NGOs and private businesses, and designed a stewardship plan that will chart the watershed's future.
BioBlitz and Beyond
Last July, Mike Blouin convinced 70 strangers to join an expedition. In the shadow of Mt. Washington, scientists and locals gathered to share knowledge, connect to place, and collect biodiversity data in the 3000-acre Green Hills Preserve. Called a Bioblitz, the day-long adventure featured opportunities to spy on birds and poke at coyote scat, to discern grasses from sedges, to sketch vistas and oak leaves, to hear tall tales at twilight. Mike worked with the Nature Conservancy to coordinate two of these Bioblitzes. Now he's using the findings to inform management, build educational resources, and develop new models of inquiry for future explorers.
Rivers, Woods and People
Vermont's wildest river was once a scene of clear-cut forests and disruptive dams. Nikki Bauman and the Vermont River Conservancy are making sure history doesn't repeat itself. Nikki trekked the rugged terrain along the Nulhegan River in the Northeast Kingdom to understand the landscape and its inhabitants. She developed management strategies based on a compilation of stream restoration assessments, surveys for public access opportunities, consultations with local experts, bird watching, and more. Within the largest block of undeveloped land in Vermont, the Nulhegan Basin is remote and biologically diverse. The strategies are tailored to balance conservation, recreation, and utility of the working landscape, all of which are essential to the culture of the Northeast Kingdom.
Exhort for the Hort Farm
UVM's "Hort Farm" is an undiscovered goldmine in South Burlington. Formally known as the Horticultural Research and Education Center, it houses rarely-seen plant collections, presents a dark woodland walk that transports visitors to a deep forest, and provides vegetable shares to CSA members. But it's barely known in the Burlington area. Maddy Morgan spent her summer helping The Friends of the Hort Farm devise ways to change this. She organized service-learning projects, investigated outreach ideas and visited other environmental centers in search of inspiration. Her work will present a model to make the Hort Farm a more engaging and vital part of the Burlington community.
Merck Forest tells the story of Vermont through tap scars on the maples and rock walls of yesterday's fields now scattered through hardwood forests. People lived on this land, and altered it drastically for generations. Now the forest is rejuvenating, allowing natural processes to inspire change, with human intervention mimicking these natural forces. Over 3,000 acres of contiguous forested landscape, Merck Forest captures the essence of Vermont's identity. And that's why Kat Deely is here, transecting hillsides on Merck's three mountains, observing, mapping and contemplating the ecological integrity of this landscape. Merck Forest & Farmland Center knows how special this place is, and that's why it is working with the Vermont Land Trust to protect this land through a conservation easement in perpetuity - those lovely words that will give our grandchildren and their grandchildren a place to traverse the hillsides for observation, contemplation, and enjoyment.
Trails and Wildlife
Ski the trees! So rings the battle cry of the eastern skier as white fluff accumulates. The trees hold snow when ice covers the open slopes. Cutting away the understory of the forest to create a ski line is assumed to be benign, yet no data exists on the subject. The Bolton Valley Nordic and Backcountry Trails parcel, under the management of Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, offered a case study opportunity. Bushwhacking around Bolton last summer, Kathryn Wrigley conducted an ecological assessment to help untangle the details of ski trails and ski glades. By exploring how the loss of forest understory affects wildlife habitat, Kathryn's work will inform the state's long-range management plan for the parcel.
Projects from the 2013 Field Season
A conservation organization can protect a natural area from logging or development, but invasive plants routinely hop fences and scoff at legislation. So Clare Crosby is helping The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Land Trust rethink their approach to managing invasives in and around natural areas. By analyzing distribution of invasives on private lands, Clare is helping to guide future management efforts around TNC natural areas in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. She is also opening lines of communication with landowners about the importance of managing invasives on their land.
In the Maine woods salamanders converge on vernal pools for a once-a-year orgy. Gray Jays float like ghosts through forests of spruce and fir. And treasures on any hike range from moose to mushrooms. Kelly Finan walked some of Maine's exquisite paths to produce a suite of "natural heritage trail guides." Working with the Maine Natural Areas Program, Kelly intends to get day-hikers to stop and experience the diversity of life at each and every step.
Calcium is essential to more than just bones. In forests, it promotes diversity, productivity and resilience. But it’s not everywhere. Gus Goodwin hunted calcium in glacial till at sites throughout the Green Mountain National Forest. The hunt began not with a shovel or rock hammer, but with dusty maps and long-forgotten research. Gus built a GIS model that predicts how much of this essential nutrient is in the till and where to find it. With shovel in hand, he is headed out to test these predictions.
Of Birds and Boards
Heavy timbers, hardwood boards, pulp wood and woodpeckers. In the Adirondack Mountains these are the products of a sustaining forest-based economy. Field Naturalist Matt Pierle is dancing through the slash of a range of forest cuts to evaluate the physical and structural quality of residual stands for a broad suite of forest birds – from those requiring “complex” (old) forest to those thriving in recently disturbed landscapes. As it turns out, forestry and finches can not only coexist, but thrive. Knock on wood.
Tracking a Killer
White Pine Blister Rust has decimated pine forests across the continent. Matt Cahill pursued the disease through the rugged backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, a besieged holdout from the blight. His research revealed a low severity but high prevalence of rust, like a full-body rash that only slightly itches. Piecing together the evidence, Matt is identifying where the forest succumbs to rust and where, despite the odds, the pines are pulling through.
Customary wisdom advises that we run for the hills during high waters. Unpaved roads run the other way, undermining water quality and town budgets. Joanne Garton mines the project archives of the non-profit Better Backroads, assessing how Best Management Practices have reduced road erosion and improved water quality downstream. Her work will help towns and the Vermont Agency of Transportation determine whether to spend more (or less) money on compliance with road and bridge standards. Look for Joanne photographing roadside ditches and plugged culverts, boots covered in sediment intercepted on its rogue journey to Lake Champlain.
Learning on the Land
Though interns are often relegated to coffee brewing and photocopying, Laura Yayac is designing a program to bring them respect as land stewards. Laura spent the summer consulting with the member land trusts of the Southern Maine Conservation Collaborative to understand their stewardship needs. She's developing an internship program for the Collaborative inspired by the Vermont-based LANDS program, in which students gain field and professional skills while inventorying natural resources and crafting management plans. Better conservation, applied student learning, and no coffee errands.
Last modified January 17 2019 07:59 PM