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Innovative cooperative monitors Vermont's forests on many fronts

By Joshua Brown Article published October 31, 2007

Monitoring Coop
Seventy-two feet high and rising: Sampling atmospheric conditions above Mount Mansfield's canopy with UVM staff member Mim Pendleton (left) and state employee Sean Lawson of the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

Mercury is a mystery. Or at least it’s a devilishly complex toxic substance that can be found in many forms: air-borne particles, vapor, or caught in the liquid matrix of rain and snow. It can be bound to soil, absorbed in leaves, processed by bacteria or trapped in the fatty tissue of birds and people. And how it moves in a forest canopy, from dry air to leaves and ground — and back again — is poorly understood.

Which is why I’m standing 72 feet off the ground with Mim Pendleton and Sean Lawson from the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative. They’ve brought me here — onto the west flank of Mount Mansfield to the top of a tower that sticks above the highest trees — to see sophisticated collectors that measure fluctuating mercury levels as air moves through the treetops.

“I can’t believe how still it is,” says Pendleton. There is so little wind that we can hear the wings of ladybugs clinking on the aluminum poles of the tower. It’s hard to imagine that the languid breeze could have traveled from much farther than the maples spread below.

But filter packs that stick out from this tower regularly measure deposits of dry mercury that travel from coal-fired powerplants in Ohio and Pennsylvania and other points farther away. And just downslope from here, another instrument has collected the world’s longest record of continuously measured mercury deposited in rain and snow, contributing to a national data set that shows how mercury moves in a pattern as big as the planet.

Big issues, broad effort
This is just one of more than 130 studies housed under the broad roof of the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative, a highly unusual partnership between UVM, the State of Vermont, and the US Forest Service — and more than 60 other partners, like Eric Miller, a scientist with ERG, Inc. who is leading this canopy investigation.

The VMC’s five-person staff is drawn from UVM, like Pendleton, who is a field technician employed by the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources — and from the State of Vermont, like Lawson, who is employed as the VMC’s monitoring coordinator by the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.

Under a 1996 memorandum of understanding, and with funding from the Forest Service, the VMC not only manages this canopy tower at UVM’s Proctor Maple Research Center, but also a meterological “supersite” nearby with some dozen instruments owned by a range of state and federal government agencies — including NOAA and Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources. The cooperative also runs scientific plots at Mount Mansfield and on Forest Service land at Lye Brook Wilderness in southern Vermont to measure forest health, as well as two meteorological stations on Lake Champlain, one at Colchester Reef and the other at Diamond Island.

“The big picture is: We’re here to provide the information needed to understand, manage and protect Vermont’s forested ecosystem in a changing global environment,” says Lawson, with a small smile, reciting the organization’s mission from memory.

And numerous datasets and reports available at the VMC’s website show the range of this work:

  • Under “Forest” there are studies of red spruce in the understory, the population of the plant Diapensia iapponica, how to monitor ozone using white clover and the condition of birch trees.
  • Under “Soil” there’s a bedrock mapping report, methods for long-term soil monitoring, a study on the impacts of trails in the arctic-alpine zone and one on soil temperature gradients in a northern hardwood forest.
  • Under “Wildlife” is a report on using drift fences to survey amphibians, an assessment of methylmercury in Bicknell’s thrush, surveys of small mammals and insects and a study of responses of songbirds to ski trails.
  • Under “Air” are studies of ecosystem carbon dioxide exchange, fine aerosol monitoring, meteorology at the Mount Mansfield summit, chloroform and more.
All these studies are part of a broadly practical effort, says Jennifer Jenkins, a UVM scientist recently appointed to lead the cooperative, to provide “information and science to help us manage our forests into the future.”

Acid test
It was forests of the past that gave birth to the Vermont Monitoring Cooperative in 1990. “It grew out of the experience of the acid rain days in the 1980’s,” says Rich Poirot, a scientist with the state’s air pollution control division, who, along with former UVM professor Tim Scherbatskoy, helped found the cooperative, first “on the back of a napkin in Leunig's,” and then with a white paper presented to both UVM and the state.

“Tim would be doing acid rain studies, while nearby the state air quality and water quality people were doing their own work,” Poirot says. “We were working separately but we all ended up going to the same meetings.

“It was that experience of not quite having our stuff together or coordinating as much as we’d like that led to the idea: Wouldn’t it be nice to have one organization that took down the barriers between the research activities at the university and the monitoring by state?” he says, since there was much overlap of goals and interests.

Seventeen years later, with support from Senator Patrick Leahy and numerous other people at UVM and statewide, the result is a structure that provides access to long-term forest study sites for numerous researchers, facilitates information sharing, archives data and also provides small grants to forest researchers.

But perhaps more unusual than forging a long-term partnership between the state, UVM and the federal government is the time scale the cooperative considers: that of the forest itself. At the VMC’s annual meeting last week, researcher Charlie Cogbill suggested that the appropriate starting point for understanding Vermont’s “baseline forest” is the sprouting of the forest itself at the end of the last ice age. And, in this era of one-year grants and three-year projects, nine researchers from UVM and beyond launched a VMC soils study that they expect to continue for 200 years.

“The point is to mix the best of research — with fresh questions and monitoring — with long-term data to solve problems now and into the future,” Lawson says.