Developing 21st century skills in the field
- By Joshua E. Brown
In the LaPlatte River Marsh Natural Area, just south of Shelburne Bay, forestry student Sylvia Kinosian '15 held one end of a piece of red string twenty-six-feet long. Her partner for the day, Julie Menezes, a Brazilian exchange student, held the other end and slowly paid it out through a clearing in the mucky forest, reaching over a low thicket of bushes.
It was a hot July morning and the mosquitoes were proving bothersome to a reporter watching the students work. But these young women seemed wholly focused on their job: taking the measure of what invasive plants were living inside the circle described by their string.
"Here we've got honeysuckle and glossy buckthorn," said Kinosian, "and over there is common buckthorn." On their clipboard they wrote down their GPS coordinates and standardized estimates of how much of the circle was covered with which plants.
It was a day's work for LANDS, the Land Stewardship Program, a joint venture between the University of Vermont and the SCA, the Student Conservation Association. In its seventh year, the project has worked on more than seventy land conservation projects across Vermont and other places in New England.
"It's not like we're just out there digging ditches," explains Michael Storace '15, one of the ten students on the 2013 LANDS team. Instead, the students spent nine weeks over the summer "serving as ecological consultants," to land trusts, agencies, and other clients, says Emily Brodsky, a graduate of UVM's Ecological Planning master's program, who now leads the LANDS program.
Billed as "a new model of corps — a College Sustainability Corps" on the program's blog, the LANDS students take on complex land stewardship and management tasks like invasive species identification, trail assessments, wetlands restoration planning, map making, urban tree counts and natural resources inventories — while also doing some of the dirty-hands grunt work of a traditional student conservation corps, like weeding, bridge building, trail repair and boundary marking.
The interns — six from UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, two Brazilian students, and two from other U.S. universities — were selected from a large pool of applicants: upper-level undergrads and recent graduates with majors in ecology, environmental science, botany, forestry and other conservation-related fields. The U.S. students were awarded a $1,700 stipend along with a $1,000 AmeriCorps award to support tuition. Some receive college credit for their work.
"This program gives them a well rounded skill set for conservation and future employment," says Brodsky. "They're not just going out and collecting data. They're working on projects from start to finish. They have to do the planning, analysis and the implementation — they have to do something with the data: write a report, create a map, make recommendations, have a deliverable to give to the sponsor."
And, in return, the sponsor gets a cost-effective set of assistants or experts-in-training. This summer's clients included the U.S. Forest Service, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, the UVM Natural Areas Program, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Green Mountain Club, and the towns of Essex Junction and Williston. "Each year, the clients and projects are different," says Brodsky.
Swimming in honeysuckle
The land where Kinosian and Menezes were working, at the mouth of the LaPlatte River, is a 225-acre preserve owned by the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It's a lovely, deep-shade kind of place, full of birds and contrasts. Silty water silently tumbles by and then a pileated woodpecker makes an absurdly loud set of calls. Silver maples, green ash, and wet-loving black willow trees, all native species, form a green block visible on Google Maps, wedged between Lake Champlain, Route 7 sprawl and Shelburne Village.
But under and around the native trees are many invasive bushes and other plants that are disrupting this floodplain, marsh, and clayplain-forest ecosystem. "Over the 8 weeks working with LANDS, we have never seen a place dominated by invasive species like this section of the LaPlatte!" wrote Kinosian and Menezes in the LANDS blog. "We were basically swimming in a sea of honeysuckle!"
Which is why The Nature Conservancy is now implementing a project in the LaPlatte River Marsh Natural Area, with a forestry consulting company and volunteers, to remove many of honeysuckle bushes and other invasives.
"TNC has already done a survey of the whole area; they have maps of invasives in this whole area," Kinosian explained. "But we've set up experimental plots on just 40 acres that can be monitored to see how well the treatments are working."
During four previous summers, The Nature Conservancy has worked with LANDS teams to inventory invasive plants. "Their work gave us the baseline information we needed to pursue funding for treatment activities," Sharon Plumb, the Conservancy's invasive species coordinator, wrote. "This year, we received significant funding from a federal grant to embark on that work." She added: "Each year we eagerly await the opportunity to pitch ideas to the students and have grown to rely on their enthusiasm and good work."
For the project that Kinosian and Menezes developed, "TNC asked us to create our own monitoring protocol for invasive species," they said. So they developed a random plot-sampling method to estimate what percent of the land was covered by the invasive plants.
"Simplicity and ease of use was one of our top priories when creating our monitoring protocol because it will be used by TNC interns and volunteers to collect data after the removal effort," they noted. The two students wanted to be sure that future data could be compared to the data that they collected, all in aid of their goal: to measure the effectiveness of the procedures used to remove the invasive plants.
Be the change
"While some of the program elements have changed over the last seven years," said Deane Wang, an associate professor in the Rubenstein School who helped found the LANDS program in 2007 and serves as its faculty adviser, "basically it's the same model of creating a conservation crew of college students that learns and then acts to serve the community with its needs to understand and manage the natural landscape around them."
The LANDS interns, Wang says, "recognize that their work has made a difference and can lead to different management outcomes on the land. So for me, perhaps the most important outcome is that the experience helps students get ready to make change in the world."
Portions of this story were reported and written by Cynthia Kingsford.