two people bend down to look at a stream in the forest

Our program director likes to say that Field Naturalists aren't really generalists—they're specialists in integration. Our curriculum, while it covers the fundamentals of natural history such as geology and botany, emphasizes the complex ways that these landscape "layers" interact to create natural communities and ecosystems. We train naturalists who, dropped into an unfamiliar patch of forest, could tell its story stretching back thousands of years.

Simply understanding the landscape is not enough, however. Students craft their writing and public speaking skills throughout the program, practicing many different styles to reach many different audiences. Field Naturalists strive to forge the link between scientists and the public. And we don't do all the talking; we listen to and learn from people in communities where we work. We bring open minds and objective analysis to develop solutions that work for people and places.

Using these skills, students develop a master's project in consultation with a sponsoring conservation organization such as a land trust, federal or state agency, or municipal parks department. Each project meets a demonstrated need of the organization, ensuring that the work will be used. Field research spans the summer of the first academic year. The product of each student's graduate work includes a professional report or document for the sponsor, written academic reflections, and a journal publication or article in the popular mass media.

A Sample of Recent Sponsored Projects

a tree in a meadow

Landscape Restoration in Vermont's Champlain Valley

Long ago 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. In 2018, Chris Schorn, working with The Nature Conservancy, analyzed the success of Vermont's first clayplain forest restoration project at the Hubbardton River Clayplain Forest Preserve in West Haven. In a landscape with a 350-year heritage of agricultural use, planted seedlings struggle with depleted soils, competitive non-native haygrasses, and root-girdling rodents. Overcoming these barriers means redoubling efforts, recrafting strategies, and redefining restoration. Chris is now Stewardship Manager at the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust in Maine.

a trout in hand

Fostering Stewardship of Oregon's Fall River

Emerging from volcanic bedrock east of Oregon's High Cascades, the Fall River has long been popular among hikers, birders and trout-chasing anglers. In 2014, 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. He 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. Levi is now the Northeast Oregon Project Manager for Trout Unlimited.

a river running through a marsh

Protecting Forest in Vermont's Atlas Timberlands

In 2016, Vermont's second largest timber holding was for sale. Flanking the remote summits of the northern Green Mountains, the Atlas Timberlands comprise nearly 26,000 acres of forest which, for 25 years, had been owned by The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Land Trust. After more than a century of sporadic harvest and regrowth, these forests are being 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. Hannah is now the State Lands Administration Program Manager at the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.

blister rust on a tree trunk

Tracking an Invasive Fungus in California's Sierra Nevada

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are home to the largest trees and highest peaks in the lower 48—as well as an invasive forest pathogen: white pine blister rust. This Asian fungus has ravaged North American white pine for a century. Despite prior research predicting blister rust could not thrive in California’s arid climate, the fungus now heavily infects pines at low elevations, and concerns are high that it could spread upward. In 2013, Matt Cahill documented changes in blister rust distribution in the parks by trekking through the remote backcountry to resurvey 50 permanent plots established in the '90s. Blister rust is more severe than it was 20 years ago, he found, but higher elevations remain relatively free of the fungus. His analysis showed strong correlations of rust with elevation, geography, temperature, and precipitation, findings that will help ecologists accurately track the disease in years to come. Matt is now the Sagebrush Steppe Program Director for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.

a Clark's nutcracker perched on a branch

Citizen Science in Wyoming's Wind River Range

The raucous squawks of the Clark's nutcracker may not be musical, but they can call adventurers to action. In 2016, 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 crafted a series of best practices to guide the field of citizen science deeper into the backcountry. Her article appeared in the journal Citizen Science: Theory and PracticeAnya now leads citizen science projects at Glacier National Park.

a remote camera photo of a coyote about to pass thru a culvert

Wildlife Road Crossings in Western Massachusetts

In western Mass, three road crossings and one cramped culvert might stand between a bobcat and its next meal. Working with The Nature Conservancy and MassDOT in 2017, 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. Andy is now an ecologist with VHB, a civil engineering consulting and design firm.

ginseng plants

Stopping Poachers in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains

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. In 2017, Maria Dunlavey helped prevent Shenandoah's ginseng from going the same route. She 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. Maria is now the Conservation Outreach Coordinator for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

sun shining through a forest of pines

Bird Conservation Research in New Hampshire's Pine Barrens

Over the past decade, The Nature Conservancy has used 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 in 2018, Jason Mazurowski surveyed nighthawks, whip-poor-wills and a suite of shrubland-obligate songbirds. His 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, he examined the role of fire in each species' habitat preferences, informing future management decisions and burn regimes. Jason is now a consulting ecologist for UVM's Gund Institute for the Environment.

a backcountry skier in the trees

Reconciling Recreation and Wildlife in Vermont's Green Mountains

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 the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, offered a case study opportunity. Bushwhacking around Bolton in 2014, 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, her work informed the state's long-range management plan for the parcel. Kathryn is now a Forest Recreation Specialist for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.

close-up of Florida Torreya needles

Saving the Endangered 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 the 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 was planted out in 2017. Katherine now works for the Marketing & Communications department at the Duke Gardens.

railroad bridge running over a river

Community-Based Conservation in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom

The intersection of a river and a retired railroad in Greensboro Bend represents an ideal of conservation, where people and ecology are equally considered. Underserved populations are not uncommon in Vermont. Statewide, 44 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. How can we integrate marginalized populations into Vermont's progressive conservation agenda? In 2018, Lauren Sopher did so by applying the pillars of just conservation: work that is ethical and effective. Working with the Greensboro Conservation Commission, she paired community meetings, one-on-one interviews, and town-wide events 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. Lauren is now Director of Science and Water Programs for the Lake Champlain Committee.

a notebook, camera, and GPS lie on a picnic table with a beautiful vista beyond

Engaging Hikers in Maine

Because of space limitations, most guidebooks and trail narratives are bland, matter-of-fact directions. Any mention of nature is limited to “the trail enters the trees” or “the trail leaves the trees.” Thanks to the internet, however, trail narratives can now expand to include natural history tidbits. They can be read on a mobile device or printed beforehand and carried on the trail. In 2013, Kelly Finan forged through the fogs, bogs, and biting insects of Maine, studying 15 of the state’s most scattered and spectacular trails and transforming her findings into an engaging, interactive guide. Her project, sponsored by the Maine Natural Areas Program, helped connect hikers to Maine’s public lands. The fruits of her labor can be found on the Maine Trail Finder website. Kelly is now a scientific illustrator and graphic designer—www.kellyfinan.com.

For more master's project reports, check out back issues of Field Notes.

Field Naturalist Program logo - graphic of layered landscape

Curriculum

First Fall Semester

Fundamentals of Field Science
Field Botany
Field Naturalist Practicum
Professional Writing

January Term (optional)

Winter Ecology in Maine
    with Prof. Bernd Heinrich OR
Tropical Botany in Costa Rica
    with Prof. Dave Barrington

First Spring Semester

Landscape Inventory and Assessment
Methods & Policy Workshops
Professional Writing (Field Notes)
Elective (see below)

Summer

Research Project field season

Second Year

Research Project (report for sponsor
    and other deliverables)
Professional Writing
Electives (see below)

Degree Requirements

More information about degree requirements can be found in the University Catalogue. Please note that the GRE is no longer required for admission despite what it says in the catalogue.

Electives

Field Geology
Applied Wildlife Mgmt. and Field Ecology
Herpetology
Ornithology
Ichthyology
Mammalogy
Field Zoology of Arthropods
Terrestrial Wildlife Ecology
Wildlife Behavior
Fisheries Management
Plant Pathology
Fungi
Ferns
Multi-Resource Silviculture
Forest Ecosystem Dynamics
Sustainable Mgmt. of Forest Ecosystems
Ecological Landscape Design
Community Ecology
Landscape Ecology
Ecosystems Ecology
Restoration Ecology
Conservation Biology
Plant-Animal Interactions
Sociobiology
Soil Ecology
Stream Ecology
Limnology
Marine Ecology and Conservation
Advanced Agroecology
Global Biogeochemical Cycles
Geochemistry of Natural Waters
Biostatistics
Spatial Analysis
Advanced Geospatial Techniques
Advanced GIS and Remote Sensing
Ecological Modeling
Population Dynamics and Modeling
Introduction to R
Ecological Economics Methods
Ecological Leadership
Power, Privilege and Catalyzing Change
Proposal Writing