Twenty-seven environmental sciences students from the University of Vermont (UVM) spent May 3 in the field practicing restoration ecology science and techniques they learned in the classroom to improve McKenzie Park in Burlington’s Intervale. The service-learning project is a partnership between Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront and the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
Professor Bill Keeton’s Restoration Ecology class teamed up with Dan Cahill, BPRW’s land steward, at the 63-acre park of field and floodplain forest along the banks of the Winooski River. Cahill, BPRW, and the City of Burlington provided the outdoor laboratory and pitched in to help Professor Keeton amass tools, materials, and 335 trees and shrubs for reforestation.
“McKenzie Park is an urban wild park on land bought by the City of Burlington in 1982. This UVM course and its students are helping us to restore and reforest the park as well as problem solve how to manage human uses,” said Cahill, a Rubenstein School alumnus. “They are also assisting the Department with pilot work around invasive plant species management to see what might work in the longer term and will guide our Department in the stewardship of city properties.”
Split into seven teams, the students designed the restoration plan and provided the labor to plant seedlings, control invasive Japanese knotweed, stabilize the riverbank, and install new signs on the recreation paths.
“We tackled a bunch of different issues in the class,” said senior Kate Bullock, while she planted a silky dogweed seedling. “The course introduced us to environmental problems and a huge sampling of potential restoration solutions.”
Armed with shovels, tree tubes, and brush mats, the students planted boxelders, silver maples, willows, and cottonwoods to widen the riparian vegetation buffer along a section of riverbank, rehabilitate and protect a vernal pool, and restore meadow and pollinator habitat at the field edge.
"I'm proud of the class for what they have accomplished," said Keeton, professor of forest ecology who has guided his students’ restoration projects throughout the state for sixteen years. "There's no better way to learn the science than through a real-world, hands-on project of this complexity, which the students spent a whole semester designing."
Seniors Michael Morris and Dylan Funnell were part of the team working on riverbank stabilization. With their classmates, they planted trees along the river’s edge and experimented with combinations of plastic tree tubes and chicken wire to protect the young seedlings from beavers. When established, the tree roots will help to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion.
“Once the trees get tall, branches will hang over the bank, die, and drop, providing course woody debris to help stabilize the bank even more,” said Funnell and Morris, who, after graduation, is heading to California where he has a job lined up doing stream restoration work with a nonprofit. “It was cool to design the plan and then get to do the actual application in the field.”
“Ecological restoration is a process of experimentation,” said teaching assistant Brendan O’Brien, a Rubenstein School graduate student who is studying ecological design and soil nutrient cycling. “We coached the students about how to test a lot of different approaches, including use of pollinator plants to help widen forest edge and flame torching to eradicate invasive plants.”
The students wielded propane torches to remove two particularly thick patches of knotweed and covered the plots with tarps, buried with forest floor debris and logs. The total area of infestation with knotweed in the park is expansive, but the students’ adaptive management efforts will allow BPRW to test the control method over time, make modifications, and expand the effort.
"Our partnership with Dan Cahill and the Burlington City Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department has been an outstanding experience and beneficial to both the students and the community," said Keeton. "And at the end of the day, it feels good to know you've made a tangible difference — that and 350 trees planted and invasive species beaten back with your own hands."