Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Who, What, Why, and How of Our Research

Who am I?
I (Bryarly) am a graduate student in the M.S. Field Naturalist Program at the University of Vermont. Having spent several summers in the Arctic, assessing soil and water quality on degraded lands that were being restored, I am interested in researching how ecosystems recover from human land-use, and how we can help support this process. Kaitlin will be assisting me, while also exploring her own research questions on soil fauna.

What am I studying at VINS?
The VINS Nature Center is located on a 47-acre property, which has seen a smorgasbord of human land uses over the past 150 years, if not the past 10,000 years. As I drove down the hill toward the parking lot for the first time, I saw a long grassy meadow to my left; arriving in June, I saw swathes of purple lupines in bloom, intermixed with patches of grass, shades of green, yellow, and bluish-gray. When you see a meadow in Vermont, there's a good chance that people used/managed the land recently, because "Vermont wants to be forest"- leave a field for long enough and it will be all trees. Unless you're in the alpine zone or a wetland.

VINS meadow in June, previously a sand and gravel quarry

Sure enough, there used to be a sand and gravel quarry where the meadow now is. My task is to figure out ways that VINS can manage the meadow to support biodiversity. Shall they keep it a meadow to diversify Vermont's landscapes? After all, meadows are scarce around here, and they provide habitat for many butterflies, birds, and small mammals. If VINS keeps it a meadow, how can they manage it to improve soil fertility and to lend it the characteristics of an older meadow that has had more time to evolve? Or, should VINS help it become forest again, since that is what it's naturally moving toward? These are some of the questions I'll be wrestling with this summer.

There is another puzzle at the Nature Center- a few-acre white pine stand that emerged more than 50 years ago when animals used the land for pasture and ate the tasty maple and beech seedlings, while leaving the bitter pine seedlings alone. Again, is there some way to manage this pine grove to increase the diversity of plants and animals living here? If this forest were never touched by humans, what would be growing here? Another enigma for us to explore.

The white pine grove, previously sheep pasture

Why am I studying this?
Landowners in Vermont and beyond wonder what to do with lands like these: an abandoned agricultural field, pine-filled sheep pasture. Restoration researchers wonder how active management can affect the evolution of an ecosystem. We are hoping that some of the lessons we learn here can be transferred elsewhere. Not to mention, it's satisfying to imagine that after years of people degrading a landscape, there may be something we can do to restore/improve a landscape for our leafy, furry, and feather-bearing friends.

How will we go about exploring these questions?
First, we will get to know the meadow and pine grove intimately- its current conditions. What the soil feels like (texture), how well it drains (moisture), how nutritious it is (phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium content, pH); and what plants are growing there. Then we will bop around the countryside looking for sites within 50 miles or so of the Nature Center that have similar characteristics but are further along in their development trajectory (ie. ecologically more complex)- other meadows and forests that grow on sandy, well-drained soils in a similar climate. These will serve as reference sites, examples of what the VINS meadow and pine grove could be. Stay tuned to hear about the challenges and little mysteries we encounter along the way.

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