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Archive for the ‘Environmentalism’ Category

Couldn’t ask for a nicer day. 30 percent humidity and mid-70s all day. The moment I got out of my car, a black-throated green warbler greeted me, and this bird was a constant companion nearly the whole hike.

Initially the road walk wearied me, with the sun beating down upon my head, and the dust kicked up from camper vans. The trailhead for Bourn Pond is inauspicious and marked in dull brown. A single car sat at the entrance. Once in the woods, the vegetation crowded in around the trail and I was treated to a rival-less day in Vermont.

All along-side the trail the long missed northern hardwood understory made a distinct presence. Yellow birch and sugar maple dominate the canopy, while witch-hopple dominates the understory. It is clear I’ve missed the cascade of beauty that is the blooming of spring ephemerals in the north country, but there is still wood sorrel in abundance and an occasional dew-drop still flowering. Already out of flower are the bunchberry, clinton’s, canada mayflower, solomon’s seal, sarsaparilla, mountain wild oats and trillium.

My constant companions are the singing birds. Despite knowing that those songs are mating rituals and territorial defense, the thought that they may be singing for the love of a beautiful day adds a feeling of whimsy to such walks in the woods. There is the aforementioned black-throated green warbler, as well as black-throated blue, blackburnian and yellow-rumped warblers.

As the climb ascends, I find myself in an upland black spruce swamp, with an understory of balsam fir, the smell of which brings back so many distinct yet distant memories of places I used to love in the Adirondacks. Amongst the firs are bog laurels, high bush blueberry, mountain holly and many sedges. The bog is home to a lone female wood duck, her companion not apparently present.

Arriving at Bourn Pond, I am disappointed to find so many campsites taken, after having met with so few others on the trail. It takes some time, but I find a quiet spot in view of the pond, which is a magnificent sight. Bourn Pond is the result of a dip forming and filling, as a glacier retreated, sometimes called a kettle pond. It is now home to a pair of loons and their two offspring.

Around my campsite I observe also a yellow-shafted flicker, blue-headed and red-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees, a veery, hermit thrush, American robin, ovenbird, yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler and white-throated sparrow.

As the sun drops, and the smell of campfires emerge, I can only hope the night is as quiet and refreshing as the trip to get here…

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It is a familiar sight in New England. An impassable trail, flooded over with stagnant pond water. In the evening beavers work away, patching a dam at the pond outlet with sticks and mud.

 

Beavers have earned a fitting reputation as nature’s engineers. Rivaled, perhaps, only by man, they have an uncanny ability to modify habitat to suit their needs. The beaver is an animal that is vulnerable on land. Their whole survival strategy is to provide themselves with easy access to their favorite foods, while spending as little time as possible on land. During the summer they live off the tubers that grow near the water’s edge, but for the harder winter months they must store away a cache of food (typically alder, maple and birch branches). These trees grow in an exhaustible supply around the edge of lakes and ponds, and as the beavers diminish the easily accessible supply at the water’s edge, they are left with two choices. Travel farther on land where they are vulnerable, or raise the water level.

 

Damming activities are simply a means to better access the necessary foods, but this very activity often puts them in direct conflict with people, who have a penchant for recreating close to the water’s edge. To enable our recreation we build access trails, often within the riparian zones of water bodies. Much attention has been paid to the damage human recreation does to these sensitive habitats, which have high ecological productivity and provide ecosystem services of incalculable value and necessity for life. As a result, many sustainability minded recreational organizations have begun the process of pulling away from shorelines.

 

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation recommends constructing trails and structures at least 150 feet from the water’s edge to minimize impacts on the riparian habitat. However, bridges are often necessary to traverse bodies of water, to get from point A to point B expeditiously. It is such infrastructure which seems to create the most opportunity for conflict between the interests of beavers and the interests of man.

 

A wilderness bridge must provide for safety of passage, while weathering the elements, while also impacting the environment as little as possible. Many times their are employed in wetlands, to minimize human impacts (such as the choose your own adventure style trails that emerge to avoid wet spots and muddy areas). However, these pieces of expensive and critical infrastructure are often placed in the areas where they are most susceptible to changes in the environment.

 

In recent years, attention has been paid to building structures with climate change in mind. In most cases this means building infrastructure in a way that is resilient to sudden deluges of water. This is the most common impact of climate change in the Northeast. Besides hotter temperatures, we are seeing storms that release unprecedented amounts of water in an exceptionally short duration of time. Construction designs increasingly rely on reinforced abutments and helical piers, that can withstand floods of greater severity. This leaves a foundation upon which to rebuild in the even of a washout. However, these designs do not consider longer term impacts, such as beaver flooding. It has become a necessity to address these longer term impacts, in order to ensure the sustainability of infrastructure, to minimize the cost to conservation organizations, associated with opening lands to the recreating public.

 

An anecdote comes to mind, associated with a land conservation organization in Western Massachusetts. The organization suffered flooding of a wetland boardwalk when beavers moved into the area. After the beavers  left the area returned to its previous state as a wet meadow and the old boardwalk was exposed again. The organization spent $20,000 to repair the old boardwalk, whereupon the beavers returned the next year to commence their water management actives again. The brand new boardwalk was flooded out, despite having been built upon helical piers and following the finest sustainable design recommendations.

 

This anecdote highlights the lack of foresight often involved in the planning process. As Woody Hasselbarth, Brian Vachowski and Mary Ann Davies suggest in the Forest Service’s Trail Construction and Maintenance Handbook, “good planning is stupidity avoidance.” If you have had beavers in the area in the recent past, it is safe to assume they may return, when conditions are again favorable. It is thus necessary to make considerations for this eventuality part of this process. A good deal of money, time and frustration can be saved by planning for eventual conflicts in infrastructure. While many organizations figure on placing expensive (and ineffective once silted) beaver deceivers in problematic beaver dams, to control water levels. Other organizations trap the beavers as pests, which strikes one as incompatible with a conservation based mission (even when that organization may be heavily recreation oriented). Beavers play an important role in disturbance cycles within the landscape of the northern forest, and this should be allowed to play itself out whenever possible. A small amount of planning can go a long way to solve this problem.

 

Best Practices For Sustainable Trails In Beaver Habitat:

  • Avoid placing trails within 150 feet of a riparian zone. Consider take trails uphill, to preserve the views and the habitat.
  • When it is not possible to avoid riparian zones, build boardwalks on sustainable structures like helical piers.
  • Instead of cutting off helical piers and placing the boardwalk on the top of the rods, consider using a clamping mechanism that can be adjusted by several feet, as water levels change.
  • Place permanent bridges down stream of a beaver dam, and high enough to avoid a washout from a breached dam. Beavers tend to use existing dams rather than building new ones, if an abandoned dam exists, it is relatively safe to assume they will return to repair the existing dam, as opposed to building a new one.

 

Planning for beaver activity can save a lot of headaches later and can prevent conflicts that often lead to the extermination of the beavers. As with all aspects of sustainability, it is important to plan for future eventualities in trail design, not just current conditions.

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I currently have the privilege of working for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Amongst the many conservation principles for which the organization stands, I admire most their over-arching management goal. The Audubon Society manages their properties for wild habitat over recreational use. Many parts of Audubon properties have no trail system, especially when there is the presence of rare or endangered species habitat. While recreation is considered a part of the mission, it is not a primary focus when acquiring property, or deciding how to manage it.

 

Properties are prioritized for acquisition based on conservation value. This means biodiversity, productivity, presence of rare or endangered species, proximity to riparian habitat or other contiguous habitat are given primacy. Trails are built to encourage access to nature and to facilitate environmental education, but also to direct human impacts to more acceptable parts of the property.

 

This ensures that human access to sensitive habitats is limited, in order to prevent disturbing areas of concern.

 

***

 

I was recently allowed to take a walk through one such area. It was on the furthest reach of the property, where there were no trails. An area with calcareous ledges, which provide soil nutrients not found in many places.

 

I would describe the habitat as Rich Northern Hardwood Forest. The soil is damp and rich, and sugar maple, ash and hemlock are dominant trees. Besides the occasional invasive barberry, the understory was largely dominated by stinging nettle, wood fern and blue cohosh. There was a patch of ginger close to the ledges. In the wetter areas sensitive fern would dominate, with a smattering of baneberry. The deep woods provided ample cover for a singing veery, and the understory hid wood frogs along the wet ground.

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We came to this area in search of a particular plant, of which only two known specimens exist on the property. The plant is endangered, largely due to over-harvesting from human “foragers.” To compound manners, the plant takes years to come to maturity, and seeds often take years to germinate. As people have harvested wild populations of this plant, it has gone from rare to endangered in many states, only making it more valuable.

 

Wild Ginseng is a delicate looking plant. It is easy to overlook in a crowded understory. The stem is thin and the leaves radiate outward in a palmate manner. A stem with a gentle tuft of white flowers extends above the leaves. It is easy to confuse for sarsaparilla. In over an hour of scouring the ferns and nettles, we found only two specimens. There may well be more hidden in plan sight, but soon they may be gone.

 

Finding the plant was an exciting moment, filled with second guess and doubt. “Could this really be it?” We were careful not to disturb the area, and left a different way than we came. A quiet excitement filled my heart, getting to see something few people ever do… and one day may not at.

 

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Ginseng reminds us how the scarcity of something can create a self-perpetuating market failure. As it becomes more rare, it becomes more valuable, leading to people picking it with greater frequency. Without sensible regulation and enforcement of those regulations, this beautiful plant may be gone. Even as the FDA has determined the perceived benefits of using ginseng to be mythological.

 

Much in the same way people pick morels under the false belief that picking them enhances their population, people have over picked ginseng with little consideration of the ecological consequence. It is vitally important to leave what we find, especially if it is beautiful or useful. Otherwise, we may be compelled to live our lives without.

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I started as a seasonal Property Assistant at the Massachusetts Audubon Society on May 2nd.

5.2.2018: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox, Ma – Clear, 64 degrees, breezy.

Birds:

  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Louisiana Waterthrush
  • Pine Warbler
  • Red-Wing Blackbird
  • Mallard
  • Black-Capped Chickadee
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Winter Wren
  • Tree Swallow

Mammals:

  • Gray Squirrel
  • Red Squirrel
  • Black Squirrel
  • Chipmunk

Plants:

  • Skunk Cabbage
  • Maples are blossoming
  • Willow catkins are out
  • Eurasian Honeysuckle and Multi-flora Rose are leafing out.
  • Red Trillium has flowered
  • Trout Lily has flowered

 

5.9.2018: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox, Ma – Clear, 67 degrees, light breeze.

Birds:

  • American Redstart
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Wood Thrush heard singing
  • Ovenbird
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Blue-headed Vireo heard singing
  • Red-eyed Vireo heard singing
  • Scarlet Tanager heard singing
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Black and White Warbler heard singing
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak

 

Mammals:

  • Grey, Red and Black Squirrel
  • Chipmunk

 

Plants:

  • Bloodroot (flower already past)
  • Sensitive Fern
  • Bellwort

 

5.10.2018: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Lenox, Massachusetts – Clear, 64 degrees, light breeze.

 

Birds:

  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Yellow Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Common Yellow-throat
  • Black-capped Chickadees
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Chipping Sparrow

 

Reptiles:

  • 8 Painted Turtles observed basking along Pike’s Pond.

 

Mammals:

  • Gray Squirrel
  • Chipmunk

 

Plants:

  • Sensitive Fern
  • Trout Lily
  • Northern Lady Fern
  • Canada Mayflower Rosettes
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Solomon’s Seal
  • Red Trillium
  • Bloodroot
  • Violets

 

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Field Notes

Upon recently returning to New England, I have once again begun the task of documenting the spring. Both my fascination with botany and ornithology have returned with the spring, and I am determined to collect my field notes here, for any interested parties. I am both attempting to gain a better understanding of phenology, as well as entire ecosystems, rather than just collecting and finding names for various species. I am hoping to develop a more holistic understanding of the word around me, rather than the superficial understanding I have had in years past. These field notes, I hope, will lay that groundwork.

 

 

4.28.2018: Mountain Meadow, Williamstown, Ma – Overcast, 54 degrees, light breeze.

Observations:

 

  • Red-tailed Hawk in a red maple tree, on the edge of the meadow.
  • Cardinal heard calling.
  • Invasive plants leafing out first: Multi-flora Rose, Eurasian Bush Honeysuckle, Garlic Mustard.
  • Male and female Bluebirds observed in the meadow.
  • Northern Red Oaks have buds. Some are starting to break.
  • Chickadess heard calling.
  • Red-tailed Hawk hunting an unobservable mammal along the hedgerow.
  • Buds on Sugar Maples and American Beeches.
  • Chipmunk and Black-capped Chickadees observed in the woods.
  • American Crow observed.
  • Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker observed, working a maple that had been girdled by bittersweet.
  • Some maples have blossoms – Striped Maple blossoms opening.
  • First ephemeral flowers observed near the height of land. Hepatica.
  • Grey Squirrels observed.
  • Song Sparrow heard.
  • Spring Peepers heard.
  • Observations cut short by rain. Animals appear to increase activity in advance of deteriorating weather conditions.
  • Northern Flicker, American Goldfinch and Downy Woodpecker all observed in the field shortly before the rain picks up.

 

This concludes the field notes from my first outing of the spring. There have been several since, which will be updated as I have time. Since April I have observed over 65 species of birds, most on Mass Audubon properties in the Berkshires. Many phenological observations have been recorded in this time too. It has been a strange and late spring. Late snow has delayed many wildflower observations, and the trees have only recently greened up all the way. These observations are important to make, especially given that climate change has caused many of these observations to occur earlier in recent years. Will a harsh and late spring have effects on species diversity and health going forward? This will be an important question to find answers to, since many species have been adapting to earlier and milder springs.

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While working on the Appalachian Trail, I realized that many of the campsites used year in and year out by Thru-hikers are growing in size and degree of impact. Yet, many of the organizations tasked with monitoring campsites keep records in paper form and have no tangible concept of the way impacts are adding up.

In the video above, I used ArcMap to enter in a hypothetical centerpoint for a campsite. I then compile polygons, representing monitoring trips. Ideally, this data would be collected in such a way as to contain monitoring metrics in the attribute table, so the symbology can be classified by the severity of impact.

The video shows how one campsite grows over time. Typically, however, campsites don’t exist in isolation. This technique can be expanded to show multiple campsites bleeding into each other.

The area data can be compiled in either excel or R, and used as an input to a linear regression analysis. This can be used to project, that if impacts continue at the current rate, they would result in campsites over ever increasing size, until you wind up with giant camping areas.

By finding trouble spots on the trail and analyzing them over a five year period, enough data can be compiled to extrapolate useful modelling, which can help inform better management decisions.

Currently management decisions are being made without data to show whether they are working or not. Anecdotally, the impacts appear to get worse every year. Management and monitoring need to go hand in hand. When a decision is made, the impacts of that decision need to be monitored and that data needs to inform future decisions. Otherwise, we cannot be said to be making rational decisions.

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In order to successfully conserve land, you must first understand what you are trying to conserve and why. Land Trusts typically spell out, in their mission statements, what their goals are. It is often better to be narrow, in this regard, than to try and “drink from a firehose.” There are, after all, many lands out there that need to be conserved, and not enough resources to conserve them. On the organizational level, this fact is most magnified.

 

In order to be successful, conservation organizations must be thoughtful about each step of the process. For instance, what grants should be applied for, will they build capacities for the organization’s mission or stretch the organization thin with new requirements. It is rare that a grant will cover an entire program. Often there is thee requirement that the organization receiving the money match it with a certain amount of their own fund-raising capacity. Grants come with requirements, so organizations do better to find grants with requirements they can easily meet, without building new capacities.

 

This is why it is important to define, as specifically as possible, what a conservation organization wishes to conserve. Many Land Trusts conserve land as wildlands, and others conserve agricultural land. It is more difficult to try and do both well. Many organizations that conserve wildlands, conserve forests, riparian zones, different types of wetlands, etc. Even in this regard, a degree of specificity is important. When trying to decide whether a particular tract is work putting resources into conserving, it helps to use Overlays. If any organization decides to preserve forested land, it can favor forested lands that are near other protected lands, in order to expand the conserved landscape. It may choose the favor those near riparian zones or wetlands. It may choose the favor those with endangered species habitat or certain soil types. All of these aspects can be represented spatially, and GIS can be used to better construct an effective overlay.

 

It is important to identify a geographic region of importance. In this case, I have identified South Whitehall Township as an important area, because of its low percentage of total lands being conserved. (An organization can choose to value areas with a high level of conserved land instead). Since I have chosen South Whitehall, all the other layers will be clipped to focus on just South Whitehall.

 

Overlay Map2

Percent of Land Conserved

 

Lets say an organizations wish to favor forested properties, near protected lands, riparian zones and wetlands, with a presence of endangered species. One can make a model, taking land use layers, protected lands layers, riparian and wetlands layers and endangered species habitat layers. Each of these can be used to create a buffer (how close to the object should the protected land be). Again, this is derived by deciding how much certain layers should be valued. After making buffers, these can be merged into a single layer and joined to a tax parcel map. The join will maintain the geometry of the conservation layers, and tell you which properties are intersected by the conservation buffers, and thus a high priority for conservation. The output, in the example of South Whitehall Township, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, would look like this:

Overlay Map

The Green shows properties of potentially high conservation value.

 

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