by Liz Brownlee
“Wait until you see the accuracy of our plot,” calls the lab team.
The four undergraduates burst with pride, oblivious to the prickling raspberries and thick brush that edge the Intervale forest.
They stop me midstride. As their lab teacher, I’m fully equipped with aerial maps, GPS, first aid kit, phone, and extra rain gear. I’m planning to cruise through this pasture towards the soybeans and into the swampy forest. My goal is to check in with teams at twelve more study plots, spread over the 350 acres of forest and fields.
This lab project is a real, on-the-ground application of their natural resource training. Most weeks these first-year students learn the basics of field work in big, broad fields (fisheries, stream ecology, forestry, etc.). The field data they record in their weekly labs is important: they use it to learn how to create papers, reports, and essays.
This week, though, the data is headed to city hall. We’re studying the Burlington urban forest to help the city make informed decisions about valuing and managing the forest.
I need to check in with the next group. It’s incredibly important that the teams describe each plot with accuracy and efficiency. I know that all the teams are anxious to prove their worth, to share their budding knowledge and field skills. But this team’s stories cannot wait.
Elliot, a bright-eyed skier from Utah starts first.
The maple we used to mark our plot was so big, our measuring tape couldn’t reach around it, he says.
Aptly named and observant, Hunter chimes in.
There was a deer trail, but that’s it – otherwise it’s untouched.
Eric, a tattooed, intelligent former Marine, knows this isn’t entirely true.
How should we record the land use on this plot, Liz? This isn’t a park, and it’s on the farm but not cultivated land.
We brainstorm the forest’s values: recreation and flood control top the list.
I change my route, unable to leave the pull of their enthusiasm. Elliot fires questions as we walk the farm’s puddle-filled gravel road.
We didn’t see any sign of invasive species like emerald ash borer – that’s good, right? And the ground was covered in mud from the hurricane and the flood – do you think the forest will rebound before teams come next year?
The team answers most of their questions before I can chime in, and I know that I’m no longer needed. I head for the next site when Carly, another lab teacher with twenty more students, calls from the Old North End of Burlington. We check in, cars honking in the background on her end.
Over two hundred UVM students are taking the pulse of the forest, from tree height and canopy dieback to ground cover and plant-able space. They’re studying over one hundred plots throughout the city, and all in just two weeks. We’ll crunch the numbers with a program called iTree that’s being used worldwide. The city will use the results to decide where and what to plant next, and how to properly value a forest that cools homes, mitigates pollution, and absorbs storm water runoff.
They’ve tracked changes in the forest’s health. They’ve built confidence as budding natural resource scientists. And next year, two hundred new students will do it all again.