A Forest to Fight For

forest to fight for

Burning a forest sounds like something to be avoided. But a "controlled burn," like the ones that officials at the Vermont National Guard's Camp Johnson oversee, help maintain the rare original natural ecosystem in the camp's large wooded areas adjacent to Saint Michael's campus.

Biology students, supervised by faculty biologists Valerie Banschbach, Peter Hope and others, have been visiting wooded tracts at the camp each fall for the last six years to study plants and invertebrates. With a controlled burn scheduled for this spring, the Camp Johnson's environmental team has taken a particularly keen interest in the work of the Saint Michael's student groups. They've visited campus for presentations, talked with students at length about their research and started putting that student data to work in managing the wooded areas in base's ecologically rare sand plain forest.

For their part, students have enjoyed having their work affirmed while meeting and learning from experts with varied backgrounds: Army Guard Major Jacob Roy, the camp's environmental protection supervisor, works closely with Mike O'Hara, a Camp Johnson-based civilian who is military lands administrator for Vermont's Military Department, and Ryan Ochs, a GIS (mapping) specialist. O'Hara is a biologist who worked with the U.S. Forest Service for years in the Western states before coming to Vermont, while Roy, a civil engineering and project management expert, is a veteran of two overseas tours with his Vermont Army National Guard unit, first in Iraq and later Afghanistan, leading teams in the risky business of clearing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

As Roy and his colleagues prepare for the spring controlled burn, the first since the 1990s, it's creating an unusually rich opportunity for Saint Michael's science students who plan to examine the species and habitats in the Camp Johnson woods before and after the burn. The camp supports one of the largest remaining stands of sand plain forest in Vermont, which is a threatened forest community that thrives in sandy, low-nutrient soils and that requires regular fires to be sustained.

Last summer, four Saint Michael's students received financial support from the John C. Hartnett Endowment to study tree composition and insect populations before the spring 2013 burn. From 11 weeks of data collection, Banschbach and the students compiled a work sheet and constructed a sample collection of 13 identified species of ants. Classes that went out to the same tracts this past fall then were able to build directly and usefully upon good and specific data from the Hartnett-funded summer work. Future classes will bring post-burn data into the practical equation.

Casey Ciapciak '16, a first-year environmental studies major and biology minor in the Honors Program, visited Camp Johnson with her introductory biology class last fall. She had done similar work for a park near her home. Her group's results seemed to hold special interest to Roy and O'Hara's team.

"In the section of the camp we studied, we noticed almost every tree was a red maple and we wondered if that had an adverse effect on the community around us," Ciapciak says. To find out, they collected data on red maples as an invasive species and tried to identify negative effects on invertebrate species they collected: "basically that means the insects." They used a standard diversity index for comparison, also comparing what they found with data from groups in other areas that had different burn histories.

"We found that as red maple importance increased, the diversity index decreased," supporting the group's hypothesis, Ciapciak says. "Near the end of the term we had a night on campus when we presented posters about all this and that's when we met Major Ray. My lab partner and I gave him our whole presentation and had a long conversation where he asked our opinions. It piqued his interest since it's their job to keep the forest a certain way. If the red maple ends up being invasive, then it's in their interest to make some cuts."

Based on that good conversation, Roy, Ochs and O'Hara asked to come back to campus so that Ciapciak and the other three first-year members of her lab group, Will Lowe, Nick McGuirl and Alicia Riley, could deliver the presentation again for more camp officials.

Roy and O'Hara say most military installations have vigorous environmental initiatives supported by both the Defense Department and the State of Vermont, as both have stakes in Camp Johnson and the Guard, contributing funds toward those efforts and making it a real priority. Camp Johnson has won several Defense Department, Army and state-level awards for their environmental efforts in the last decade.

"I think what we're doing now with the St. Mike's students is going to be a pretty big part of our restoration area projects," says O'Hara.

Banschbach says Roy did a great job encouraging the student researchers to discuss their work, rather than turning to faculty first. "It was great to see how poised the students were and able to speak knowledgeably off the cuff without advance preparation." As a result of that meeting, she and the other biology faculty offered to further tailor their research and that of students to suit the interest of the managers at Camp Johnson for the future, she says.

"As we walked down the hall after the meeting and and turned the corner, the students were high-fiving each other on a job well done." she says. "I think for them to see their work as being taken seriously by professionals outside the college working on pressing forest conservation issues was quite meaningful. I was very proud of the impression our students made on these community members."

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