BRUNSWICK — Teachers, lawyers, a camp director and a state forester braved the melting snow and thick mud last Saturday to set up an environmental science plot at Crystal Spring Farm.
The science workshop, hosted by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, was held to teach educators and land trust volunteers how to set up a Forest Inventory Growth plot – a standardized forestry method for tracking things like the growth, biodiversity, and health of the woods.
The land trust hopes to use the plot to engage Brunswick high school students and residents in “citizen science” at its preserves.
“A big part of the future of conservation is people getting actively engaged in these lands,” Lee Cataldo, BTLT education coordinator, said.
As Cataldo looked for innovative ways to get the community involved in the land trust’s preserves, she connected with Pat Maloney, the state coordinator of the nonprofit Project Learning Tree.
PLT develops curricula in environmental science, and is working with 32 schools around the state to conduct experiments on forest inventory growth plots. They use the forestry standard as a way for students to learn data collection techniques and participate in adding detailed information to an ongoing experiment.
Although PLT had never done a forest inventory workshop with a land trust before, Cataldo said the two groups’ missions are “symbiotic”: BTLT’s largest preserve, Crystal Spring Farm, is close to Brunswick High School, and they have a network of volunteers that would also be interested in tracking the health of the area’s habitats.
The April 11 workshop was the first time PLT delivered the training to a land trust. Maloney said she was “excited” about the new collaboration.
“You can’t do environmental science very effectively if it’s not a part of the larger community,” she said.
Workshop attendees gathered at the BTLT office for a morning educational session before setting out into the field. Kevin Doran, an educator with the Maine Forest Service, stressed the importance of monitoring Maine’s forest land.
Maine is the most forested state in the U.S., he said; 89 percent of the state is forested, and the forest products industry contributes about $8 billion to the state’s economy.
Doran said getting the public involved in forest issues is critical to future forest management. Compiling information on how things like invasive species, changing climate, and native pests are affecting Maine forests will help public agencies and companies better regulate this vital resource. And getting schools and land trusts involved is one the best ways to do this, he said.
“Getting kids exposed, getting them outside, using some tools and getting them involved in science, that’s a good thing,” Doran said.
Doran led the group through some tree identification exercises to prepare attendees for the field session. Maine’s seasonal forests make it hard for people to identify trees by leaves or bark alone, so Doran gave some helpful tips – peel the bark of yellow birch, for example, and it smells like wintergreen; white spruce, on the other hand, “stinks.”
“It smells like cat pee,” Doran said. “Kids in elementary school love when I tell them that, and teachers look horrified.”
Doran had hoped to set up a permanent FIG plot at Crystal Spring on Saturday, but this year’s persistent layer of snow proved too much of an obstacle. Instead, Doran, Maloney, and Cataldo agreed to teach the fundamentals for establishing plot at a more accessible site.
After lunch, volunteers trekked across a muddy field and down a trail until they found a site dry enough to establish the plot. Doran walked them through the process, setting up a center point and then staking flags 37 feet to the north, south, east and west to establish a 0.10-acre fixed-radius plot.
Doran chose the site’s northern tree, a hemlock, to teach participants how to measure diameter, height, and age. Doran took a core from the tree and showed the group a section where the trees’ rings were very close together. This configuration means the tree was growing very slowly during these years, probably due to some form of environmental stress, he said.
“I do an activity with kids called ‘tree cookies,'” he said. After teaching students about tree rings, Doran asks them to draw their own “tree story” on paper plates.
According to Doran, this activity gets some students to open up about their lives. “Some kids … they’ll write something talking about ‘oh, I did well in fourth to eighth grade, my rings are spaced far apart, but then my family moved.”
Maloney said the forestry techniques work like “magic.”
“You see (Doran) out there taking a tree core, and kids and adults both are just huddled together around the tree,” she said.
After setting up the plot, participants discussed how they might implement the information from the workshop.
Bill Ferdinand, who serves on the board of BTLT, said he would like to see more FIG plots on land trust preserves. “(Forests) are a big part of this state,” he said. “They’re how we make a living in this state and how we relate to the rest of the world.”
Jeff Cleaveland, a science teacher at Hall-Dale High School outside of Augusta, said he is planning a course for next year called “Maine Forests.” He said he’d like to create an FIG plot in his class.
Cataldo called the workshop a “success,” and said BTLT plans to conduct more FIG trainings on an annual, or even bi-annual, basis. The land trust will set up a permanent plot, and soon start collecting baseline data with volunteers and hopefully Brunswick High School students.
“We have to slowly build it up, keep it moving,” she said, “until we have that force of people that are really excited about it.”
Forester Kevin Doran walks participants through a Forest Inventory Growth plot at Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick on Saturday, April 11.
Forester Kevin Doran teaches tree identification to workshop attendees.