Students conduct research in old College-owned forest

By Middlebury Campus

On a misty April afternoon, a class of 14 Middlebury students, dressed in hiking gear and carrying day packs, are spread out in groups of two or three throught a forest. It looks similar to most forests, except for the fact that most trees are so large that you cannot get your arms around them; they dwarf the trees commonly seen on the Middlebury campus. Members of each group are kneeling on the forest floor, using compasses to create North-South transects, or lines of yellow measuring tape to study the sunlight patterns in the canopy. It is quiet, except for the sound of measurements being called out and the occasional question posed to Assistant Professor of Biology Andrea Lloyd, who is monitoring the proceedings, about what type of younger trees they are identifying. In this “Plant Community Ecology” biology class, as part of labs students had the chance to explore one of Middlebury’s lesser-known properties (at least to those not involved in the natural sciences): Battell Research Forest — one of the oldest and the largest forest of its type in Vermont.

“It’s extremely rare to find an old-growth forest,” said Plant Community and Ecology student Ford Van Fossan ’13,

Plant Community and Ecology students Ford Van Fossan '13 and Janet Bering '13 so research in the Battell Research Forest. Courtesy.

A forest categorized as “old growth,” meaning it has never been logged, is the perfect place to conduct research on lots of very old trees. Given this trait, the forest’s, “primary function is research and education,” said Lloyd.
Old growth forests are useful for research because they can host different varieties of plants and animals than other types of forests.

“It’s a very different setting than a new forest,” said Plant Community and Ecology student Avery Shawler ’13. “It’s a completely different habitat.”

According to a research paper published on Fire History and Tree Recruitment by a former professor at the University of Vermont (UVM), another benefit of uncut forests is the fact that “uncut forests provide a rare opportunity to discern the natural dynamics of vegetation in a landscape otherwise dominated by human disturbance.”

In addition to taking her plant ecology class to the forest for labs, Lloyd teaches a senior seminar where students conduct research for their theses. Recent work has focused on forest succession, which looks at the changes in a forest over time. A thesis by Emerson Tuttle ’10 studied the two species of flying squirrels that live in Vermont — one of the few places where the two species overlap.

Researchers outside of Middlebury also utilize the grounds; a professor at UVM studied the trees, and a graduate student at UVM plans to do some work with wildlife biology starting in the summer.

Joseph Battell, who was the largest landowner in Vermont upon his death, intended all of his donated land to be untouched. In 1911, he gave the state of Vermont its first tract of public land: 1,200 acres, including today’s research forest, which he intended to dedicate to nature preservation and restoration. It was the first tract of land of its type. Four years later, Battell bequeathed over 30,000 acres of mountain forests in trust forests as “wild lands.” However, although some areas, like the research forest, remain preserved, some of the acreage under the management of the Green Mountain National Forest has been logged, developed for ski areas and clear cut, a practice in which all trees, regardless of type, are cut down.

One of the reasons the Battell Research Forest may have escaped this fate initially was purely practical.

“Really this forest is lucky because it’s on such a steep slope, which is one of the reasons it wasn’t logged,” said Shawler. “It’s very steep and rocky.”

In addition, the College decided to continue the status quo in 1999 by committing to maintain its own segment of Battell’s forest as pristine when a group of Environmental Studies students pushed for a resolution. The resolution promised:

“[The] undeveloped lands within the Bread Loaf Campus area […] pursuant to the Last Will and Testament of Joseph Battell be preserved and protected.”

This kind of commitment to the College forests means quite a bit of land is protected. Associate in Science Instruction in Environmental Studies Marc Lapin recently completed an evaluation of College lands which concluded that 884 of the  2,918 acres of college-owned mountain lands are forested.

The forest, composed mostly of hemlock trees, also hosts a small population of red pine, which is what Lloyd’s Plant Community and biology class is studying. Although the forest used to be under a fire regimen until about 150 years ago, the end of these regular, natural fires due to human interference meant that the red pine population declined precipitously. Now, instead of a hemlock and red pine forest “it’s hemlock and white pine, and a kind of trivial population of red pine,” said Van Fossan.

After gathering data about tree diameters over large swaths of land, the class will construct a matrix involving tree growth rates and life expectancies to predict the future of the red pine population. Ultimately, they will find out “whether the population is doomed or whether it will persist,” said Van Fossan.

The forest affords students dealing with the wilderness the opportunity to engage in more practical and real-world research projects.

“It’s a significant field research project that will produce real and tangible results,” Van Fossan said. “It’s the most serious research project I’ve ever done in a natural science setting.”

Lloyd’s senior seminar is studying land management practices of the College in how they relate to our goal of carbon neutrality by 2016. They monitored carbon uptake in the forest, and proposed ideas for “how to implement an ongoing carbon monitoring protocol on College-owned forest lands,” according to the project’s MiddLab webpage.

With the copious amount of research focused on the forest, it might seem intuitive that the forest would be more on the radar of Middlebury students.

Measuring the diameter of red pines in the Battell Research Forest was part of the independent research study conducted by Professor Lloyd's Plant Community and Ecology class. Courtesy.

When asked whether he thinks more students should know more about the forest, Van Fossan replied, “I think so, but that’s because I like trees,” continuing, “I think it’s really cool. You don’t really get places like that too often in the world, or at least in the Eastern United States.”

In the end, although much of Battell’s forestland has not been dealt with in the manner in which Battell intended, the research forest, at least, fulfills his goal. Battel wrote, in Father Went to College: The Story of Middlebury:

“Some folks pay $10,000 for a painting and hang it on the wall where their friends can see it, while I buy a whole mountain for that much money and it is hung up by nature where everybody can see it and it is infinitely more handsome than any picture ever painted.”