Behind the Scenes: Planning SCA’s Service Project at Vassar

Last week’s SCA Service Project at the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve was a big success! We planted over 1,000 trees, cleared an acre’s worth of invasive bittersweet, and constructed 11 bog bridges and 110 feet of new boardwalk. A lot of work goes into planning the conservation tasks at a project like this – so I wanted to step behind the scenes and give some of these details their own limelight. As project leader, I worked with SCA’s partners at Vassar and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to pull all the logistics together – and it was a big job!

For starters, we planted 1,100 trees. Anyone can do that. (Maybe.) However, we took exceptional care when deciding what to plant in our future forest. Carrie Perkins, a current senior at Vassar, spent her summer taking samples from the field to assess the soil profile of the site. The field planted lies near what once were settling ponds, and because of that it has an extremely rich, if rocky, substrate. With the soil profiled and topography taken into consideration, the five-acre space divided into four different community types: oak-hickory, mesic, red maple-sweet gum-black gum, and flood plain. Once the community types were established, we went on to decide what species of trees and shrubs we would plant. First, we decided that we would plant nothing that is a common victim of invasive pests. That took ash and beech off the table immediately, along with some others. Then we decided to add select trees that are native, but at the northern edge of their range. Everything we planted is naturally occurring, but by planting more species that are found in both New York and North Carolina, we are preparing the preserve with a seed source to help regenerate the forest when climate change starts to take its toll.

Our bittersweet project came from another student’s summer research. Sara Gabrielson (Vassar ’12) looked into the dynamics between ash canopy gaps and climbing bittersweet. Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is an invasive climbing vine that fruits in autumn; it was imported as a horticultural vine for its bright red berries. The vine uses a “sit-and-wait” strategy below the canopy, meaning that when the canopy is closed it will grow slowly, biding its time. But, when a gap is created in the canopy, the bittersweet beneath it explodes in frenzied growth to reach the top. Bittersweet won’t fruit until it is in the canopy, and its seeds do not stay in the seedbank very long, so our cutting of canopy vines will effectively reduce the vine’s seed rain. But why go through all this effort? The research Sara conducted over the summer of 2011 found that climbing bittersweet overtops trees, strangling the trees and killing them. With the canopy now opened up a little more, another bittersweet can climb up and overtop another tree, and so on, in a positive feedback loop until you end up with massive canopy gaps that suppress natural forest regeneration. By cutting back the bittersweet, we gave the trees at least 10 years of freedom from the vine’s suffocating grasp.

For our final project, we got to work alongside one of Vassar’s new residents, the beaver. Our beaver moved in during the spring of 2012, and by the following autumn, a beaver dam was built and our trail was lost to flooding. We have spent a good amount of time marveling at the dam. Beavers are one of the greatest ecosystem engineers in the animal kingdom, second probably only to humans. That being said, the beaver completely changed the hydrology at the southern end of the preserve. In efforts to figure out a win-win situation for both the beaver and humans, we installed beaver deceivers – pipes that are put into the pond and run 50 feet downstream to moderate the flooding of the beaver dam (the pipes have to be long so that the sound of running water won’t attract the beaver to damn the pipe). Our beaver deceivers were successful in saving our existing bridge that spans the Casperkill (the stream that runs through the preserve). However, there was still the matter of our washed-out trail. For that, we pulled in our SCA savvy to build a boardwalk. Admittedly, this boardwalk is part dock, because we need it to be not only beaver-proof but also able to stand in running water. Constructing this boardwalk-dock was no easy task, but it as definitely a fun challenge!

Our other construction project involved building bog bridges across a flood plain that lies upstream. The Casperkill has always been a flashy stream, and now, with our beaver in residence, it has become even more so.  After the slightest of rainstorms, the flood plain became a muddy mess, and as people tried to avoid the mud and walk around it, they had been widening the path ever so slightly for years. So our goal was to discourage people from going off trail – and to do so, we made their passage a little easier!

All of our tasks helped to restore function to our Preserve. The planting will prepare the forest for climate change; the bittersweet removal will aid in forest regeneration and will help with monitoring the effectiveness of removal; and the boardwalks will help to educate people about the preserve and encourage humans to find win-win solutions that work for park visitors as well as for native species. Not bad for three days’ work by SCA!

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