Community gathers to discuss conservation research

One of the organizers of Oct. 18’s conservation symposium, Adele Birkenes ’20, delivered a presentation about her NOAA project on the migration patterns of marine mammals./ Courtesy of Clark Xu

On Wednesday, Oct. 18, conservationists from Vassar College and the surrounding area gathered at the Barn on the Environmental Cooperative to share ideas about scientific research, social action and pedagogy for building a habitable future. Speakers affiliated with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Monitoring and Management Alliance (EMMA), City of Poughkeepsie Natural Resources Inventory (NRI), the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, the Student Conservation Association, Vassar Greens and the Fossil Fuels Divestment Campaign delivered presentations throughout the day.

Event organizers Adele Birkenes ’20 and Addison Tate ’17 opened the symposium with a few remarks about the wide range of interests and concerns captured under the heading of conservation. Birkenes referred to a passage from “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold that describes Leopold’s sense of devastation when he successfully culled a mother wolf and six pups by firing his rifle from the top of a ridge into the river valley. Leopold climbed down to the scene of devastation in time to see what he described as the green fire die from the mother wolf’s eyes.

Birkenes added, “Conservation must be rooted in a connection to the land that engages the heart as well as the mind. Before my ‘green fires’ of last year, I felt afraid to acknowledge beauty and spirituality in nature because I thought it made me a less credible scientist. Now, I realize that my ability to appreciate this beauty is what makes me a more effective conservationist.”

Birkenes assisted in the development of the Protected Species Information System, a database that will serve as a centralized national repository for marine mammal data collected by NOAA. This semester, Birkenes is working to represent the marine mammal data visually by producing web maps with ArcGIS software.

Tate, Education and Outreach Post Baccalaureate Fellow at the Environmental Cooperative, has worked extensively on projects to improve the connection that local residents have with the environment. One of his projects is the Vassar Experimental Garden, which seeks to introduce students to farming practices and explore new ideas for food production. The latest project is an indoor microgreens plot in Josslyn House, which allows food production to continue even in the midst of the Northeast winter.

Tate also considered the 2012 Community Food Assessment in his thesis with the Environmental Studies Program and explained, “I looked at food insecurity in Poughkeepsie and also the Hudson Valley as a food provider, a food system. A quarter of the households in Poughkeepsie are food insecure, meaning that they don’t have consistent access to healthy nutritional food. And on the flip side of that, the Hudson Valley is producing a lot of great local food but is lacking distribution infrastructure. So I created a business model out of these two things for a food distribution program that would source from local farms in the area and deliver boxed foods that people could order ahead of time in Poughkeepsie.”

Poughkeepsie Farm Project Education Director Jamie Levato expressed a similar vision for the social impact of conservation efforts. Levato elaborated, “Poughkeepsie Farm Project is primarily a food justice program. We’re talking about justice, equability, at all levels of the food system, starting from seed production and going all the way to on your plate. The way we do most of our work is to grow vegetables in collaboration with Bon Appétit on land we lease from Vassar. Most of the food from these 15 acres goes to our Student Conservation Association shareholders, but 20 percent of what we grow goes to food providers in the area and we actively provide opportunities for local groups to learn how to farm.”

Focusing on scientific research, Vassar Ecological Preserve Research Assistant Elise Matera ’19 spoke about data collection projects on deer browse in sapling fence plots, the prevalence of invasive vines and shrubs and the population levels of local pollinators that formed the core of several efforts in the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute. Matera said, “Conservation work, a lot of the time, means helping out where you can, and where the work is needed, you try to put some in.”

Editor of VC Nature Stephen Kovari ’19 shared his trail-monitoring work, explaining, “We’ve been putting up cameras on the trails to analyze fox populations, their distance to roads and relationship to human population density. The coyotes out here use the trails; the bobcats cross the trails.”

EMMA Coordinator Jamie Deppen presented possible ways for students to get involved with conservation efforts and said, “We’re developing an ecological monitoring network that’s meant to help organizations manage their land and natural resources and share information with researchers, to help accelerate conservation efforts that are going on in the Hudson Valley.” She added that they currently have projects on deer exposures and weather and will examine phenology in the spring.

Associate Professor of Biology Lynn Christenson reflected, “I grew up surrounded by nature — forests, plains, lakes and rivers. All of these places were filled with organisms, and I wanted to know who they were and what they were called … Our natural environment gives us a sense of calm in an increasingly hectic and fast-paced world. So saving spaces where many species can live is important … The best communicators can walk away from a controversial conversation enriched, informed and compassionate about the topic. That is really true for conservation; we need many ways of achieving good conservation strategies with participation from all members of society.”

Tate concluded, “I see the conservation community as akin to an ecological community that consists of many parts each occupying a niche. From our niches, we may not be aware of the entire community, so events like this illuminate the different parts, what is missing and where we may find opportunities to work together. Furthermore, the conservation community exists as one of many communities within our broader human ecosystems of social justice, natural history and spirituality. In order to face the tricky task of focusing on our own work while maintaining a broad scope, we can start by recognizing that all work lies along an intersection of many issues and that we must nourish that interconnectedness.”

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