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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Husband and wife team Luis Malaret and Dianne Rocheleau bring students into the field to study the effects of forest management practice on the habitats of reptiles, amphibians and ants.

Meet the researchers: Biodiversity in the Adirondacks

Interview with Professors Dianne Rocheleau and Luis Malaret
In collaboration with members of the USDA Forest Service, geographer Dianne malaret and her husband, biologist Luis Malaret of Clark's Marsh Institute, are collaborating on two related projects situated in the Adirondack region of upstate New York. Luis's research focuses on the relationship between forest management practices and animal biodiversity. Dianne is investigating the relationship between different levels of human settlement and vegetation.

Could you start by describing Luis's research project?

Dianne: Luis's project is a cooperative effort between Clark University, the USDA Forest Service and Paul Smith's College, a forestry college in the Adirondacks that's the main research center for information about the region. It's part of a formal, 20-year study to look at what happens if you clear cut, versus selective cutting, versus leaving it alone. What is the impact on the vegetation? How soon does it come back? What comes back?

Luis: While they're investigating how silvicultural (forest management) practices affect vegetation, we're monitoring the effects of those practices on selected animal populations. We're surveying particular animals that we think act as indicator species of environmental change. These groups consist of the amphibians, mostly salamanders but some frogs, the occasional reptile in the form of a garter snake, and ants that live in the leaf litter in the forests. We wanted to include both vertibrate (with spines) and invertibrate (without spine) organisms.

In the first year (1999) we surveyed all the animals that were in the experimental forest plots, before any changes to the forest were made. Then, between the first and second years, Paul Smith's College and the USDA forestry lab implemented some changes. Some plots were cleared of trees while in others only selected trees were removed. In some plots the trees were left untouched. We're investigating the changes in the number of species and individuals that occur in these plots.

Dianne, how does your research fit in and why is the Tupper Lake area important?

Dianne: In addition to the relationship between forest management and animal biodiversity, Paul Smith's asked us to investigate what different forest management practices might mean for different groups of people in the area or different livelihoods derived from the forest. My research looks at the interaction between people and vegetation (trees and shrubs) across a variety of environments. These include populated areas in downtown Tupper Lake (a town of about 4,000 people with a very big seasonal population) to suburban, semi-urban, urban fringe areas, campgrounds, and forests. Our example of a forest is the Paul Smith's College plots that we've already mentioned.

My project includes crawling around on people's suburban lawns looking for herpetiles and erecting little flags that look like crop circles. When we went to knock on people's doors we'd say: 'hi, we're here to look at your plants and animals and we're going to make something that looks an awful lot like a crop circle over there in your and your neighbor's back yard.' We'd randomly locate points and locate circles around the points-often a circle would cut across property boundaries. We'd have to look at it on the map, find out whose property it was and make a phone call to obtain their consent. A couple of our grad students, especially Alice Havorka, got really good at these phone calls. I had people hang up on me thinking I was a telemarketer, but Alice never got no for an answer.

So we had to go through all the things you go through for social sampling, social history, life history, and for those people who had a plot. We were asking a set of questions survey style so we could quantify and compare answers between properties. What kinds of animals are on your property? Which ones are problems? Which ones do you like? Do you feed any? Do you try to get rid of any? Are there any you're afraid of? What about the plants?

I thought it would be very boring to talk about this with people in upstate NY after having done this in Kenya and the Dominican Republic where people have very lush tropical and subtropical garden plots around their houses. On the contrary! In Tupper Lake, one woman told us the history of different trees on her property. One tree, a silver maple, was germinated by her mother 38 years ago in the house where she grew up. The woman also bought cherry trees and walnut trees through the mail using seed catalogues. She had apple trees that she kept to feed the deer and another tree that she and her husband transplanted from a previous residence. The trees on her property had great significance for her and her family. Her husband and daughter chop wood where they can-where there are windfalls, where land is opened up, and they stack it. Half the plot that doesn't have the trees on it is filled with stacks of wood that the family sells at campgrounds during the summer. These are people who cut trees, or use wood products from active commercial forestry. It's an example of just how complex people's relationships to forests can be. That's what we're trying to get at in the study but I never dreamed we'd run into it at the first house.

We also talked about the possibility in the future of connecting this research to the nearby Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is like a science museum that locals and tourists go to. There we could interview people and get their response to these different forest treatments.

The areas we're monitoring are in the Tupper Lake region of the Adirondacks Park and come under the Park's jurisdiction. Adirondack Park is different from a park like Yellowstone, for example. In the Yellowstone model, there are no people or towns within the park. Conversely, this is exactly what characterizes the Adirondack Park. It has very strict zoning and population density regulations that are hard to pin down. It's hard to figure out who enforces them, or how they work.

What you have in the Park is a spectrum of environments. There is wild forest (which is sometimes 100-year old clearcut) with lots of plants and animals that's under protection. Then you have other places where it's a working forest, meaning that there's some hunting going on and some logging, but under rotation, by commercial companies like International Paper. Then you have whole towns, like Tupper Lake, that have sprung up around that industry. Tupper Lake was originally a logging town, but it has become very much a hunting and fishing and summer tourism town. Tupper Lake has the full spectrum of seasonal residence, including some of the wealthiest people in the country, and gated communities so exclusive they don't even have gates-you just don't get in. Different groups of people are living in juxtaposition with each other, and then you have the town and then ten minutes away you have forest that hasn't been logged in 100 years, bear running around, hunting in the winter, logging four miles down the road. We chose Tupper Lake because it had that mixture. Also you have Fish Creek Campgrounds and Rollins Camp. Fish Creek is the most populous campground in the state of NY. And we decided we'd like to juxtapose the impact of campground recreational use compared to the working forest of Paul Smith's compared to people living in town.

Who is on the research team that you're taking out this summer?

Luis: Dianne, myself, Rachel Regeczi '03, a geography undergraduate who worked with us last year, my sons Ramon and Rafael, and Monika Szymurska '01. Monika's been with us for two years.

Dianne: Another student has volunteered--Loretta Neal who was at Clark with us last year and worked with us last summer. Monika is an ES&P major with a concentration in Women's Studies. And she'll be doing the 5th year BA/MA in International Development. She has very broad interests-biology, forest ecology, sustainable development. She's also coming with us this summer to the Dominican Republic on another, related project.

We also had some graduate students the previous two years: Alice Havorka, Robin Roth, Carolyn Finney, and Alec Brownlow, as well as Akshat Sharma, a friend of our sons'. This time it's just undergraduates.

Where do you stay while you do your fieldwork? Do you camp?

Luis: It depends on the year. This year we're renting two bungalows. In previous years we've stayed at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake. That was excellent-after a day in the field you really want to be able to come home and shower, cook hot food. But it was also further from the study site. One time we camped at the Fish Creek Campgrounds. Families go there consistently, year after year, some for 40 years. We've done a little bit of everything.

Dianne: The first night we camped, the temperature went down to 40 degrees and it rained. But what was nice about camping was that I was able to bicycle around and talk to people. Sometimes I'd find out that they're 4th and 5th generation campers and they'd point us to other people who were long term, multi-decade campers. They gave us a lot of information about the wildlife of the area, the history and management, Rollins Pond. It was nice to be able to do that kind of informal participant observation.

Can you describe a typical day in the field?

Luis: (laughter) We're usually up around sunrise, have breakfast, get dressed-remembering to put on insect repellant and bug shirts. At times there are many bugs waiting for us, notably mosquitoes and deer flies. We usually miss the black fly season. We make lunch to carry and include plenty of water. Then we make sure we have the equipment-tape measure to mark out the area we'll be surveying, little yellow flags to mark our survey plots (23 meter diameter circles). Then we either pile into the cars or this year we may be bicycling since we'll be staying close enough.

Dianne: When we get to the site we put the food up in trees because there are bears in the area. They're black bear, but a bear is a bear. We haven't seen any yet, but we've seen tracks, recent scat, claw marks on trees, and heard some snuffling.

Luis: We go out to the site. We walk from 10-20 minutes and locate the plots.

Dianne: For Luis's study, these plots are on diagrams that the Forest Service drew, eight circles nested inside one rectangular block about an acre in size. The circles are 23 meters in diameter. We have to find the centers of the plot by locating little metal tags on trees or perhaps a flag left by the people doing the vegetation survey -unless some animal has run off with it.

Luis: After we find the center we take 23 meter tapes and mark out the quarters of the circle, and mark the diameter with flags and leave them in place so they can be seen. We divide ourselves up, and get down on our hands and knees and start sifting through the leaf litter looking for herpetiles and ants. We try not to disturb the surface as much as possible-lifting and putting back. Most of the amphibians, especially the salamanders, tend to be near structures such as rocks or tree trunks, so we look at the area and try to estimate how much of it is covered by "structure" and how much is just leaf litter. When someone finds an animal, they call out and another person records it in a field book.

Dianne: Some of the animals, especially a couple of the salamanders, are hard to tell apart and Luis will go confirm the identification. Rachel and Monika have gotten really good at the identification as well.

Luis: If we find an ant or ant colony we'll take an aspirator and collect one or two representative individuals. These get sent to a taxonomist to confirm that our identification is correct. With the amphibians we may just take photos. We can spend from ½ to two hours on each plot, depending on the number of animals we find and the surface composition-structure versus leaf litter.

Dianne: Initially we spent as much as a day per plot while developing a strategy for surveying. Once we got a routine down and people became more confident about animal identification we were able to be more efficient.

Do you worry about your physical presence influencing the count?

Luis: I'm glad you asked that. There are some animals such as toads and frogs, or perhaps garter snakes that can actually get away quickly. So before we actually begin surveying, we encircle the area and walk to the center, looking for any animals that might be able to escape. If we entered from just one side, they might escape out the other.

Besides the ants, do any of these creatures live underground?

Luis: The spotted salamander will sometimes occupy underground mammal burrows. We do take that into account. And we know that our count will be an underestimate of the total population.

Dianne: But since we're doing the same kind of search every year, it's still a good relative measure. There some sites where we've never seen them, and some where we keep running into them. And we've learned to recognize the kind of burrow they're likely to inhabit. You have to make a judgment call-you don't want to do so much searching that you undermine their home sites.

Luis: Since we come back year after year, we want to minimize disturbance as much as possible. After you've surveyed a circle you can see that someone's been here, but after a couple rains those signs are gone.

I assume you try to make your counts at the same time every year?

Luis: Yes, always at the end of June. We want to make sure we don't get extreme results because of seasonal variation. The animals are pretty active during the time of year we're there.


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Dianne Rocheleau and Luis Malaret
Luis Malaret and Dianne Rocheleau

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