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Understanding—and appreciating—the land around us

Understanding—and appreciating—the land around us

July 1, 2014

By Avery McNiff and Marc Lapin

Over the past few summers, Middlebury’s Lands Advisory Committee has enlisted Marc Lapin, an associate in science instruction in Environmental Studies, to better understand the ecological values, history, and potential of the College’s forests, wetlands, meadows, and hayfields.

Middlebury is now one of the few institutions with a detailed ecological database of landholdings, an extremely beneficial resource in light of current climate change, statewide resilience planning efforts, and landscape-scale conservation.

Lapin and his team of student researchers recently completed the second part of the Ecological Assessment of College Lands, a project that involved nine students over the course of four years. The report, “An Ecological Perspective of the Middlebury College Mountain Lands: Natural Communities and Vascular Flora of Lands of the Bread Loaf Region and the Green Mountain Western Escarpment,” describes the natural communities and their ecological significance at the regional and local levels. The project illuminates the environmental, aesthetic, historical, agricultural, recreational, and educational potential of Middlebury’s land—from a small parcel on Hogback Mountain east of Bristol Pond to Bread Loaf’s mountain campus and the nearby Spirit in Nature Trails.

The report begins with a landscape overview of geology, topography, soils, and hydrology, and presents the ecological values and highlights of more than 3,000 acres, as well as specific management recommendations for each parcel. When linked with a 2009 report, “Ecological and Agroecological Evaluation of Middlebury College Lands: Champlain Valley and Green Mountain Escarpment,” which describes the ecological and agricultural values of nearly 3,000 acres of lower elevation lands, the information will help guide thoughtful stewardship, management and use of the College’s 6,000 acres.

The data collected also provide resources for better ecological understanding and stewardship statewide. The report aims to promote broader understanding of ecosystem-level biodiversity by helping the state Agency of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Diversity Program refine its knowledge of Vermont’s natural communities. Along with the state agency, the College can play a significant role in communicating about the importance of natural communities and large, intact landscapes to help protect water quality, wildlife, and myriad ecological and evolutionary processes.

In evaluating the lands, Lapin and the students combined intensive fieldwork with GIS analyses and mapping to delineate natural communities and more accurately display locations of wetlands and streams. The team also developed plant lists that include more than 400 species.

“I had for years suspected that the College mountain lands were home to natural treasures not yet recorded and described,” said Lapin. “After spending the better part of two summers investigating them, we now know that these lands feature high quality examples of both common and uncommon natural community types that are significant to biodiversity conservation at the statewide level.”

The College Lands Advisory Group will work on developing a less technical summary publication of the report to help promote greater appreciation of the College’s spectacular landholdings.

“Especially in light of climate change, large land owners now have greater responsibility to understand the ecological values and sensitivities in their land holdings,” remarked Dean of Environmental Affairs Nan Jenks-Jay. “Knowing this helps private and public land owners and institutions, such as Middlebury, make more informed decisions about land practices and use, divestment, and acquisition. For colleges and universities, these lands and ecological databases also become rich laboratories for student education and research.”

This initiative received extensive support from the Land Stewardship Fund and also from Environmental Council Grants.