Students Gain Land Management Experience at Former Navy Base

vlad's class 5On a recent Thursday morning, Bowdoin biology professor Vlad Douhovnikoff eased his red Subaru along a bumpy dirt road that skirts the perimeter of a former Navy base. 

“There are some short-needled pines — pitch pines,” Douhovnikoff said, peering out the car window. In the back seat were three students who wanted Douhovnikoff’s help identifying the best site for a future nature walk. “This is where you get the most interesting, most diverse ecosystems.” He pointed out a meadow, a few pitch pines, a stand of aspen. “Over there are are white pines…That is your typical white pine-oak-broadleaf forest.”

The students — Elise Engquist ’15, Tyler DeAngelis ’51 and Elizabeth Carew ’15 — decided that they would propose a short nature trail for elementary school children that could encompass these diverse tree species.

The land Douhovnikoff and his students were exploring was turned over by the government to Bowdoin College over a year ago. At that time, Douhovnikoff, an ecologist and assistant professor of biology, jumped at the chance to use the area as a site for his botany research.

When Douhovnikoff got to slip behind the barbed wire fence for the first time, he was stunned. “It’s been fenced off for 60 years,” he said. “Most of it has gone wild.” Wild turkeys and deer are common. The former base harbors rare ecosystems and endangered songbirds.

He instantly saw the educational potential of the land for his students. This fall, Douhovnikoff is teaching a Forest Ecology and Conservation course. Besides exploring the ecological dynamics of forest ecosystems, the class is studying the science of managing forests for the (often competing) purposes of natural resource use, recreation, education, research, and wildlife.

The college land at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station is an ideal site onto which students can practice mapping out any number of future uses. “Here is a piece of land being very lightly managed, with new ownership and new priorities,” Douhovnikoff said. He assigned his students a longterm project of drafting a management plan for the area. While they plan to pitch their ideas to the college this winter, the students understand that everything they propose is just that — a suggestion, a way to start fermenting ideas.

Forest Ecology and Conservation students on their way to Brunswick Landing

Forest Ecology and Conservation students on their way to Brunswick Landing

Douhovnikoff split the students into four groups to focus on recreation, education, wildlife and natural resources. Tyler DeAngelis, who is experienced with GIS, is working independently to make maps that show the base’s physical dimensions, landmarks, soil types, water bodies and vegetation cover.

Elise Engquist is part of the education group. With three other students, she has been interviewing Bowdoin faculty to see whether they could possibly incorporate the land into their research or classes. The students have approached professors who teach art, history, biology, physics and geology, and have also met with the director of the outing club.

Art students could sit in the meadows and work on landscape sketches or paintings, Engquist suggested. An abandoned radar tower could be equipped with climate gauges for atmospheric studies. Ornithology students could study grassland sparrows. The outing club could stage orienteering exercises. The area could also serve, hypothetically, as an outdoor classroom for local school children.

Sophomore Jamie Ptacek’s group is responsible for proposing a plan for wilderness preservation. “My interest in environmental studies is how to protect species and the places they inhabit,” she said. Her group has been determining what flora and fauna live on the former base. They’ve identified two rare ecosystems — a pitch pine barren and a sandy plain that attracts threatened birds. They’re discussing the best potential methods for maintaining these areas, perhaps with selective cutting or burning, she said.

Peter Mumford ’17 and his group are exploring possible recreational uses, such as adding a trail system, a pavilion and picnic tables. His group has spoken with the outing club about organizing short trips to the nearby land for bicycle rides or frisbee golf games. “We have free rein to come up with ideas,” he noted.

Tristan Van Kote ’15 is working with the natural resources group, which has been identifying the tree species, wildlife, soils and bodies of water that might have economic value. Some of the trees might be cut for timber. Some of the open areas might offer good spots for gardens. “The economic value [of the land] is a key argument to preserving the environment,” he said.

The process of forging a management plan with her classmates has been collaborative and thoughtful, according to Ptacek. “There’s so many moving parts,” she said. At the end of the semester, the four groups will merge their separate plans into one master proposal, which could form a basis for future plans.

“This has been so much fun and it feels like meaningful work,” Ptacek continued. “It feels like we’re part of something that could be long-lasting and have a positive impact on Bowdoin and the town of Brunswick.”

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