Connect People to the Outdoors
It is never too late to discover the outdoors. Increasingly, communities and natural resource organizations are offering programs and facilities that invite people to get outdoors and enjoy nature. From urban recreation trails, volunteer citizen scientist programs, and training that gives teachers hands-on research projects they can use to engage students, this month we feature an employee, partnership, research and product that showcase Northern Research Station contributions to activities aimed at connecting people to the outdoors.
Soil Scientist Quin Holifield was born in Alabama, but for much of her childhood she lived in Europe, where her father was stationed with the military. Growing up she was exposed to a multitude of cultures and an education system that always included science, art and music. While still in grade school, she read a book about Benjamin Banneker, the first African American man of science; his story inspired her to pursue a career in science.
Holifield works at the Northern Research Station’s Baltimore Field Station, which has built a network of urban forestry projects, water initiatives, and outreach education activities that support technology, innovation and economic development in the City of Baltimore. Holifield’s early work in Baltimore focused on soil science, but a passion for working with people and serving as a mentor led her to increased involvement in environmental education and introducing urban children to experiences in nature.
Holifield began her career with the USDA Forest Service in 1990, when she was selected as a Co-operative Education research intern with the Northern Research Station lab in Hamden, Conn. Holifield credits her first Forest Service supervisor, Plant Pathologist Phil Wargo, with sharing his knowledge of forest pathology and giving her research opportunities involving both field work and laboratory analysis. “It was a wonderful learning experience for me and Phil was a terrific mentor,” said Holifield.
Currently on detail to the Washington Office, Holifield is serving as a program manager with the USDA National Forest System, Recreation, Heritage and Volunteer Resources staff. The main focus of her work is with the Resource Assistants Program, a rigorous, immersive, paid internship for individuals interested in Forest Service careers. Through this training program, Resource Assistants gain the tools to launch their natural and cultural resource careers.
“With this detail, I have come full circle in my career, starting with being a research intern myself to helping today’s young people get their starts in natural resource careers,” said Holifield.
Why count trees: assessing volunteer motivations in participating in New York City's 2015 tree census
While citizen scientists counted New York City street trees as part of “TreesCount!,” the third census ever done of New York City’s trees, researchers with the New York City Urban Field Station worked with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (NYC Parks) to assess why volunteers signed up to count 225,000 street trees.
Michelle Johnson, a research ecologist with the New York Urban Field Station, a collaboration of the USDA Forest Service and NYC Parks, is lead author of “Why count trees? Volunteer motivations and experiences with tree monitoring in New York City.” Johnson said that citizen science is gaining steam worldwide as a way to include the broader public in research and monitoring efforts, and understanding citizen scientists has the potential to help cities, universities and organizations recruit and retain their volunteers.
The TreesCount! tree census initiative occurred in New York City during 2015-2016. NYC Parks made it a priority to include public and partner groups in collecting data on all of New York City’s street trees as a way to strengthen civic engagement with the urban forest. TreesCount! volunteers counted trees and also collected data such as species, circumference at breast height, tree health, and visible signs of care for the tree, such as mulching.
“We wanted to understand who is signing up for citizen science activities like counting trees, what motivates people, and whether there are links between citizen science and broader civic participation,” Johnson said.
Johnson and her colleagues, Erika Svendsen and Lindsay Campbell of the New York City Urban Field Station, worked with NYC Parks to analyze responses to their 34-question survey, which was sent to the 2,348 people who volunteered to count street trees in New York City. Reported results are based on the responses of the 27 percent of volunteers who responded to the survey.
Volunteers participated for many reasons including because the work aligned with their environmental and societal values, because they wanted to contribute to their community, measuring trees satisfied a desire to learn and self-educate, and that TreesCount! was thought to be a fun way to meet people and experience the outdoors, according to the study.
For NYC Parks, “Why count trees?” establishes baseline data on how and why TreesCount! volunteers participated in a tree census, but Johnson expects the assessment of citizen science volunteers to have relevance for other entities that rely on citizen scientists. “This study deepens our understanding of tree monitoring volunteers, a relatively unexamined type of citizen science, and gives cities and their partners insight into what motivates people to volunteer their time and effort on behalf of the environment.”
Up on the 606: Understanding Use of a New Elevated Pedestrian and Bicycle Trail
In densely populated urban areas, city managers seeking to expand recreational opportunities have begun looking up to abandoned elevated rail lines. The 606, the world’s first multipurpose elevated trail, was opened in Chicago in early 2015 offering residents much needed green space to walk, run and bike. Along with the new mileage, conversion of elevated rails such as the 606 in Chicago and the High Line in New York City pose unique challenges to urban trail managers. USDA Forest Service researchers in Chicago and university collaborators conducted a 6-month use monitoring study of the 606 that generated information that is informing managers responsible for overseeing trail operations and planning for the future.
Connecting six ground-level urban parks in Chicago, the 606 serves as a recreation venue and cross town transportation corridor spanning 2.7 miles and a diversity of neighborhoods. Unlike the High Line in New York City, which is restricted to pedestrians, the 606 offers opportunities for those with fitness goals such as runners, walkers and cyclists as well as people walking dogs, families with young children and more casual strollers.
Past research has established that an increase in diversity of uses also creates greater potential for conflict on the trail. “Among the challenges in managing urban elevated trails is maintaining a safe and harmonious experience for all trail users,” said Paul Gobster, research landscape architect with the Northern Research Station in Evanston, Ill. and principal investigator on the study. This research was conducted in response to managers’ desires to better understand use patterns and document benefits accrued.
The study revealed how the trail is used, including volumes of use across the trail’s span that varied with weather, time of day, day of week, and time of year. In the course of the study, scientists developed a model of traffic flow based on these variables that could be used to predict use throughout the year. Another study result was an improved method of accurately calculating trail traffic with sensors when multiple users cross the sensor beam at the same time (occlusion).
“The neighborhood now served by the 606 had historically been identified as having the least amount of open space per resident in the city of Chicago. The 606 has changed that dynamic,” Gobster said. “With science-based tools to help managers optimize users’ experiences, the trail has the potential to offer years of enjoyment to nearby residents.”
Rensselaer Children's Forest Partnership
An enthusiastic and knowledgeable adult has the power to inspire a new generation to engage in the wonder, science, and adventure of nature. In upstate New York, the USDA Forest Service is part of a partnership that is giving teachers the expertise and experiences needed to be that adult.
Part of the USDA Forest Service Children’s Forest Network, Rensselaer Youth Outdoors is a partnership among Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center, Grafton Lakes State Park, public and private schools in Rensselaer County, and the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry Program. In August, Rensselaer Youth Outdoors organized a 3-day professional development training workshop focused on engaging kindergarten through 8th grade school teachers working in New York’s Rensselaer County in the natural history of the Rensselaer Plateau, one of the largest and most ecologically intact native habitats in the state. By bringing teachers together with local professionals and other experienced teachers, the workshop nurtured a cross-pollination of enthusiasm and valuable ideas and skills for integrating nature and the outdoors into the curriculum.
“Connecting to nature creates a sense of wonder, and teachers can use this spark in interdisciplinary study to engage students in learning more about their own sense of place,” said Lisa Hoyt, director of the Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.
The Rensselaer program also contributed funding that made it possible for the Forest Service to host close to 800 students for field trips to natural areas on the Rensselaer Plateau over the summer as well as assemble forest ecology backpack ‘kits’ that will be available for loan to teachers. “Rensselaer Youth Outdoors is both helping get young people outdoors into their local parks and forests, and is offering training that will help teachers engage students in observing and studying nature throughout the year,” said Rachel Riemann, a research forester / geographer with the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program and the liaison with the Rensselaer Youth Outdoors partnership.
Reaching teachers is an important component of the partnership, according to Hoyt. “Field trips to protected lands are always a highlight in environmental education,” she said. “But when we train teachers to integrate hands-on nature experiences in the classroom, we have now expanded opportunities for youth to learn about ecology in their own backyards. The belief is that connecting youth to their local ecology encourages future stewardship of public lands.”