Learning to Love Nature at New York City’s Field Station

Learning to Love Nature at New York City’s Field Station

At Black Rock Forest, students learn about research from conservationists and biologists. 

By Kate Baggaley
Published: 09/13/2013

In 1963, the Con Edison applied to the Federal Power Commission for a license to build the plant. Two years later, the Federal Power Commission granted that license and Robert Boyle, a writer for Sports Illustrated, published an article about the havoc Con Edison's plant would wreak on local fisheries. Now, almost 50 years later, he is still shaken by the magnitude of Con Edison's vision. The plant, he says, would have been disastrous for the Hudson River and surrounding land. "It would have industrialized the river, at probably its most scenic point," he says. "It would have turned it into an industrial slum."

Boyle was not alone. The Storm King project ignited furious resistance from the local community, who turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. By the end of 1965, Court had revoked Con Edison's license, but the legal battle dragged on for another 15 years. Meanwhile the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was enacted in 1969, giving opponents of Con Edison a new legal tool in their arsenal. The National Resources Defense Council was also formed in response to the conflict and joined the fray against Con Edison. Finally, Con Edison officially gave up on the power plant in December of 1980. By then, Storm King had set a precedent--for the first time, locals had a voice in environmental decisions in their community. Storm King was the catalyst for environmental law in United States, and for federal lawsuits to consider both environmental impacts and economic interests.

Meanwhile, Harvard had backed down on the sale of Black Rock Forest due to public pressure and guidance from William T. Golden, who had served as the Science Adviser to Harry S. Truman and as the chair of the American Museum of Natural History (he also happened to be a Harvard alumnus.) Golden purchased the land and set up the Black Rock Forest Consortium in 1989.

His vision was to create a field station for New York City, says Executive Director William Schuster. He felt "this should be the place where people go to, to see what the ecology of the New York area is like."

Although the Consortium conducts research and conservation work, "Education is really our biggest program area," Schuster says. Thousands of kids visit every year, most of whom attend member schools in the Hudson Valley and New York City. The summer science classes, however, are open to the public. The program runs in July and August, and offers week-long daytime and sleep-away courses for grades 7-12, including need-based scholarships.

Before coming to camp at Black Rock Forest, some of the students I meet felt more comfortable with nature than others.  For the students in Maenza-Gmelch's "Biodiversity Blitz" course (which takes its name from an intense kind of field survey in which participants attempt to identify as many species in an area as possible in a short period of time), the rattlesnake on Black Rock Mountain is a welcome treat, but they are already motivated. Along the hike to the mountaintop, they listen to the smatterings of birdsong at 100 meter intervals, penciling in the species they identify (with their teacher's help) during five minute point counts. One student offers me her binoculars to get a closer look at some tufted titmice. Another becomes anxious that Maenza-Gmelch is compromising the integrity of the count by answering a question while they are listening for birdsong. "We can't hear the birds," he admonishes us.

Meanwhile, downhill, the "Surveying Turtles" class (led by Antonia Florio, a PhD from the American Museum of Natural History) is plunging into chest-high lake water to retrieve netted traps. The students, who have just met two days ago, call back and forth with easy familiarity--

"It's a catfish!" one student says, peering into a trap.

"We should fry it up," jokes another.

The turtles they are searching for are the focus of an ongoing project on population demographics. The students take measurements on the turtles' shells, age, and location, and scan them for identification tags. Most of the turtles they dredge up are small and easily handled, like the painted turtles that are distinguished by yellow and red streaks along their necks and limbs.

It turns out that this class, like the students of "Biodiversity Blitz," is in for a treat today: an enormous snapping turtle, muddy brown and writhing as it is pulled from its trap. Their instructors stow it in a plastic bin to await measuring. Eager as they are get a glimpse, the students dutifully move away from the ancient-looking creature to enter data on several much smaller painted turtles it was sharing the trap with.

And yet, despite the draw of snakes and snapping turtles, neither "Biodiversity Blitz" nor "Surveying Turtles" are even the camp's most popular classes. That honor belongs to New York University grad student Danielle Bunch's "Flying High Ornithology" class.

"It was a surprise," says Emily Cunningham, the Director of External Relations. "We thought all the topics were pretty intriguing. But the kids chose birds."

Black Rock Forest offers "Flying High Ornithology" for two of its week-long sessions. The class I observe was entirely booked by the Summer Youth in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (SYSTEM) program, which serves high school students from New York City.

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