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

Photograph by Dave Sirota

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

The snake catches everyone by surprise, appearing as if conjured for us moments after the professor asks if we would like to look for a rattler. We scramble over the rocky mountaintop, among tough grasses and pitch pines, and suddenly there it is, a timber rattlesnake three and-a-half feet long, gliding over the mottled stone several yards away.

We crowd as close as the professor deems safe and watch it coil up against a boulder, rattle trembling in the breeze. The snake is beautiful, with chocolate-brown bands rippling over a dusky back. It is a clear summer day on the summit of Black Rock Mountain, and for several moments I am as rapt as the pack of high school students this excursion was intended for.

These six students make up one of 12 summer science classes offered by the Black Rock Forest Consortium in New York state's Black Rock Forest. In the 1960s, this forest was almost sold to developers from Consolidated Edison during one of the environmental movement's epic battles. Today, that same land functions as an outdoor classroom to teach middle and high school children about ecology and conservation. But what makes it unusual among nature programs is that at Black Rock Forest, the students learn how conservationists and biologists carry out research in the field. Alongside practicing scientists, the students collect data for ongoing research projects in the preserve's wetlands and wooded slopes.

Since they launched last year, the Black Rock Forest Consortium summer sciences classes aim to connect kids, primarily from the Hudson Valley and New York City 60 miles away, to the natural world, although some of its students travel from as far as Florida and even Hong Kong. The program runs multiple classes concurrently over four week-long sessions. The "Biodiversity Blitz" class, taught by Barnard paleoecologist Terryanne Maenza-Gmelch, is just one of four classes running on the day I come to visit. While we were entranced by the timber rattlesnake atop Black Rock Mountain, other students were immersed in "Surveying Turtles," "Visualizing Entomology," and "Flying High Ornithology" (the most popular class) across different parts of the forest.

For Jeffrey Kidder, the education director, who designed the program, it's all about inspiring students with its hands-on approach. "That's kind of the model for this program--authentic science, taught by people that are truly doing science research," he says. Besides games, hikes, and baking muffins from wild blueberries, the students learn field research techniques, such as identifying birds by song and recording carapace measurements on turtles. "Kids want to be here and have fun," says Kidder. "It's not school, it's summer class. Catching a turtle's got to be a 'gee whiz' thing."

Black Rock Forest (which is named for magnetite, a dark iron ore found in rocks across the forest) spans nearly 4,000 acres in the Hudson Highlands, the cragged mountainous area that lines the Hudson River as it winds north from New York City. The Consortium is an amalgamation of 24 groups that include grade schools, universities, laboratories, and museums committed to conserving and studying the forest. The American Museum of Natural History, New York University, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation are all members.

Among the forest's most abundant furred and scaly denizens are opossums, flying squirrels, foxes, red-backed salamanders, and river otters. The forest, which officials are resolved to have classified as an Important Bird Area, is also home to a plethora of bird species. Regular sightings include red-tailed hawks, crows, turkeys, and a wealth of warblers, sparrows, and other songbirds. A very lucky hiker might even spy a common loon, peregrine falcon, redheaded woodpecker, great horned owl, or pine siskin.

But in the recent past Black Rock Forest, which lies 60 miles north of New York City, was far from the secluded woodland that the campers trek. Once, this land was farmed and mined for iron ore, until it was purchased by Earnest Stillman, a medical doctor who designated Black Rock a nature preserve in 1928. Upon his death in 1949 he left it to Harvard University for environmental research. Harvard already had a research forest of its own in Massachusetts, and eventually began to seek a buyer for Black Rock Forest.

Then, in 1962, Con Edison announced its intention to build the world's largest pumped storage power plant on adjoining Storm King Mountain, which lies along the Hudson River's west bank. Harvard considered selling part or all of Black Rock Forest to the company. Black Rock's Upper Reservoir would have held Hudson River water for the hydroelectric plant, pumped from the river by night and tapped by day to generate electricity.

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