Yellow leaves fall from trees and crunch beneath a hiker’s boots. A student crouches next to a bush, studies the leaves and takes a picture with a camera. Another student wipes a layer of sweat from his forehead, shifting his pace as he runs on the trail. A third gazes across the woods, binoculars in hand, and watches a deer gallop through a thick layer of silence.
Behind the man-made Ithaca College campus lies 6.91 miles of natural woods: the Ithaca College Natural Lands. This area, open from dawn to dusk year-round and is home to over 20,000 species and several trails.
But these woods don’t take care of themselves. Erosion, animal and human engagement and natural weather patterns lead to inevitable decay. It takes a great deal of effort to keep this land safe and beneficial for the public.
That’s where the Ithaca College Natural Lands, ICNL, staff and volunteers come in.
Jake Brenner, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, has served as the faculty manager of the ICNL since 2012.
Brenner said this position makes him responsible for Ithaca College programs that educate students, managing trail boundaries and access, directing research projects, managing threats from invasive species and public outreach and volunteer work. Brenner’s staff of two paid student interns and five to 15 credit-bearing trainees per semester work together on individual projects.
While most of the projects within the ICNL are long-term assignments, some are short-term projects catered to student’s interests, Brenner said.
The Boothroyd Woods Trail
One of the major projects ICNL is aiming to complete this semester is the Boothroyd Woods Trail, an updated trail behind Boothroyd Hall, a freshman residence hall on the east side of campus.
The trail modifications began last year when ICNL members dug trenches in preparation. After installing 8-inch diameter pipes in the ground, they place two pieces of 6-by-6 lumber on top. After laying down fabric, they dump stone on top so water can flow through the pipes and produce a structurally sound walkway.
“This raised-gravel bed helps to manage drainage, control erosion, reduce impact from hiking and bikes and improve accessibility for people with mobility impairments,” Brenner said.
The updates to the Boothroyd trail are intended to withstand heavier foot traffic than was supported before, and which ICNL members have seen increase in recent years, Brenner said. Brenner said the Natural Lands recieves a sizeable but unquantifiable amount from the Office of Facilities in the form of staff wages for work to be done.
Brenner said certain weather patterns may have increased moisture, leading to a muddier trail. The new modifications aim to alleviate the impact of these patterns.
“The turnpike is designed … to reduce impacts from water and foot traffic by elevating the trail surface up out of the mud and off the exposed tree roots to allow drainage below, and hardening it,” Brenner said.
This student-designed project has been led by different students over the past three years. This year, the project is under the leadership of senior Sarah Stuart-Sikowitz, outdoor adventure leadership major, who works as a paid intern within the environmental studies department.
“There are a lot of projects that the Natural Lands crew is working on, but this is definitely the big kahuna of a project that we’re trying to focus on, trying to get done this semester,” Stuart-Sikowitz said.
However, Brenner said, the trail might take longer to complete.
“We hope to finish by December, but, more likely it will be May, and maybe even August,” he said. “It’s a big job.”
Stuart-Sikowitz said that accessibility is one of the main reasons for implementing the trail. She said that she feels that the changes being made to the trail are essential because of the frequency of students, faculty and others utilizing the trail behind Boothroyd Hall for travel.
“The trail is just muddy all the time,” she said. “People use the trail to commute to work and to their houses. They’ve used it as a recreation satellite, and when they are unable to walk the entirety of the trail without getting their boots muddy, it puts a damper on their experience out in the woods. … Honestly, this is the most popular trail in the woods, I think, and it really needs some improvement.”
The updated trail will also allow for ecological improvement. As foot traffic within the trail increases, the soil is compacted. When rainwater reaches the trail, it’s unable to drain, which can potentially lead to erosion and tree uprooting.
Senior Adriana Del Grosso, environmental science major, has occasionally worked on the Boothroyd trail this semester. She said that working outdoors with fellow ICNL members has allowed her to form relationships with others.
“Especially with things like the trail work we’ve been doing, it’s great to get out there in the woods with people you have classes with,” she said. “It’s a good bonding thing.”
Passing down a project
Del Grosso said that she was able to dip her feet into multiple projects because the ICNL courses are catered to student’s interests. The ICNL courses she took, she said, are not required for her major, but they have offered a good supplement to what she’s learned in classes.
“It’s kind of nice having a smaller commitment, for me, instead of a full-blown research project,” she said. “I’ve had a good experience sampling different projects.”
In addition to the Boothroyd trail project, Del Grosso is currently working on a deer enclosure project, which tracks the animals and keeps them safe within certain perimeters, and the Big Tree project, where ICNL members map out tree growth, width and canopy area of the trees within the Natural Lands.
While Del Grosso juggles multiple smaller projects, she said that a lot of her focus is going toward the Natural Lands’ repeat photo project: a photo gallery, updated monthly, which shows environmental changes over time.
“It’s based on a map that marks the different photo points,” Del Grosso said. “They seemed to post most of the picture sites in locations where you’d expect to see a lot of changes.”
Del Grosso said she was previously using repeat photography for personal research, so she jumped on the opportunity to be part of the school’s photo project as junior Oscar Mayer, environmental studies major, finished his part of the project for the summer.
“I wanted to use three-feet photography to study vegetation growth,” she said. “Since I was already interested in repeat photography, I wanted to know how that worked, like, the process behind it. Because [the project] was already ongoing, and the people who started it had graduated, it worked out.”
Mayer, who worked as a paid manager of the Natural Lands this past summer, said the project focuses on naturally occurring environmental changes.
“What we’re tracking — and this is really interesting — is that it’s almost entirely natural causes we’re observing,” he said. “So, it’s more about that, and that’s why this area was picked. If we viewed a different section of South Hill, we’d probably see a lot more human-caused changes.”
Linking students and nature
Mayer, who has been involved with the Natural Lands since summer 2015, said the ICNL was a draw for him when he applied to the college. Mayer said the Natural Lands creates an intimate connection between humans and nature.
“Not many other colleges can boast something like that,” he said. “I immediately jumped at the opportunity to help out and I had a really good time.”
For two years, Mayer has been involved in the Japanese Stiltgrass research project, a long–term assignment where students take two months at a time to study where Japanese stiltgrass, an invasive species, is located within the natural lands. Mayer said the project has been going on for seven years.
Mayer is also involved in the Red Flag monitoring project, which was started by the Community Science Institute, a local organization that aims to monitor environmental changes. ICNL members sample water from six sites and send the data to the CSI.
“Engaging with the natural environments around us tends to promote our own well-being and inspire pro-environmental behaviors, as well,” Brenner said.
Stuart-Sikowitz said that while people often associate this kind of work with dull experiences, she feels very stimulated during work.
“It doesn’t feel like a chore,” she said. “We’re all so close — we all laugh and work. It’s fun. Manual labor is ecstatic because you get to use your brain while you use your body.”
More information about the Natural Lands and how to get involved can be found here: http://www.icnaturallands.com/visit/.