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Newts from the Field: Learning from Nature with the Ecology Program

Newts from the Field is a seasonal installment bringing you the wonders of nature from out in the wilderness. In this installment, Wildlands Ecology Fellow Eric Bailey writes about the many research projects of NEWT’s budding ecology program.

Sharing the wisdom of the wild through NEWT’s new ecology program

Wilderness conservation may be centuries old, however, it is not as widely spread as other forms of conservation. This conservation tactic, also known as forever-wild conservation or wildlands conservation, protects forests from logging and motorized vehicles, thus allowing Nature to guide the changes and evolution of the land community. —Wilderness conservation is proven to be a powerful force in maintaining ecosystem integrity, safeguarding resilient habitats, connecting forested corridors used by wildlife for rest, forage, and travel, and offering us humans a sense of place and respite. However, in the northeastern United States only 3.3% of the land has forever-wild protections, while other types of land conservation (protecting land for agriculture, forestry, and recreation) account for 25% of the land base. In addition, the effects of wilderness conservation are under researched, especially here in the Northeast.

Northeast Wilderness Trust’s newly established Wildlands Ecology team consists of Shelby Perry, Wildlands Ecologist, and Eric Bailey, Wildlands Ecology Fellow, with an annual summer intern. The team is hard at work broadening the pool of research in passively rewilding forests, with a goal of providing science that accurately and comprehensively describes the role of wild forests in the northeastern landscape. Not only is the team conducting extensive research projects on NEWT Preserves and Sanctuaries, they are also working hard to share the knowledge that wilderness offers us with conservation professionals, academics, students, and amateur naturalists.

Shelby Perry shares some fungi facts with an amateur ecologist on a nature walk at Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve.

Creating more opportunities to learn from Nature

The newly protected Grasse River Wilderness Preserve in the Adirondacks presents a wonderful opportunity to work closely with local schools and researchers. This Preserve, once a logging site, is now protected as wilderness and thus makes an exemplary “living laboratory” to understand how young, recently cut forests are rewilding. The Wildlands Ecology team is planning to partner with local schools and researchers on rewilding studies at Grasse River, which is in the Algonquin to Adirondacks Corridor, a critical regional wildlife corridor. Several higher education institutions are located in nearby towns, creating opportunities for classes and field days on the Preserve and connecting students with a sense of place in the local community.

The Wildlands Ecology team is also spreading the word of NEWT’s research projects through conferences, an old forest course, and published, peer-reviewed articles. Shelby works with the and co-authored the recent study Determining puma habitat suitability in the Eastern USA (Yovovich et al. 2023). Pumas (Puma concolor), also known as cougars, panthers, and catamounts, were eliminated from the eastern USA a century ago. Their recent recovery in the West has resulted in increased puma populations in the Midwest, with rare individuals even traveling back to their ancestral lands of the East. The new study identifies 17 large, interconnected eastern landscapes in the Upper Midwest, Ozarks, Appalachia, and New England where wild populations of Pumas would be able to persevere. Shelby presented these findings at the Northeast Natural History Conference this spring.

The Wildlands Ecology team is also preparing to lead an intensive summer weekend course at North Branch Nature Center, Old Forest Ecology, which will cover old forest structure and function, wildlife in old forests, carbon, and biodiversity, and will bust some “old forest myths.”

We don‘t know what we don’t know…and there‘s a lot we don’t know!

Although wilderness conservation has been a tactic used for some time now to protect life on Earth, it is still severely underutilized, including here in the Northeast. Wilderness conservation has proven to be a successful method of creating intact, self-reliant, healthy ecosystems. And, unless we study wild places, we will not understand how northeastern ecosystems operate on their own, without human intervention. This knowledge provides an otherwise unavailable scientific baseline and an opportunity to learn from our greatest teacher—Nature herself. This is a reason not only to study wildlands with minimal impact on the lands themselves, but also to protect more of them.

As their work unfolds, the newly established Wildlands Ecology team will share insights they’ve gained through the research projects they are conducting on wildlands. The Wilderness Trust will use this important inquiry to continue to champion the critical need for untrammeled Nature—that which is not deprived of freedom.

Eric Bailey at Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve in Vermont, ready to set up wildlife camera stations.