The College   Summer 2002

A Classroom in the Woods

By Caroline Clay

Mother Nature is a great teacher, as students, faculty, and community members are discovering at IU's new Research and Teaching Preserve.

It's been a little more than a year since the Indiana University board of trustees voted to set aside hundreds of acres of university-owned land for research and teaching. In that short time, ideas and plans for the IU Research and Teaching Preserve have unfolded, making clear its importance to faculty, students, and the entire Bloomington community.

The new preserve comprises two separate plots of land, most of which has been undisturbed for at least 60 years. Topographical features include heavily forested ridgetops along steep ravines, wetlands, and old successional fields. Together the plots add up to almost 450 acres that will be used for research, teaching, and community outreach.

The Griffy Woods portion is particularly well situated for these purposes, as it is located less than one mile from Assembly Hall. Its 185 acres of rugged ridges and ravines are bordered by the city's Griffy Nature Preserve, Lake Griffy, and the IU Golf Course. The second parcel, designated Moore's Creek, is a 261-acre tract of land located seven miles southeast of campus. It is contiguous with federally owned land that is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In its first year, the preserve has become a research site for graduate students working in biology and geological sciences. It has been and will be utilized as an outdoor classroom for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undergraduates taking introductory courses. It will be regularly visited by undergraduates required to set up and maintain research projects for advanced courses like the ornithology major class taught by Susan Hengeveld, or those required to do a senior research project for the recently created bachelor of science in environmental science (BSES) - a joint degree program with the College and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

It is also a place where students can volunteer, as some did recently when they constructed a stairway across a large, steep ravine at Griffy Woods, improving access to the core of the site.

If all goes as planned, the preserve will be more accessible to the public when students from the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, under the direction of IU Eppley Institute Director Stephen A. Wolter, develop plans for nature trails and interpretive signage. The students are taking Wolter's course R468 Planning Parks and Recreational Facilities.

College Dean Kumble R. Subbaswamy says offering students such hands-on experience in a natural setting will make classwork more meaningful for a sizable segment of students at IU. "Biology and earth and environmental sciences account for nearly 20 percent of the College majors. More important, a large cross-section of undergraduates satisfy their natural science requirements by taking courses in these subjects. Establishing the nature preserve opens up the opportunity to make these courses more meaningful. "For advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, the preserve also provides the opportunity to do experiments with necessary controls," Subbaswamy says.

Keith Clay

Keith Clay, diretor of the IU Research and Teaching Preserve (Photo: Paul Martens, IU Home Pages)

As time goes on, student involvement will also enhance the value of the preserve as it evolves into a living database for researchers.

Biology graduate student Gabriel Harp, who will be examining the spread of invasive plant species like garlic mustard and bush honeysuckle in an old field on the Griffy preserve, sees his research as a contribution to a database that will be a by-product of research done at the facility.

"Now that we have this great preserve, I thought it would be nice to find out something from it, get data from it. If you get data points the first year, anyone can come along at any point and make (additional) measurements and ask different questions," he says.

Bruce Douglas, BSES director and an assistant scientist in geology, says participation on the part of his students "will eventually grow the knowledge base for the preserve, which is exciting for them because they know they're making a big contribution."

Preserve director and biology professor Keith Clay adds, "Development of a long-term environment database will enhance the value of the preserve for future work."

Those most involved in the preserve stress the need for a site where research can occur without concerns of interference from unwitting passersby. Still, there is great interest in using the facility for community education by opening it up to area schools, summer camps, and others.

During the months of April and May, faculty conducted nature walks open to the public. The walks were kicked off by IU ornithologists Jim and Susan Hengeveld, both assistant professors of biology. Susan Hengeveld said participants could expect to spot tanagers and a number of warblers, such as the ovenbird and the yellow-throated warbler. They also might see a red-shouldered hawk, red-tailed hawks, or perhaps even Cooper's hawks.

Other walks planned included identification of local mushrooms by fungus expert and biology professor Mike Tansey; a wildflower walk led by Kay Yatskievych, author of Field Guide to Indiana Wildflowers (IU Press) and former Bloomington resident now working at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis; and an amphibian and reptile search, led by biology professor Butch Brodie, who was recently featured in a PBS series on evolution.

"People are excited about the expertise of the people leading the walks. They literally get the person who wrote the book," says Gina Bonifacino, who is a part-time preserve employee working on community outreach while also working on a master's of public affairs and environmental science degree through SPEA.

The preserve is home to such native plants as trailing arbutus (see cover), trilliums, pawpaws and many other species. Biological research has been conducted in the Lake Griffy and Griffy Creek watershed for many decades - providing a rare opportunity to look back and compare.

William Blatchley worked extensively in the area in the 1880s documenting the flora. His research provides an excellent record for the future. An area of unusual vegetation exists on Huckleberry Ridge, site of Winona Welch's PhD dissertation in 1928. Large expanses of dwarf huckleberry and other unusual species have been seen in this area, including noteworthy plant species such as whorled pogonia orchid and green adder's mouth orchid. The latter species is now known from only three sites in Indiana and was last reported in Griffy Woods in 1887 by Blatchley. It is on the state's endangered species list. The whorled pogonia also is on Indiana's state threatened list, and was last seen in 1988.

Other notable past research includes studies by A. Pat Blair in the late 1930s on hybridization between two toad species. Blair was a student of IU biology professor Alfred Kinsey, before Kinsey became interested in human sexuality.

There are also aerial photos - available at the preserve office in Morrison Hall - of the Lake Griffy area that can provide a glimpse into the past and, to some extent, foresee the future as the city of Bloomington grows to envelop this invaluable natural resource. These photos dramatically document land use changes in the area.

Susan Hengeveld

IU ornithologist Susan Hengeveld, center, leads a birding walk at the nature preserve
(Courtesy photo)

It was such a photo that caught the eye of Hank Huffman, biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Natural Preserves and Parks. According to Huffman, the large tree crowns found at the Griffy preserve, with little evidence of disturbance, are a rare find outside areas owned either by the state or federal governments.

"Few, few communities in Indiana have the opportunity to save such a large, high quality natural area in their urban confines as Bloomington," Huffman said.

Though the IU preserve is a small part of the total Griffy area, its potential as a research and training facility is enhanced by the fact that it is adjoined by city land that also borders the lake and that has also been relatively undisturbed since the city first developed it for its water supply in the mid-1920s.

Due in part to concerns about run-off into Lake Griffy, the board of trustees abandoned a plan put forth in the summer of 1999 to develop a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course in the Griffy watershed and next to the current preserve. The proposed development also called for a clubhouse, pool, tennis courts, and hiking trails. While many saw the proposed development as a viable business venture benefiting both IU and the city of Bloomington, many others saw it as a threat to a fragile habitat that was uniquely situated to serve as a facility for teaching and research in the natural sciences - something the university was lacking until then.

Geological sciences professor Michael Hamburger, a key proponent of using the land for research and teaching, says he was compelled by his vision of what a university can and should be. "Learning should not be limited to what goes on in classrooms or labs and should be part of a broader experience that involves experiential learning in varied environments," he says.

Two years ago, when the campus was involved in a dispute as to how the Griffy land would be utilized, Hamburger says he and others would have found it hard to believe they would find mutual collaboration with the university, trustees, and the city of Bloomington.

Today, Hamburger says he is excited to see the range of different groups from different corners of the campus that have already utilized the facility. "The thing I'm most proud of," he says, "is that we've created this wonderful legacy for Indiana University students and faculty."

Institutional support for the preserve from the Chancellor's Office, the College, and SPEA has been central to the initial start-up effort of the preserve, according to Clay. There are, for example, $500 grants for students that can be used to set up research projects.

For PhD candidate and geological sciences student Adam Davis, the preserve will provide a test ground for a pilot study that could formulate the basis of his doctoral thesis. Davis will use his grant money to look at the effects of soil nutrient levels, moisture content, and slope angle on the types of vegetation that come into old fields.

Besides contributing to the database at the preserve, Davis says his research could provide information that can be used to predict what abandoned land will eventually become. "Given the fact that a lot of agricultural fields are being abandoned, it will be nice to predict what types of vegetation will come back and how quickly they will recover."

In the preserve's infancy, the work of Davis and others will be the continuation of a tradition begun more than 100 years ago. And, as time goes on, these green islands may become widely recognized as an oasis for those actively engaged in the natural sciences. C

Caroline Clay is a former features editor at the Bloomington Herald-Times and currently runs an antiques business. She shares a love of the outdoors with her husband, Keith Clay, director of the IU Research and Teaching Preserve.