The woods were quiet but for the soft crunch of snow under many boots, and the pitter-patter of water dripping from the treetops during a spring-like January day.
Sunshine broke through the branches and cast dancing shadows on the glistening ground at Wiessner Woods in Stowe.
The beautiful, 79-acre outdoor recreation spot was conserved by Stowe Land Trust in 1992.
Last Thursday, about two dozen Stowe High School students from Don McDowell’s advanced placement environmental science class trudged into the snowy forest, but they weren’t there to snowshoe, hike or cross-country ski the trails.
With clipboards, Biltmore sticks — a tool used to measure various tree dimensions — and metal tags, they searched for pink and blue flagging tape that would mark the beginning of their makeshift research center.
Two years ago, students from the same advanced placement class trekked through the Wiessner Woods and marked four, one-tenth-acre permanent plots for an ongoing forest study in partnership with Stowe Land Trust.
A different group of students will return to the plots every two years — the years when AP environmental science is offered at Stowe High.
The goal: to track changes in the forest by taking measurements, inventorying species that inhabit those spaces, and making observations about how the forest structure has transformed.
In two years, it probably hasn’t changed.
“However, the goal of the partnership between the school and land trust is to build a long-term study that could last decades or beyond. In 5, 10 or 20 years, things in the forest could start to look pretty different,” said Kristen Sharpless, Stowe Land Trust’s conservation programs manager.
Sharpless estimates that 20 species of trees grow in Wiessner Woods, including white pine, spruce, hemlock, ash, beech and red maple. But in the next 50 years, she expects that will change as old trees die and new ones grow in their place.
This is a project McDowell hopes the land trust and school will continue long after he is gone, measuring the effects of development in town, climate change, and other factors on the forest.
“For students, it gives them a chance to come out and play forester,” McDowell said.
Before heading into the woods, students spent time thinking about the value of tracking changes in forests, asking such questions as: Why do forests matter? How do we make sure that they are healthy and protected? And what are qualities of a healthy forest? In preparation for answering the ultimate question: What’s the condition of Wiessner Woods?
In the woods, students broke into four teams — one for each plot. Any tree within each plot with more than a 10-inch diameter at breast height was checked for a numbered metal tag. Those already tagged were inventoried in 2015, and their measurements should be added to that year’s data. Those not tagged were marked with a new aluminum tag and catalogued.
If any tagged trees had toppled in the last two years, their tags were removed.
Students then recorded diameter, height and species under the corresponding number, allowing subsequent groups to track the growth of individual trees over time.
They also noted areas where trees had been damaged and where bark had been removed. They’ll be back to collect more data and observations this winter and spring, then will summarize their results and compare them to those from two years ago.
“I am a really hands-on, visual learner,” said junior Emmy Schoepke. “And these fun, mini-field trips show how the places around us matter to the world.”
Members of Schoepke’s group catalogued three species in their assigned plot, with a number of different sizes — a sign of a healthy forest.
After a morning of collecting data, the students shared some initial observations: There is a diversity of tree species, there are small and very big trees present, and there are both dead and living trees.
“At Wiessner Woods, we don’t yet know how our forests will change over time. But we do know that, with help from more Stowe students, SLT will be there to watch their continued evolution unfold,” Sharpless said. “We will be paying attention, asking questions, and continuing to work to keep our forests abundant, healthy, productive and resilient.”