Monday, June 13, 2016

Students learn environmental stewardship through planting, monitoring, birding at Torch Lake Superfund site

By Michele Bourdieu

Lake Linden-Hubbell High School science teacher Nick Squires shows his biology students how to  plant dark-green bulrush and red-osier dogwood near the shore of Torch Lake during their field trip in May 2016. (Photos by Keweenaw Now unless otherwise indicated)

LAKE LINDEN -- Despite some chilly, windy weather and predictions for snow in mid-May, Lake Linden-Hubbell High School 10th grade students spent an afternoon on the shores of Torch Lake planting red-osier dogwoods and dark-green bulrushes, bird watching and installing nesting boxes for birds, and playing disc golf just for fun.

This is just one of several hands-on, outdoor activities their science teacher, Nick Squires, offers his students each year so they can learn about the local ecology and stewardship practices in an area that has been disturbed by mining waste and remediated as a Superfund site. Earlier in the year these students monitored the Lake Linden Village Sands (where the Torch Lake Superfund covered stamp sand from mining with vegetation) and collected data for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition, Squires had his eighth graders monitor the Trap Rock River at four different sites.

For the spring field trip, sponsored by the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative, students were divided into three groups and spent a half hour or more on each of the three activities.  

Linden-Hubbell High School students plant red-osier dogwoods near the shore of Torch Lake on May 13, 2016.

As he demonstrated to his biology students how deep to plant the red-osier dogwoods, Squires noted one area near the shore presented challenges.

"We're standing on rock, for the most part," he said. "You cannot over-water these once they've been planted. If we get some snow tomorrow that will help."

Micah Hornat, right, meets the challenge of digging in rocky soil as Hunter Blau prepares to plant a red-osier dogwood.

Kali La Vigne, left, digs a hoe for a red-osier dogwood plant near the shore. She is assisted with the planting by Emily Beveridge, center, and Alli Goldsworthy.

Nicole Liimatainen holds the red-osier plant in place as Ryan Heikkinen adds topsoil.

Student Laura Lyons was proud of planting the dogwood and bulrushes, which help prevent erosion along the shore and contribute to species variety.

"It's nice to give back to our community," Lyons said.

While Squires led one group in planting, Dana Richter, Copper Country Audubon Club president, led a second group of students in a birding activity -- first observing birds with binoculars and then installing nesting boxes for them in an area near both the Lake Linden water treatment ponds, where many birds gather, and the shore of Torch Lake. Richter said the nesting boxes will be used by many tree swallows in the area.

Students use binoculars to observe birds near the Lake Linden water treatment ponds (at left).

Dana Richter of Copper Country Audubon demonstrates how to dig a hole for a nesting box.

Students take turns digging the hole and installing the nesting box at the right depth -- about 18-24 inches.

Pausing for a photo after completing their nesting box installation are, from left, Sophie Codere, Jake Marcotte, Shay Holzberger and Laura Lyons.

The third group activity, disc golf, was just for fun this year, while last year it was combined with writing poetry.

Logan Muljo tosses a frisbee into one of the disc golf basket destinations.

"We're out here just having fun right now," said Logan Muljo, who seemed to be enjoying the exercise while waiting for his group to be called for one of the other two activities.

Instead of playing disc golf, these students preferred hanging out with their English teacher, Heather French, and enjoying the cake she brought for them. Pictured here, from left, are Alli Goldsworthy, Emily Beveridge, Aidan Stahl, Ms. French, Julia McFarland, Lauren Barkell and Kali LaVigne.

Additional projects: monitoring and collecting data

Nick Squires noted his 10th-grade biology class also monitored the Lake Linden Sands last fall. The project follows EPA collection procedures for Superfund monitoring. After establishing up to 25 sample plots, students center a one-meter square (PVC) quadrat on each sampling point and divide the quadrat into quarters. The sampling is done in each quarter as follows:
  • NW corner: Collect plant biomass and measure root penetration
  • NE corner: Collect soil samples for fertility testing in lab
  • SW corner: ID every plant and collect plant vouchers
  • SE corner: Estimate overall soil coverage by vegetation   
The students follow detailed instructions for the sampling collection procedures.

"We have, in the past when they wanted it, submitted this data to the EPA," Squires said.

Each year Squires' 8th graders monitor the Trap Rock River.

Lake Linden-Hubbell 8th grade Earth Science students look for macroinvertebrates in the Trap Rock River. (Photo courtesy Nick Squires)

"We get data on dissolved oxygen, copper, pH, temperature, width, depth, flow rate, velocity, and macroinvertebrate count," he explained. "Historically, out of the 4 monitoring sites, the only spot that has some minor issues is the Scales Creek (tributary of the Trap Rock) site."

Collected macroinvertebrate samples from the Trap Rock River. (Photo courtesy Nick Squires)

Squires said he believes the students' experience in EPA monitoring and planting has many positives.

"It gets them out of the classroom and into the field doing real science," he noted. "It piques their interest in research-based science. The monitoring combined with the planting gives them a real sense that they have an understanding of their local environment as well as a genuine feeling of stewardship (the goal!)."

In early 2003, EPA sought the cooperation of educators and enlisted the assistance of local high school students to continue the monitoring begun by EPA in the first year following the re-vegetation of the Torch Lake site. Students from five area schools now perform long-term monitoring of bird and plant diversity and soil fertility on post-cleanup portions of the Torch Lake Superfund site.

Coordinated by Michigan Tech's Center for Science and Environmental Outreach, along with EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the students’ monitoring assists EPA’s efforts in charting the progress of the vegetation cap and habitat reconstruction done under the Superfund program. This project is the first of its kind to utilize students for the collection of data for use by EPA.

"Engaging students in learning about, and contributing to, the improvement of their local environment and community, is an excellent way to create lifelong natural resource stewards," observed Joan Chadde, director, Michigan Tech Center for Science and Environmental Outreach, and a partner on the Lake Superior Stewardship Leadership Team.

Funding for the initial year of the students’ work was provided by local groups, but EPA is now paying for the remaining years of the agreement. Cooperating UP-area high schools are Hancock, Lake Linden-Hubbell, Chassell, Dollar Bay, and Calumet.

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