Community science: Making Science Real for Students in the Bankhead
Volunteers are the heart of conservation. Many such volunteers give up their time to collect scientific information, such as the number of birds in a woodland, or sightings of invasive species. These endeavors are known as ‘citizen science’.
Wild Alabama is facilitating and helping to plan two community science projects for students in the school systems near the Bankhead National Forest. We are partnering with the US Forest Service to make these happen. One we are calling the Acorn Project. The other is our Hemlock Project.
The White Oak Acorn Project
Growing a new hardwood forest is an exciting thing, especially when kids get to be part of it.
In the spring of 2021, Bankhead District Ranger Andy Scott asked Wild Alabama to partner with the Forest Service in the establishment of a new oak forest in the Bankhead National Forest. Within the past two years, twenty-two acres of loblolly pine trees on Balls Mountain were removed due to an infestation of the Southern pine beetle. This is where many thousands of white oak sprouts will be planted to establish a new hardwood forest. Balls Mountain is located in the western part of the Bankhead National Forest just south of the Sipsey Wilderness. The new oak forest is to be primarily white oak. Wild Alabama gladly accepted the invitation to participate. Our role in the project is to recruit school and other groups to collect white oak acorns that will be sprouted and grown for a year in a Forest Service nursery then planted on the twenty-two acre site and then to help train them to identify and properly harvest the acorns.
The project was guided by Research Foresters Callie Schweitzer and Stacy Clark from the Southern Research Station and Jason Harris who is the Forest Service silviculturist on the Bankhead District.
Enthusiastic youth participants in this fun and educational project ranged from preschool to high school age. At least ninety-eight children, students, parents, teachers, group leaders and Wild Alabama staff collected 12,000 viable white oak acorns. Thank you to Kevin England and Meek High School tenth grade, Deidra Carter and Nature's Child Collective, Amanda Wood and Cullman Homeschool group, the Qubek family in southern Tennessee, the Feltman family at Camp McDowell and the England family in the Bankhead National Forest. We have a strong start on a new forest that will belong to all of us!
Researchers Schweitzer and Clark created and provided us with instructional videos and other materials that included information on white oak forests and trees, how to identify white oak trees and acorns, a list of the supplies needed for collection and testing for viability, a spreadsheet to enter data, and optional lessons. Groups could collect on their own but most chose to come to the Bankhead National Forest and collect with Wild Alabama staff and meet at a predetermined site known to be rich in white oak acorns. On these October mornings, a tutorial on the white oak trees and how to identify them and their acorns was given by Wild Alabama staff. Then the collecting would begin. Buckets would be filled with acorns and dumped into bigger buckets. Data collected included measuring for the diameter of the trees, describing the site, photographing the trees and marking the location with a gps unit or cell phone. After collection was finished at the site, it would be time to test the acorns for viability. This was accomplished by pouring the acorns into large buckets of water. The ones that floated were counted then discarded and the ones that sank were dipped out and placed on a table to dry for a couple of hours. The sinkers were the viable acorns. They were then counted and put into bags.
All data including the counts was entered by the students onto a Data Information spreadsheet. The bags were marked with the name of the collecting group, date, lat/long, and number of acorns and refrigerated with the tops open until being delivered along with the spreadsheet to the Forest Service, usually Jason Harris.
The seedlings that will grow from these 12,000 white oak acorns will be planted on Balls Mountain in February 2023.
The second citizen science project, the Hemlock Project, involves monitoring and protecting the existing stands of Hemlocks that are still healthy within the Bankhead National Forest. In most other parts of the nation where Hemlocks have traditionally grown, they are dying from woolly adelgid infestation. This tiny insect destroys the Hemlocks and is transforming beautiful forests into stands of tall dead skeletons of the once majestic trees. Bankhead's District Ranger, Andy Scott, is partnering with Wild Alabama to develop a plan to have high school and college students record and monitor the still healthy Bankhead Hemlocks.
Interested in learning more or getting your school involved? Contact Maggie Johnston at email@example.com or Janice Barrett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mention Bankhead Citizen Science in your subject line please.