A Barometer for Northeast Forests

By Annie Jacobs

Published in the Keene Sentinel: Monday, February 25, 2008

Ask one of Mount Monadnock State Park’s 95,000 annual visitors if there is alpine tundra on the top of the mountain. They might look at you quizzically. But Peter Palmiotto of Antioch University New England will tell you that the mountain’s bald rocky summit is home to some surprising and varied plant communities. These include high-altitude fens and bogs and sub-alpine vegetation.

Ecologically speaking, Mount Monadnock, officially named Grand Monadnock Mountain, is full of variety. A steep grade in elevation gives it four altitudinal zones, each with different conditions for plants. A hiker can experience all three of New Hampshire’s major biomes-alpine tundra, boreal forest, and eastern deciduous forests-in just a few hours. Maples, oaks, and other hardwoods on the lower slopes give way to thick spruce forest. The granite top hosts the pale-flowered cinquefoil and low-bush blueberry.

Palmiotto, a forest ecologist and professor in Antioch’s Environmental Studies Department, recently launched the Mount Monadnock Ecological Research and Education (MERE) Project, which will support long-term studies of upper-elevation plant communities – above 2,000 feet and up to the 3,165 foot summit – along with strong education and outreach.

Palmiotto and David Mallard, a Conservation Biology graduate student at Antioch, suspect that Monadnock’s ecology might be vulnerable to climate change. They also think it might show how forests throughout New England will respond to a warming climate.

A recent report of The Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment (NECIA) predicts that forest communities will be altered along with climate trends. Entirely new communities will form as certain species “migrate” northward  chasing the cold. One of the most vulnerable species will be the cold-loving red spruce, which is just what edges up to Monadnocks’ rocky balds and dominates the mountain above 2000 feet.

While spruce is a dominant tree only at higher elevations in Southern New Hampshire, it is a lowland species in more northern latitudes. Spruce-fir forest, a community type that is considered highly vulnerable to climate change, stretches across the state of Maine, supplying that state’s pulp and paper industry.

According to Palmiotto, red spruce has already been declining in the Northeast for decades due to acid precipitation. “If climate change continues [red spruce] will recede. So the question I ask is, ‘what will happen to the system if all the red spruce dies on Monadnock?’ Now that we have permanent plots and trees measured and marked, we will be able to see the change as it occurs. The mountain will be a marker for the region.”

With his passion for both science and stewardship, Palmiotto has done everything he can to fuel his research goals. In early 2007 he partnered with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the New Hampshire Department of Economic Development, and the Monadnock Advisory Commission to create the MERE Project.

And although this new initiative is still seeking funding through grants and donations, the work has already begun. This past summer found Mallard out on the mountain laying down plots and collecting data on tree species, size, and health. His plots are permanent; Palmiotto’s future graduate students will walk in Mallard’s footsteps to repeat data collection every five years. Then, Mallard’s “baseline data” and all subsequent data will be compared with climate patterns.

Palmiotto’s interest in how forests change over time runs deep. For over twenty years he has conducted similar long-term research on Mount Moosilauke in the White Mountains. He has recorded both natural change, like forest community succession, and human-induced changes, like damage from acid rain. Now he is committed to keep the MERE Project going for the rest of his career.

“I am fascinated with how forests change, whether on a local or planetary scale . . . The effects of climate, and the forces that cause that kind of change, is something that we need to be prepared for.”

Palmiotto and Mallard are collecting data with the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program protocol. Also used for the Moosilauke study, this method will make the project easy to replicate and compare both regionally and nationally.

And beyond communication among scientists, the MERE Project holds community outreach as equally important. “What we learn about the ecology of the mountain is public information that we will communicate via public talks and a web page currently being developed,” Palmiotto said.

Involving young people is key. He and Mallard have been working closely with Marshall Davenson, a Keene High School science teacher, to get AP Environmental Science students interested in studying the mountain. Like Mallard, the High School students will take baseline data on specific high-elevation plant communities, and, like Mallard’s study, other students will keep it going in future years.

Davenson is excited for his students and the research. “I envision small groups [of students] who are interested in carrying out the sampling . . . This is a great opportunity for long-term study that I hope continues for years to come, long after I have retired.”

Palmiotto has also been scheming with Monadnock State Park Manager Andrew Zboray for ways to involve more Antioch students with the mountain. He hopes to spark the interest of several students to earn their required practicum credits with the MERE Project. Students would be engaged in not only data collection but also environmental education and interpretation for park visitors. One idea is for “trail stewards,” who would work the mountain on foot to talk with hikers, especially in the busy fall season.

Zboray, who was a ranger before managing the park, is more than pleased to have the help. He complains that most hikers come to “bag the peak,” and miss out on the other things to learn about the mountain. He is also concerned with the high impact of so many hikers on the mountain’s trails, and thinks that Antioch’s help might make a difference. “I hope to see more people appreciating the environment rather than being fixated with the goal of climbing the mountain,” he said.

I waited until after the October rush and climbed Monadnock this late-November. It was fall at the base but became winter as I ascended past beeches and maples, up dry slopes of red oak, and onto snow-packed trails through red spruce. Once I reached the rocky upper slopes and began the steep ascent, I noticed small trees and shrubs growing in long splits in the gray granite – these are the communities that Davenson’s class will study.

The summit was cold and windswept, and I saw that I was standing in a great, vast landscape. Views of neighboring mountains, towns, and farm fields reminded me that Grand Monadnock might stand alone, but it is firmly anchored in the region. Then I looked down at the ribbons of dark-green spruce and the burnt umber of oak leaves below. I wondered if those ribbons would maintain their spot on the mountain.

Annie Jacobs is a graduate student at Antioch University New England.