Chris Beltz, MS '12

Conservation Biology

Alpine Zone Explorer

Chris Beltz hauled the last fifty-five pounds of compost up Mount Monadnock on his back. Beltz, as a master's student in the Conservation Biology program in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England (AUNE),  lugged nearly five hundred pounds of compost, spades, shovels, metal probes, jute mats and more to the 3,100-foot summit. "It was definitely the worst part of the project," he said.

The project was his thesis, a study of vegetation regrowth in crevice communities. Crevice communities are small areas of plants and soil scattered among exposed rock at high altitude-in Monadnock's case, within 200 feet of the mountain summit. The environment is harsh and, where hikers fail to stay on the trails, the fragile soil is compacted and plants are trampled.

"It's hard to get vegetation to come back here once it's gone,"  said Beltz. "To get it to grow back, you have to do something active." In a 2010 study in Maine's Acadia National Park, for instance, an area fenced off from disturbance for more than five years showed only one percent regrowth.

The setup

Beltz set up nine sites near the summit. Each site had three 1.2-meter-by-1.2-meter blocks divided into four plots. One of the plots was a control; the others got one of three treatments: 1) scarifying the area, meaning the soil is broken up to a six-inch depth, then covered with jute matting; 2) covering the soil with two inches of compost and jute matting; 3) covering the soil only with jute matting.

Scarification breaks up the soil so that seeds can catch and roots grow. The manure and peat humus compost helps replace nutrients in the soil. Jute matting controls erosion and regulates the microclimate underneath. The matting had another function, too. "One of our biggest concerns is the plots being disturbed by people, so the mat gives it the appearance of something official going on," Beltz said.

Beltz checked the plots every few weeks. He looked for what vegetation, if any, is established. He measured the density and catalogue the type of plant species, most likely be grasses and some sedges. He learned more about the restoration methods that work and don't work, as well as soil characteristics such as moisture content and bulk density, and how the treatments affect them. The research was in collaboration with AUNE's Monadnock Ecological Research and Education (MERE) and Monadnock State Park. Peter Palmiotto, professor of environmental studies and director of MERE, worked closely with Beltz on the project.

Boston to Wyoming to AUNE

Beltz, who grew up outside of Boston, earned a degree in English literature at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. After college, he went to Wyoming, where he led outdoor tours for five years and attended the Teton Science School Graduate Program (TSS) in Kelly, Wyoming, a partner to AUNE. "Two of the faculty obtained their master's degrees at AUNE and they were really well thought of," Beltz said. "Then Tom Wessels [core faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies] came to TSS to give an afternoon lecture and short walkabout, and I was sold." Five students from that TSS class of nineteen came to AUNE, including Beltz.

Next, Beltz plans to get a doctorate that allows him to focus on soil and forest ecology, particularly of alpine areas.

--March 2013