The University Record, May 23, 1994

Arb serves as a lab for variety of disciplines

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

  • Sweet white clover, Kentucky bluegrass and timothy go up in smoke each spring and fall at Dow Field in the Nichols Arboretum. While it may resemble a sudden wildfire, the prairie burn, administered by Robert E. Grese, associate professor of landscape architecture, is a carefully precalcuated method of restoring rare prairie grasses and other plants native to southern Michigan’s prairie and oak savanna ecosystems.

  • Joggers and birders stop in their tracks to watch an ROTC cadet attempt to secure a rope between two trees on either side of the stream in School Girl’s Glen. His objective: to maneuver across the stream by way of the rope without getting wet, a skill he must master to compete in competition held among other Michigan universities with ROTC programs.

  • Students of Anthony England, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, each day pluck grass samples from the prairie to measure the grass canopy’s moisture content. The data is helping them develop a biosphere-atmosphere interchange model. From their laboratories on North Campus, they monitor radiometers installed at the Arb to record levels of radiant energy exchanged between the Earth and its atmosphere.

  • Last winter, the Arb served as a laboratory for instructor Betsy Williams’ first-year students in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Their challenge was to create a model of a viewing structure from which a person could get a clear perspective of the prairie burn without becoming part of it.

  • Even the Arb’s earthy wood and concrete benches, built for nature-watching, resting and studying, were designed as a student project. Two students in art Prof. Jon Rush’s sculpture class last year designed the expandable, weather-resistant benches that visually harmonize with the natural surroundings.

    The increase in interdisciplinary teaching and research activities at the Arb fulfills the legacy of the Nichols family that designated the Arboretum as an educational resource for the Univer-sity and Ann Arbor community, according to Harrison L. Morton, director of the Arboretum and associate dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), the Arb’s administrative home. An environmental education center, to be funded entirely by donors to the Campaign for Michigan, will soon take that philosophy a step farther.

    “We hope to build the 3,400 square-foot center near the edge of the Arb where it will serve as a multipurpose building that provides orientation information, maps, shelter if needed, and lecture rooms to visiting organizations,” he says. “The center is a logical step in augmenting our educational opportunities.”

    In the meantime, the Friends of Nichols Arboretum docent program has trained 30 guides to lead tours, a first step toward visitor education.

    SNRE also is developing a Geographic Information System (GIS), a computer-based representation of features that illustrate the Arb’s plants, water, buildings, horticultural collections, and use patterns. The GIS will be a valuable tool for research that involves mapping and graphically monitoring change, Morton says. The system integrates data from various research efforts, including findings of Prof. Gary S. Fowler’s course in Natural Resource Measurements.

    One of the first things that Fowler, the George Willis Pack Professor of forestry and biometry, tells his students about their first day of field work in the Arb is, “bring all the clothes you’ll need for the day.” His labs in land, forest and general measurements meet at the Arb nearly year-round, regardless of the weather.

    “I feel very strongly that all students in SNRE need field training,” Fowler says. “The Arb is an excellent environment for me to conduct my classes in measurements because it’s close enough for students to walk or jog to and provides all the natural elements we need for the course.”

    Using such instruments as magnetic compasses, his students learn to measure angles and distances of land areas in the field, then run their measurements through computers to determine their accuracy. They learn to develop topographic maps and estimate tree volume per acre to create growth projection models.

    Fowler’s class even includes a sociological component. His students conduct sociological measurements of the Arb users’ behavior to learn sampling techniques. “We determine how many males, females, children and pets are walking, jogging, biking or sitting, and how frequently Arb rules are broken,” he says. The classes’ summaries of these studies go to Morton.

    Some fairly unusual activities—as long as they don’t involve unleashed dogs or bikes—are allowed in the Arb.

    Cadets in the University’s Army Officer Education Program can be seen practicing combat skills, such as swinging across streams, and conducting drills, road marches and fitness regimens. The Arb’s varied topography and variety of trees and plants provide an ideal arena for practicing the art of orienteering—the cross-country competition in which contestants follow a course using only maps.

    Last year, the U-M Army ROTC battalion won the Training Excellence Award “as a direct result of the leadership training conducted in the Arb,” notes Lt. Colonel Mary Jane Son-ntag, director of the Army Officer Education Program.

    “The Arb is quite a treasure for us in terms of general training and preparing for the challenge of national competition at Fort Lewis Washington National Camp, where our team won the Training Excellence Award,” Sonntag says.

    The department does not undertake any training program in the Arb without first performing a risk assessment to determine how the activities would likely affect the Arb’s environment. “If the assessment report shows any adverse impact on the Arb, we don’t use it,” she says.

    Grese’s prairie expansion project is a way in which the University can give something back to the Arb while using it as a living laboratory for vegetation management. Carrying water tanks on their backs, Grese and some of his students closely monitor each burn and later study the burn site as a research plot.

    An outgrowth of a case study on vegetation management, the semiannual prairie burns have become a small public attraction. Groups of public school students and other onlookers interested in prairie management have visited the Arb specifically to view the burn process.

    Grese has been conducting the burn regularly since 1987, “to phase out exotic plants that don’t belong in the ecosystem and restore the prairie to the oak savanna conditions that early landscape records show existed in the Dow Field area,” Grese says. “Early settlers’ accounts show that they could see as far as a mile through those savannahs and prairies.”

    The oak savanna system once thrived on fires from lightning and systematic burns set by Native Americans. When settlers began populating the area, they stopped the burns and established non-native plants and farm practices, which choked out much of the native prairie vegetation. Grese has resumed the burns both to restore earlier conditions and to study the effects of burn regimens on plant diversity.

    “A good burn kills a lot of buckthorn, autumn olive and ash and encourages native shrubs like dogwood and hazelnut, which provide nesting habitat for birds,” said Grese. “It also gives natural resources students practice in experiencing fire management training.”

    The burn site provided the focus for Williams’ architecture students, who last year designed observation post models. Each student designed a model big enough to house at least one person, seated or standing, a water tank, rake and flappers. The models ranged from free-standing towers to bunkers buried in the hillside.

    “The students took turns exploring the hill that was to be the site of the structures,” Williams explains. “The project taught them a lot about observing—about what a view is, how to frame it, and how architecture can alter one’s perception of an object or event.”

    The next major research step will be to classify the entire Arb in the ecosystem framework. The soil, topography, plants and microclimates will be integrated to show areas of similarity and difference. “This will combine nicely with our GIS capability and facilitate research needing replication over space, such as biological control of exotic plants,” Morton says.