Mapping Our Natural Resources
The Ecological Preserve on Livingston campus is arguably one of Rutgers' most overlooked natural, educational, and recreational resources. Designated as a preserve by the Rutgers Board of Governors in 1976, the 370-acre tract of land is the largest contiguous cover of forest in the area, and is home to a varied wildlife, including wild turkeys, woodpeckers, foxes, and hawks. While there had been some effort to maintain the land and protect it from being developed, there had been minimal involvement at the university level until last semester. Students in the Advanced Environmental Geomatics course taught by Professor Richard Lathrop, offered through Rutgers Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis (CRSSA), conducted a semester-long study on the Ecological Preserve, which resulted in the most thorough analysis of the land since it was acquired by Rutgers.
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The Advanced Environmental Geomatics course is a senior practicum or capstone class that is designed to allow students to "apply and integrate what they have learned previously to a real-world situation," explained Lathrop. Each year, Lathrop and fellow faculty member Professor David Tulloch create a unique project for the upper-level students working toward the Environmental Geomatics Certificate Program. Past projects have included studies of the New Jersey Highlands, a green infrastructure assessment for the G. H. Cook Campus, and the development of new geospatial maps of hundreds of Revolutionary War sites in New Jersey; the latter won awards at the 20th Annual New Jersey Department of Environment Protection Map Contest. For the spring 2008 semester, Lathrop decided to have the class work closer to home, on the Rutgers Ecological Preserve. The goal of the class was to "collaboratively collect and assess data of the Rutgers Ecological Preserve using a wide variety of field and lab GIS techniques." Lathrop chose to work with the preserve because, as he noted, "there has been a renewed interest in the management of the Eco Preserve as the revisioning of Livingston campus continues to develop." The class project was encouraged by Robert Goodman, executive dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, with the intention that school faculty, students, research, and courses would play a large role in the future of the Eco Preserve.
The students took on significant responsibility and worked as professionals in completing the project. They compiled all preexisting information on the preserve, created new geographic information systems maps of the preserve and the surrounding area, and used global positioning system technology to document all current natural resources. Lathrop had the students break up into subject teams, such as recreation/human use, birds, invasive species, forest structure, and stream systems, so that a greater analysis of the area could be achieved. For example, students studying the recreational activities of the preserve were able to gain information on the trail systems--how often they are used and what types of people were using them. The quality of information collected and analyzed by the geomatics students is unprecedented.
Toward the end of the semester, Lathrop and his students started using their work on the Ecological Preserve to make a difference in the future use and preservation of the preserve's land. They gathered all of their information and presented it to the development firm involved in revitalizing Livingston Campus, as well as to Dean Goodman and the Rutgers Planning Office. The class offered recommendations for future recreational opportunities and possible management plans for the preserve. Though their required coursework had been successfully completed, the students did not yet feel that they had done enough for the preserve.
On May 3, 2008, Lathrop and his students organized "RU Ecological Preserve Trail Day." The students took part in a thorough clean-up and litter removal of the preserve, to which the university donated a dumpster and pick-up truck. Students from all majors participated, along with university employees and local community members. In addition to the clean-up, the Geomatics students led many hikes around the preserve, as well as an orienteering course and bird watches. The day was a great testimony to the efforts of the class, as well as to the draw of the preserve.
The impact of Lathrop's class and the work that students produced on the preserve is immeasurable. Lathrop has said that his role in the course was to "seed some ideas, and push [the students] along." The students pushed even further, and concluded the project by designing a welcome brochure, which includes numerous trails and interesting facts about the preserve and the surrounding area. They also created the first website for the preserve (advgeo.rutgers.edu), which was made possible by the different skill sets that the Geomatics students possessed. The website covers the history of the preserve, photographically documents the area, and includes all of the work that the students produced.
Lathrop expressed his hope that the efforts of the last semester will help create a dialogue about the preserve, as "there is great potential for the preserve to be used more thoroughly for educational and recreational purposes." With new and updated maps, reports, analyses, publications, and a website, the students' commitment and professionalism is undeniable. Of the project, Tulloch said that "the class and its outcomes really represent the best of what the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences offers to students embracing a science and creating useful public materials."