UMass Amherst Students Work to Restore Ecology of Connecticut River Banks Near Holyoke

AMHERST, Mass. – Undergraduates from the University of Massachusetts Amherst are working with a community group to restore an ecologically sensitive area of the Connecticut River shoreline near Holyoke.

Professor Guy Lanza, who teaches the environmental sciences honors class, says the restoration project involves a partnership with Nuestras Raices (Our Roots), a grassroots organization that promotes sustainable development projects in Holyoke that relate to food, agriculture and the environment. The 17 students in the class, whose majors range from environmental science to resource economics, psychology and Japanese, bring their own skills to the effort.

“The idea is to actively engage students in solving an important environmental challenge in the community in a way that provides a diversity of learning perspectives and a pathway to sustainable solutions,” says Lanza.

The students are working with Eric Toensmeier, the Tierra de Oportunidades Project director for Nuestras Raices on an ecological restoration of the banks of the Connecticut River just outside of the urban industrial core of Holyoke. The area of river- bank habitat under restoration includes about 30 acres that are considered a Riparian Area, Core Habitat and Priority Habitat of Rare Species by the Living Waters Project of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“The area is very important because it provides critical habitat for 11 rare and endangered species including fish, birds, mussels and insects,” says Lanza. “The species are currently in grave danger because of encroaching development pressure that could erode their habitat and the increasing impacts of invasive non-native plant species.”

The UMass students are working with Nuestras Raices to help in managing the site for sustainable agriculture while improving habitat for the state-listed rare and endangered species. The general idea is remove invasive species in the riparian forest and replace them with more desirable species that will support and sustain the rare and endangered species. The students are hand-cutting and removing unwanted plants and also using the “biopower” of pigs and goats to root out and remove invasive plants, and to produce manure for use as an organic fertilizer for crops.

Areas cleared of unwanted plants will be planted with native plants, trees, shrubs, vines and herbs and then maintained using basic management practices that will provide long-term environmental sustainability. In some cases the habitat will be planted with native species with good potential for erosion control and the repair of abused soils and groundwater. Some of the plants will be selected for their ability to remove, immobilize, or breakdown soil pollutants, a green technological approach known as phytoremediation.

“Phytoremediation is a green technology based on an elegant natural system; the plant is the solar powered engine and pump, and even the pollutants themselves can supply some of the fuel,” says Lanza. “One of the exciting things is that the class provides an interesting mix of learning experiences that allow students with different interests to collaborate on solving environmental problems. Class experiences include a blend of traditional agricultural techniques and information about how invasive species can teach us about basic ecological processes such as extinction, ecosystem function, and climate change.”

“I just learned about wetlands and the watershed and the natural way the plants are used to clean the system,” says Roger Neeland, an environmental design major.

Josh Stoffel, a third-year environmental sciences student who has a passion for sustainable communities and student active learning, is supervising the student team. “The class offers students hands-on experience using the skills they have to solve real life problems while dealing with the social implications of both the problem and the possible solutions they create to address the problem,” he says.

The students seem to agree. Alexandra Abed, a first-year environmental sciences major, says, “I feel the class gives a way to connect with the world outside of the UMass bubble. At Nuestras Raices we are given the chance to use information in a setting where it is far more useful and appreciated.”

Another first-year environmental science major, Wendy Ratner agrees. “What excites me the most about this class is that I have a sincere personal interest in the outcome of my work—more so then in a lecture class I have to show up for three times a week.”

Sophomore Japanese major Cory Telman says, “This is what education should be — combining research and experience, not isolated in one discipline, and learning by working towards a real goal. On top of that, we get to play with goats and pigs. I wish all my classes were like this.”