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What Nature Intended

Administrators and academics collaborate to save a biological treasure.

   Photos by George Sapio
 Biology professor Jason Hamilton and Scott Baker '06  
 inoculate logs to start a mushroom "farm."

The College owns land in nearby Newfield—two parcels, both rife with biological resources and even some endangered species of plants. The Ithaca College Natural Lands Committee (ICNL) is working to make at least one of the two plots more accessible to students and faculty.


The committee was formed in spring 2004 when biology faculty members got wind of a proposal to log trees on campus and on the Newfield lands. Jason Hamilton, assistant professor of biology and now cochair of the committee, says “By the time [we] got involved, trees at Newfield were already marked for cutting, and the forester was within two weeks of marking trees on South Hill.”


What concerned Hamilton and staff and faculty colleagues interested in sustainable development and ecosystem protection was not simply that the logging was planned, but that it might be done without considering the entire picture. For example, many of the trees—even the whole forest—are used by biology faculty and students as an outdoor laboratory. Losing those resources, points out biology associate professor John Confer, would have been devastating. But the business office had initially contracted for the forestry work because it thought it prudent to thin the woodlot and make some money for the College at the same time.


When vice president for finance and administration Carl Sgrecci ’69 was made aware of the dilemma, he immediately authorized a committee (which eventually evolved into ICNL) to hold information gathering sessions on the use of the natural lands. “The sessions were open to the entire campus community,” says the committee’s administrative cochair, Physical Plant director Richard Couture, “and from the feedback, the committee worked to develop a land management plan. Committee members—faculty, staff, and students from all sections of campus, bridging academic and administrative constituencies—together serve as an advisory body” to Sgrecci’s office.


One of the plots in the committee’s purview was recently named the Robert “Bob” Robinson Family Preserve in honor of the Cornell alumnus who donated it to the College. The 82-acre parcel is a unique natural area, with what Hamilton calls “phenomenal” examples of the tulip poplar tree, which can grow up to 120 feet, and unusual plant communities that are home to two endangered species of fern. “There’s a deep gorge [the Van Buskirk Gorge] with a waterfall, and a protected trout stream,” meaning that anyone who wishes to use the stream for any purpose must obtain a state permit, explains Hamilton. “[The preserve] is one of the best examples of a middle-aged forest in the area.” He says that almost every other forest in the county has been logged or clear-cut for farmland at least once since European settlers arrived in the 1600s.


Jack Haurin ’08 is working with the committee to create a history of the preserve. Haurin says that

Robinson was looking into the long-term preservation of the land when he was approached by Cornell University and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Robinson instead chose IC to care for it in perpetuity.


Across the street from the Robinson Preserve is another piece of land, which the committee would like to see used for educational purposes. These would likely include teaching students to identify and harvest, even cultivate, non-timber products such as maple sugar, blueberries, and mushrooms. This spring one of Hamilton’s classes began work on a mushroom farm at the site.

The committee is also creating a management plan for South Hill. Each year the number of people using the natural spaces on campus—for classes, research, or recreation—increases. The committee is working to ensure that, for example, people on the trails do not disturb endangered species or someone’s research plot, or that research plots are not placed where classes are taught.


“The formation of this committee,” says Mark Darling ’97, supervisor of recycling/residential life program and ICNL member, “has gone a long way to improve the understanding of each other’s worlds [business and academia]. We’ve made a lot of progress.”

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