Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Heart of the Adirondacks

Charlotte Demers demonstrating use of E-Bird and Merlin during a bird walk

Photo: Charlotte Demers demonstrating use of E-Bird and Merlin during our bird walk

Newcomb is in the heart of the Adirondack Park, and Newcomb’s Adirondack Interpretive Center (AIC) of the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry is the beating heart of Park ecological science. AIC operates one of the longest, if not the longest, uninterrupted study of the interactions of forest and aquatic ecosystems and wildlife in all North America, if not the globe. That forest is the Huntington Wildlife Forest, and the published research findings there span more than 90 years.

Huntington and the AIC are not only important for the Adirondacks but for the nation. It is one of the few data collection centers for the National Atmospheric Deposition program which monitors acid deposition and other atmospheric inputs into these forests, wetlands, streams, and lakes. Given the value of all of that research, Huntington Wildlife forests, lakes and streams on these 20,000-acres rank very highly in the Adirondack Park’s ecosystem, as do its scientists, students, and all who support them, from  Syracuse to Newcomb.

When I joined the Park advocate group known as the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in 1987 members of my board thought it fundamental to visit Huntington Wildlife Forest and to learn from people like the late Newcomb campus director Richard Sage, and scientists Ranier Brocke and Bill Porter, who introduced me to white-tailed deer and black bear natural history. Bill delivered the first lecture I ever organized, on the predatory instincts of black bear on newborn white-tailed deer fawns. I vividly recall that during the Q&A my mentor, wilderness conservationist and Association vice president, Paul Schaefer, expressed his incredulity that black bears ever preyed on deer fawns. But Dr. Porter politely stood his ground and presented compelling documentary evidence, convincing even to Paul who talked about it later.

Mink habitat along Sucker Brook.

Mink habitat along Sucker Brook at the Newcomb AIC

A few years after that, my board sent me to attend the 1990 opening of Newcomb’s visitor interpretive center (VIC) at Rich Lake, where APA and DEC commissioners joined Newcomb’s town government in celebration, and where I fell in love with those trails designed by the Adirondack Park Agency naturalist Mike Storey. What an Adirondack story is revealed in his design and in what can be found along the looped trails. They draw me every year.  Paul Schaefer and I organized a new exhibit at the Newcomb VIC, on the origins of New York’s Forever Wild state constitution.  A few years later, Dick Sage and Ranier Brocke led me and my board through a shelterwood cut on the experimental forest at Huntington, a field walk that caused us all to think about use of this silvicultural method to support forest industry as well as certain members of the Adirondack wildlife community.

This century, research ecologist Dr. Stacy McNulty, associate director Paul Hai, philosophy professor Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, and wildlife scientist Charlotte Demers have each, in their own way, added much to my appreciation and understanding of Adirondack ecosystems – ecosystems that include us, residents, visitors to Newcomb, visitors from around the world.  Paul Hai has made us especially aware that Newcomb’s human residents deserve as much respect and attention as its wildlife.

charlotte demers

Charlotte opening a red spruce cone to find us a seed along the Sucker Brook trail

For years I read ESF’s Newcomb Campus newsletter, the Spruce Moose, and fleetingly noted its editor, Charlotte Demers. It was just one of her many jobs.  The other day I attended Charlotte’s winter bird walk at the VIC and found out she has “retired” after nearly 40 years as a biologist on that campus, responsible for collecting and maintaining databases associated with all of that long-term research – including the National Atmospheric Deposition program. What could be more important than collecting and maintaining all of that ? Yet somehow, she also managed to  pursue teaching and her own primary interest in small mammals and their significance in forest ecosystems and, on top of all that, she has managed Newcomb’s Visitor Interpretive Center – that transferred from NYS APA to become ESF’s responsibility over ten years ago.

How has she managed it all? How have all at ESF’s Newcomb campus? Retired or not, they simply love to teach others, as Charlotte demonstrated the other day as ten of us counted birds with her during February’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

At the VIC feeders, we saw red and white-breasted nuthatches, hairy and downy woodpeckers join chickadees and then, as Charlotte hoped, a spectacular male evening grosbeak landed on the platform feeder. He stayed many minutes, what appeared to be showing off. What a sight. I hadn’t seen one in decades, but Charlotte explained how irruptive they are, and in decline across the Northern Forest. She took us out on the Sucker Brook trail and from there we learned from Charlotte as much about small mammals, seed cones of the red spruce, and the lichen known as lungwort on the trunks of the maples as we did about birds like the Park’s smallest winter bird, the golden-crowned kinglet flitting in the hemlock branches high above us. On the snow-capped boulders lining the brook she pointed out what to her were the familiar tracks of a mink.

It was a great walk, but just another educational outreach by Charlotte, who clearly approaches retirement differently than most of us. Thanks to her and to everyone, faculty, students, scientists on the Newcomb campus of ESF for years of rewarding, enriching ecological awareness, information and insight about the Adirondacks and our place here and in the larger world. Keep up the good work.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

One Response

  1. Greg S says:

    Very nice comments about a phenomenal educator.
    Thanks, David, and many thanks to Charlotte.

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