This fall, Isaac (GMC Field Assistant), Lorne (GMC Volunteer & Education Coordinator), and I (GMC Field Supervisor) got to take the ferry over to New York to spend the weekend at the Waterman Fund’s 11th Annual Northeast Alpine Stewardship Gathering in Lake Placid. This heftily-named conference may not be one you’ve heard of, but if you spend time in the mountains of the Northeastern US you’ve likely encountered or experienced the work of its participants.
The Northeast Alpine Stewardship Gathering is a biennial conference of individuals and organizations that devote themselves to studying and protecting the region’s unique and beautiful high-mountain areas. This year it was in the heart of the Adirondacks High Peaks region, but the location changes each time. In 2021, the GMC will host the gathering in Vermont!
What is alpine stewardship anyway?
Let’s break it down with help from Merriam-Webster:
- of, relating to, or resembling the Alps or any mountains
- of, relating to, or growing in the biogeographic zone including the elevated slopes above timberline
- the conducting, supervising, or managing of something
especially : the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care
In plain terms, “alpine stewardship” is the careful and responsible management of high elevation areas around and above tree line. This can take on many forms, such as running education programs to teach visitors about alpine areas, researching the plants and animals in alpine zones to provide data for decision-making, maintaining hiking trails well so as to impact the landscape as little as possible, conserving land to protect from building or road development, and simply being a respectful visitor when traveling through these special places.
In Vermont’s Green Mountains, there are above-tree line alpine zones on Mount Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, and Mount Abraham.
So who are the individuals and organizations at the gathering?
The conference is open to all individuals interested in alpine areas and serves as a venue at which researchers can present their findings, students can network to find post-graduation jobs, and amateur botanists can mingle with other mountain flora fans.
The organizations in attendance include state and federal agencies and private non-profits who manage the land or trails which include, surround, or run through alpine zones. They also include conservation funds and policy advisory councils who help fund stewardship projects or write policy which concerns alpine areas. For example, the 2019 gathering was hosted by the Adirondack Mountain Club, in partnership with the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and The Waterman Fund.
Of special note in that list of hosts is the Waterman Fund, whose mission is to foster the spirit of wildness and strengthen the stewardship and understanding of the alpine areas of Northeastern North America to conserve their ecological, cultural, and recreational values. The Fund’s grant program provides regular financial support for the GMC’s educational and trail work in Vermont’s alpine zones, and Laura and Guy Waterman played key roles in the formation of the GMC Caretaker program in 1969.
What’s the point?
The purpose of the Gathering is to provide a place and process for all of us to share ideas, skills, and challenges that come up throughout the Northeast’s alpine regions. And also to celebrate the rare plants and animals which make their home in a harsh environment of wind, snow, and minimal soil.
What kinds of ideas, skills, and challenges are shared?
A lot of the ideas shared at the conference revolve around education and communication with visitors. What strategies are being used to inform hikers about the fragile plants and animals in the alpine zone? What technology or medium is being used to help spread that information? Some of the skills being shared might be tips on repairing trails without causing more damage to the surrounding plants we mean to protect, or techniques for monitoring the growth of, or damage to, plants over the course of several decades. Some of the challenges being discussed are how to communicate with and maintain trails to handle the growing number of hikers visiting alpine zones, or perhaps how to successfully fund and hire summit caretakers to spend time out on the trails.
What research is being done in the alpine zones?
Much of the long-term research being done around the region’s alpine zones focuses on the change in plant populations over time. Are rare species becoming more or less abundant? Is their growth range changing? This research is typically done by walking the same transect over a number of years and counting how many individuals of each species are growing along that line. It can also be done through photomonitoring, which involves taking a photo of the same patch of plants and rock from the same viewpoint over a series of years, then comparing the images to observe changes.
Behavioral researchers are also at work evaluating how well different methods work to encourage hikers to stay on a trail versus walking on fragile plants. This can be done by implementing a different method (sign, barrier, person, etc) for a certain amount of time at the same spot and observing hiker behavior at that spot.
Over the years, there have been many fascinating research projects on mountain tops, most famously the acid rain monitoring which contributed to significant nation- and state-wide policies and regulations being passed throughout the country.
I want to go! How do I sign up?
Keep an eye out on the Waterman Fund and GMC websites for information on the 2021 gathering, which the GMC will be hosting in Vermont!