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WSC Shapes Plans for a Westfield River Environmental Center
It’s called the Hemlock Wooley Adelgid.
That’s the name of a small, non-native species of insect that is currently attacking hemlock forests in the Northeast. It apparently arrived in this country via some wood delivered to New Jersey from China two decades ago, and has been slowly making its way north.

Tim Parshall, a professor of Biology at Westfield State College, isn’t sure if the intruder can survive in the climate and elevation of the Westfield River Watershed — and thus pose a threat to the old growth Hemlock forests there — but he wants to find out.

And his efforts to determine the extent of the insect’s presence in the watershed, and the prospects for the future, will be one of the first initiatives launched by a new venture taking shape at the college called the Westfield River Environmental Center.
Blueprinted by Environmental Science, Biology, Physical Science, and Regional Planning professors at the college, the center, in its first phase, would bring together existing faculty and programmatic strengths on the campus to create an integrated, field-based science and education program focused within the Watershed.

“The school is in a very unique setting, at the foot of several mountains and near the Westfield River,” said Michael Vorwerk, an Environmental Science professor at WSC. “It provides us with some very unique opportunities.”

To take advantage of them, the group applied for — and received — funds from a new program at the college created by President Vicky Carwein called I3: That’s short for Initiate, Innovate, and Inspire, a $200,000 fund designed specifically for programs that will enhance community involvement and raise the college’s profile in the region — while also involving students at all levels in real-world issues and concerns.

Like the Hemlock Wooley Adelgid.
“That’s just one example of how we want to involve our students, our faculty, and the community in maintaining the health and beauty of the watershed,” said Vorwerk, who told BusinessWest that the initiative includes a number of educational components involving college and K-12 students.

Down to a Science

Parshall told BusinessWest that, in the world of academia, the word center often connotes not a building or a wing, but a coordinated research effort.

Such is the case with the Westfield River Environmental Center, which may someday have a mailing address, but for now is a collection of initiatives focused on the area in and around the watershed, a largely undeveloped ecosystem whose namesake river is nationally designated as “Wild and Scenic.”

WSC’s location only a few hundred yards from the river (the school actually owns land on the river’s bank) and across the street from Stanley Park puts it in a unique position to promote research on the watershed and inspire (that’s one of those I’s) advancements in the teaching — and learning — of science.

This was the thesis of the grant proposal written by a group of science and regional planning professors, whose proposal won the respect of a review committee — and a $50,000 grant from the I3 program.

“The project will both create and fill a niche that other Massachusetts college cannot offer: the opportunity for hands-on learning in a unique natural setting,” the group wrote in its application. “The program would provide a learning laboratory for students studying in all areas of science, extending to K-12 programs in the region.

urthermore, WSC’s location at the juncture of urban and rural communities provides a unique opportunity for the college to serve as a forum for dialogue among the watershed’s diverse stakeholders.”

In the project’s second phase, said Vorwerk, organizers would move forward with development of a permanent environmental center at the college that would include many other academic disciplines such as History, English, Economics, and Communications.

For now, the center is focused on a series of broad initiatives that fall under the categories of science, education, and outreach. These include strengthening the current science curriculum at WSC by encouraging both field and laboratory environmental studies; facilitating collaboration on region-wide environmental studies; and offering opportunities for K-12 teachers, students, and the community.

Specific goals include:

  • Developing goals for student and faculty research in the watershed;
  • Developing and encouraging the use of field locations for education and research, beginning with WSC holdings and Stanley Park;
  • Strengthening existing courses in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and developing new courses with specific environmental science applications;
  • Coordinating a community working group, comprised of faculty, students, and members of non-profit, governmental, and community organizations;
  • Initiating and strengthening ties with community partners to develop collaborative regional ecosystem studies, focusing initially on the Westfield River Watershed;
  • Coordinating an education working group, comprised of faculty, students, K-12 teachers and administrators;
  • Developing internship and other learning opportunities for WSC education students to work with regional community and governmental organizations.

Meanwhile, there are a few research projects planned or already underway. One involves the Hemlock Wooley Adelgid, said Parshall, noting that an Environmental Science student at the college has expressed interest in researching the insect’s penetration into the watershed.

“It’s just starting to get a foothold there,” he said. “We think the watershed, which reaches into the Berkshires, represents the edge of insect’s ability to live and survive through the winter; we have a student interested in identifying where the adelgid lives, how common it is, and how fast it’s spreading.”

That project will be funded through the grant received from the I3 program, said Parshall, as will several other initiatives now in the planning stages. These include research on a another invasive species, something called Canary Reed Grass, which has gotten a foothold in marshy, wet areas within the watershed, including Stanley Park, and changing the habitats there. It is a real threat, for example, to Cat Tails. A professor at the college has already received a grant to study the intruder, and is currently enlisting student support for that work.

Another project due to be undertaken soon is a trail-mapping initiative, said Vorwerk, who told BusinessWest that this venture, as well as those involving the reed grass and the adelgid, researchers will be encouraged to employ GIS, which can be used to map trails or the territorial expansion of insects.

“This is a technology that’s important to understand, especially if you’re interested in environmental science, but in many other disciplines as well.”

Progress — Naturally

Developing new and effective uses of GIS is one of many goals of the emerging environmental center, said Vorwerk, noting that he and others involved with the venture expect it to evolve continually to meet the changing needs of students, educators, and area non-profit groups that are invested in the watershed.

And it will adjust as new issues — and new invasive species — arise in the ecosystem. That setting provides myriad opportunities for those who wish to study science and preserve the fragile environment, and the center will help the college — and the community — maximize those opportunities.