St. Olaf College | News

Looking at three decades of the Natural Lands

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64 bluebird nest boxes.

350 acres of natural habitat.

444 acres of sustainable agriculture.

The St. Olaf College Natural Lands have been home to an abundance of research opportunities for students since 1989. Now, nearly 30 years after the college began restoring and researching this land adjacent to campus, students are gathering the data to determine how the land has changed since restoration began.

In collaboration with Curator of Natural Lands and Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathleen Shea, Carly Challgren ’19 and Alexandra Raduege ’21 are spending their summer gathering data on everything from bluebirds to forestry to farming.

Carly Challgren ’19 checks a bluebird box for new offspring and the coming and going activity of the birds.

This summer research is part of the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, which provides opportunities for St. Olaf students from all academic disciplines to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular subject by working closely with a St. Olaf faculty member in a research framework.

The team is working on three sets of research related to the natural and agricultural land adjacent to campus.

“For one, we’re contributing to a long-term data set with the bluebird boxes,” Challgren says. “Twice a week we go out and check all of the boxes to monitor what type of bird is in there and how many eggs are in there, how many of those have hatched and how many of those hatchlings became fledglings. That way we can eventually analyze the data to see how the bluebird populations are changing in this part of Minnesota.”

The college’s work with bluebird restoration in the Natural Lands is well regarded, and was recently highlighted in the Star Tribune.

The second part of the research team’s work is focused on the different tree restoration zones. The first areas were restored by planting tree seedlings, and more recently tree seeds have been planted in areas that have been restored over a period of years since 1990.

“We are primarily working in the plots from 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2009,” Raduege says. “We’re also going to take a look at the 2017 seedling population to see how well the tree seeding worked in that field. Overall we’re looking at what species of trees are growing in which restoration areas, which ones are most common where, how big they are by taking their diameter at breast height — 1.37 meters off the ground — and basically counting sapling and seedling populations in plots to see what trees are trying to grow there and how well they are doing.”

Carly Challgren ’19 (not pictured) and Alexandra Raduege ’21 carefully record their data findings each time they make rounds in St. Olaf’s Natural Lands. Here, Raduege is pictured making notes while conducting a check on bluebird boxes.

Over 100 acres of trees have been planted as tree seedlings or by direct seeding in an effort to re-establish the dominant maple-basswood forest type found in this area. Tree species used are primarily local hardwood species such as oaks, maples, ash, basswood, cherry, and walnut. A seven-acre parcel with native pines. Spruce, fir, tamarack, and aspen was planted to establish a representative northern Minnesota habitat. Norway Valley is maintained as an example of mature maple-basswood forest.

“Other people could potentially use our research because there doesn’t seem to be much information about early tree growth and forest restoration. The 1990 plot – the longest running study we have – can provide information people are interested in,” Shea says.

The final part of their research project involves the agricultural land in the Natural Lands. The data they gather can aid local farmers, including Dave Legvold, who has welcomed many student researchers to his farm two miles north of St. Olaf.

“We are looking at three different types of GMO corn crops,” Challgren says. “Two of which protect against the above-ground corn pests and a third variety called Dekalb that protects against the above and below ground corn rootworm. We’re monitoring how the corn populations are growing, we’re taking soil samples to look at the percent organic matter and the nitrate composition in the soil, and then at the end of the season we’ll be measuring yield to see if farmer Dave should be spending the extra hundred dollars a bag to be buying Dekalb.”

The data gathered from these three Natural Land projects will be presented on campus this fall. St. Olaf College’s 350 acres of Natural Lands not only has an abundance of habitats and opportunities for hands-on learning laboratory for students, it also allows for substantial conservation data to be gathered.

“It’s been a really great summer,” Challgren says. “I always thought I was interested in the ecological side of science and this has been a fun way to explore that interest and see where it might take me.”

“Knock, knock. Anybody home?” Raduege ’21 (right) checks on a bluebird box behind Regents Hall of Natural Science.