A Watershed Partnership

January, 2006

by Mary Ann McGarry

Kevin McGuire discusses how the "small watershed" experimental approach is used to investigate hydrologic and nutrient responses from human and natural disturbances. McGuire is standing below a stream gauging weir in Watershed 9.

Kevin McGuire discusses how the "small watershed" experimental approach is used to investigate hydrologic and nutrient responses from human and natural disturbances. McGuire is standing below a stream gauging weir in Watershed 9.

Just to the north of Plymouth State University, before you come to the Franconia Notch, is a world-renowned research watershed. It’s not a tourist attraction—unless you are an ecological scientist. In the southwestern corner of the White Mountain National Forest, near Woodstock, N.H., Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBEF) was established by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service in 1955. In the early 1960s, two young faculty members at Dartmouth College envisioned a project to find out how forests work. Gene Likens, now director of the Institute for Ecosystem Studies in New York, and Herb Bormann, retired from Yale, received the first cooperative grant to expand the experimental research at HBEF and helped develop a major center for hydrologic, ecological and acid rain related research. The research program is dedicated to the long-term study of forests and associated water resources. Dozens of scientists investigate how the surrounding trees and plants use water and nutrients, the impacts of recovery from acid rain, and a host of other related questions.

Today, in a new partnership between Hubbard Brook and PSU’s Center for the Environment (CFE), Assistant Professor of Hydrology Kevin McGuire is also the research hydrologist at Hubbard Brook. McGuire is the first hydrology faculty member in the sciences at PSU. This partnership has opened the door for other collaborations that will enhance educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students alike.

With the opening of the Center for the Environment, the opportunity was set for an expanded partnership to develop between Hubbard Brook and Plymouth State. CFE Director Steve Kahl has been involved in similar research sites in Maine for 25 years. Kahl realized both parties would benefit from sharing the services of a hydrologist and approached the Forest Service with an innovative idea for a shared position to meet the needs of both organizations. He and Chris Eagar, project leader for Hubbard Brook and research ecologist for the USFS Northeastern Research Station, started laying the groundwork for the new partnership, which is supported in part through a grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. The position will be co-funded by PSU and the USFS Northeastern Research Station, and is a core faculty position in PSU’s new Master of Science degree program in environmental science and policy. Kahl describes this partnership as “how government agencies and higher education ought to work together nationally to spend tax dollars cost-effectively.”

The search for the hydrologist position resulted in a “very talented applicant pool,” according to Kahl, with McGuire the “top choice as a dynamic, well-connected recent Ph.D.”

Eagar echoes a similar sentiment, “We are pleased to have an energetic young scientist like Kevin in this position that will benefit Hubbard Brook and PSU, as well as the regional environment. This is a great opportunity to help the region and to study how human influence on the landscape can affect both water quality and quantity.”

CFE Director Steve Kahl demonstrates use of a field conductance meter to graduate student Mike Hallworth at Mirror Lake in Woodstock, N.H., a site affiliated with the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest.

CFE Director Steve Kahl demonstrates use of a field conductance meter to graduate student Mike Hallworth at Mirror Lake in Woodstock, N.H., a site affiliated with the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest.

Kevin McGuire was in a coveted three-year postdoctoral position at Georgia Tech when he applied for the job. “When this position announcement circulated, there was a buzz nationally in the hydrologic community,” he reports. “Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest is one of the most well-known experimental watersheds in the world. Studies conducted there are the ‘classics’ you read about as a graduate student. What really attracted me to the position was that the partnership between the Forest Service and Plymouth State University represents the best of both worlds: teaching at a small university where you have the opportunity to really get to know students, while also being able to conduct research at a site with teams of highly-qualified scientists from larger research universities.” McGuire notes that he and his wife, Dana, “love the Plymouth area and have felt so welcomed.”

McGuire says he got into the hydrology field “by accident.” As an environmental science major at Susquahanna University, he was building a background in geology. But when a new professor, Christopher P. Cirmo, joined the faculty and introduced McGuire to hydrology, he knew he had found his field. He continued to specialize in hydrology while working on a master’s degree in forest resources at Pennsylvania State University, and later in his Ph.D. program in forest engineering at Oregon State University.

The interdisciplinary nature of hydrology is what appeals to McGuire. “It’s a weird sort of field,” he jokes. “It doesn’t really have a home.” Depending on the university, a research-based hydrology program could be housed in a geology department, whereas a more applied hydrology program might be part of civil engineering. Other institutions might include hydrology in forestry, geography, meteorology or agricultural engineering departments.

“Forest hydrology seemed to be a good fit because I enjoy being outside, in the woods,” McGuire says. “I like to interact with scientists who are focused on natural resources and forest ecology issues.” He is interested in understanding how water moves through terrestrial ecosystems and into the stream environment. “I ask very basic questions, such as, when it rains, how does the water get to the stream? How long does it take to get there?”

Answering those questions involves understanding the composition of the soil, what minerals the water will encounter on its journey (and take with it), the weathering rates of different rocks and where the water deposits various nutrients. Further questions are then raised about land use—what are the impacts of changing the landscape, by removing trees for instance?

McGuire will offer his first watershed course for PSU students this spring. He will eventually offer a sequence of graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses in watershed hydrology and management, and plans to offer a hydrometeorology course at some point in the future. McGuire’s students will have the opportunity to learn about watersheds both in the classroom and in the field at Hubbard Brook, field research being one of the hallmarks of PSU’s new environmental science and policy graduate program.

“For some students, this firsthand experience in a watershed will be the spark that ignites their interest to pursue science as a career,” adds Kahl.

McGuire’s approach combines field experiments using natural and artificial tracers (such as inert dyes) to develop an understanding of how water moves through the forest, particularly underground. This research is used for many purposes such as flood prediction, effective land development and climate change response. He is already part of grant proposals submitted with collaborators from PSU and Hubbard Brook to integrate their research with another small watershed research site at Acadia National Park that was founded by Kahl and his colleagues at the University of Maine.

The research community has given McGuire’s appointment a warm reception. “The long standing Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study is well known for its collaborative research. The addition of Kevin McGuire to the overall research team is a good example,” says Gene Likens. Likens, who is also president, director and G. Evelyn Hutchinson chair in ecology at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in Millbrook, N.Y., is probably the most veteran and well-known researcher at HBEF. Kahl recounts a similar reaction from Peter Groffman of IES, chair of the HBEF committee of scientists, who urged Kahl last year to have “all PSU graduate students doing their research at HBEF!”

Tim Fahey is a lead principal investigator of the NSF-funded Hubbard Brook Long Term Ecological Research Program (LTER) as well as professor of natural resources at Cornell University. He calls the new partnership between PSU and the USDA Forest Service a “creative and forward-looking approach for contributing essential expertise in forest hydrology to HBEF.” McGuire will participate in the LTER project now under way with researchers from Cornell University, Syracuse University, the Forest Service and Dartmouth College, among others.

Kevin McGuire and Scott Bailey

Kevin McGuire and Scott Bailey

Of the academic institutions affiliated with Hubbard Brook, Kahl is pleased that PSU is “the only one located just down the road.” With the creation of McGuire’s new position, the two institutions are more integrally linked than ever. The partnership will continue to build, as shown by the next step in the relationship: Scott Bailey, a geo-ecologist who used to split his time between an office at Hubbard Brook and the Forest Service laboratory in Durham, N.H., recently moved his office to PSU’s new Boyd Science Center to join Center for the Environment faculty and staff, including McGuire. Bailey will take advantage of PSU’s excellent facilities and the “emerging collaborations with PSU faculty and new student research projects at both the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest and other regional research sites.” Bailey looks forward to “the academic stimulation that spending time in the Boyd Science Center will provide.” He will be a contributor to the research programs at PSU.

Two students from the Center for the Environment are already working at Hubbard Brook. Janet Towse ’05 holds a B.S. in environmental biology from PSU and is now a graduate student in the new environmental science and policy program. She is a field assistant for several Hubbard Brook research scientists. When these teams return to their home institutions after the summer, Towse helps keep their projects going through the other seasons. She is collecting snowmelt water samples for a mercury pollution research project being conducted by Charles Driscoll of Syracuse University, and James Shanley and George Aiken of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Towse “watches the weather and then hikes, skis or drives to HBEF, to collect samples when the stream flow is high, such as during spring runoff.” Towse also helps Kent Keller of Washington State University and Gary Hawley of the University of Vermont by collecting and analyzing soil CO2 samples from the “sandbox” plots as part of a mineral weathering study, and collects fallen foliage for Gary Lovett of the Institute for Ecosystem Studies and Mary Arthur of the University of Kentucky, who are doing a litter decomposition study. Towse reflects that “the work has variety, interesting people and an unbeatable location. My work there has certainly given me an opportunity to see a variety of field projects in progress and has piqued my interest in watershed studies.”

Chris Conrad is another graduate student in environmental science and policy. Conrad is conducting research at Hubbard Brook on the interaction between small mammals, bird populations and beech nuts as a food source. His advisor is Len Reitsma, chair of the PSU biology department and Distinguished Teacher for 2005. Reitsma completed his own Ph.D. research at Hubbard Brook in the late 1980s.

Kevin McGuire and Melissa Greenawalt-Yelle check rainfall depth collected by a standard U.S. rain gauge at a meterological data station at Hubbard Brook. Greenawalt-Yelle is a graduate student in Environmental Science and Policy at PSU

Kevin McGuire and Melissa Greenawalt-Yelle check rainfall depth collected by a standard U.S. rain gauge at a meterological data station at Hubbard Brook. Greenawalt-Yelle is a graduate student in Environmental Science and Policy at PSU

Michael Rains, director of the Forest Service’s Northeastern Research Station, shared his goals for how the partnership could expand beyond support for McGuire’s position. Rains is committed to promoting environmental literacy for K-12 classrooms. He would like to see Hubbard Brook-based Forest Service employees collaborate with PSU faculty to support environmental education in New Hampshire schools, providing opportunities for teachers and undergraduate and graduate science students to learn first hand about what ecosystem studies at Hubbard Brook reveal about the health of our environment.

Kahl suggests that this partnership, one of several fostered by the Center for the Environment, has already created national attention for PSU. One of the best tributes to the Center’s collaborative model came from HBEF researcher John Battles at the University of California at Berkeley, who e-mailed his Hubbard Brook colleagues last year that “PSU has great plans for a regional center and the Center for the Environment has already demonstrated a talent for innovative use of resources.”

The possibilities seem endless.

Mary Ann McGarry is associate professor of science education with the Center for the Environment and the College of Graduate Studies at PSU, another collaborative relationship facilitated by the Center for the Environment. She specializes in water resources education and outreach.


A View of the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

Aerial photo of HBEF watersheds. Along this one slope there are actually six watersheds or drainage basins parallel to one another and separated by ridges. The three v-shaped watersheds where trees have been harvested show up most clearly.

Aerial photo of HBEF watersheds. Along this one slope there are actually six watersheds or drainage basins parallel to one another and separated by ridges. The three v-shaped watersheds where trees have been harvested show up most clearly.

The best way to get a picture of the 3,160 hectare (7,808 acres) Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBEF) and its watershed would be to fly over the area for a bird’s eye view.

Depart from the west end of the valley at the source of Hubbard Brook, near the Woodstock-Ellsworth town line, between Mount Kineo (the highest peak in the HBEF) to the south and Mount Cushman to the north. Numerous small streams drain the mountainous hillsides. A keen eye might even pick out a stream gauging station that measures discharge, a clearing for forest measurements and even strange patterns in the landscape from forest cutting experiments in the 1960s and 1970s. Mirror Lake, the site of related research, lies just outside the Hubbard Brook valley near I-93, south of exit 30. Hubbard Brook and Mirror Lake drain into the Pemigewasset River, which passes Plymouth on its way to the Merrimack River and then to the Gulf of Maine.

If you don’t have an airplane, the next best trip for a close up view of the HBEF is to visit the new interactive exhibit at Squam Lake Science Center, to view a three dimensional, miniature scale model developed by Amey Bailey of the Hubbard Brook staff.


Comments are closed.