In the academic world, graduate students often grapple with finding a new research project. The University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, or SEAS, has come up with a new approach to finding a master’s thesis. The Ann Arbor university sends out a call for organizations to put forth proposals that address conservation and sustainabilityand matches students with those organizations.
That’s how the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies connected with four University of Michigan students to help the Homer environmental education and stewardship organization better understand its Inspiration Ridge Preserve. CACS gets the benefit of the students’ knowledge and research, and they get a master’s thesis and real world experience.
“Part of it is giving them the opportunity to engage with some professionals who are working in those fields,” said CACS Executive Director Beth Trowbridge of the program.
Trowbridge said this year’s group was the fourth team to come to Homer. Getting selected to do research isn’t guaranteed, Trowbridge said, but “we do have the Alaska card, which helps quite a bit.”
“It’s been really rewarding for us to have these graduate teams,” she said. “Every time they’ve come, they’ve been able to help us get a little bit forward with a plan.”
In late June and most of July, four students came to Homer to do research at Inspiration Ridge Preserve, a 690-acre protected area at the headwaters of the Fritz Creek and Anchor River watersheds. The students stayed in housing upstairs in the CACS headquarters building off Lake Street.
Originally owned by Nina Faust and the late Ed Bailey, Faust transferred stewardship of the preserve to CACS in December 2019. Part of the land is under conservation easements with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust. CACS will protect the land for conservation purposes, research and environmental education. Faust retains life estate to the property and also serves as its residential property manager.
“It’s sort of a situation where we are the clients,” Faust said of the relationship with the University of Michigan and CACS. “… It’s a real-life situation under the guise of graduate studies.”
Faust said she and Bailey were drawn to the property at the top of the Homer bluff along East Skyline Drive because of its ecological value. The land includes sandhill crane nesting areas — a passion of Faust — as well as habitat for moose, songbirds, owls and other wildlife.
“It’s important habitat,” she said. “It’s very, very important habitat for the protection of watershed.”
Doing an inventory of that watershed was one focus of the Michigan students’ field work. Kyle Barnes and Nick Hansen did water quality and stream studies. Hansen trapped fish, including Dolly Varden trout, to see which streams could support marine life. They also studied macroinvertebrates — anything that could be seen with the naked eye, Hansen said.
Their research provided some good news, Faust said.
“They said all the water in the preserve is really good and has really good pH,” she said.
Two other students, Kristin Armstrong (no relation to editor Michael Armstrong) and Ashley Laukhuf did a bird study to assess breeding areas. Armstrong said that was mostly done listening to and monitoring birds by sounds. Faust said they also surveyed violet-green swallow nesting boxes and provided recommendations for areas to build new boxes.
The women also did peat bog studies, using long rods to measure the depth of peat, as part of the Homer Drawdown peat project, a program that advocates for sequestering carbon in peat bogs by protecting those areas. They also did vegetation mapping by surveying areas using a grid and identifying all the plant life in each grid area.
Having spent the past academic year in remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, coming to Alaska had a happy bonus. The four got to meet each other in real life after months of interacting in Zoom calls.
“I haven’t even set foot in Michigan yet,” Barnes said. “It’s been an interesting year, but it’s been a good year, too. We got here after all.”
Trowbridge laughed at that.
“It didn’t dawn on me either that they hadn’t physically met until they got here,” she said.
Over the next year, the graduate students will analyze their work and compile their information to give the land stewards a further understanding of Inspiration Ridge Preserve.
“Ultimately what our project will be is to help the Center come up with some outreach materials to get the message out to the community,” Armstrong said. “Why the watershed is important, why it needs to be protected.”
Though mainly a preserve, as with Peterson Bay and the Wynn Nature Center, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies does educational programs and tours on Inspiration Ridge. Under its management plan, visits are limited to 30 people a day. In the summer, the center offers 1.5- and 3-hour tours three times a week for $10 a person or $25 a family. Faust said they wanted to avoid overrunning the preserve as has happened in other areas.
“This preserve was envisioned mainly as habitat, (for) wildlife preservation and science,” Faust said. “… Sometimes management has to be a little bit on the tight side if you want to protect the intended purpose, which is habitat for animals.”
The center also has property on East Skyline Drive at the Wynn Nature Center and at the recently acquired caretaker’s cabin on the former Bellamy Homestead. That cabin is being renovated now and eventually will be the Wynn Nature Center visitor center. When that work is done, Trowbridge said she envisions people being able to get day passes at the visitor center to visit Inspiration Ridge Preserve. They also might offer programs like birding-by-ear or sandhill crane tours.
“We’re learning. We have staff up there this summer full time — we really haven’t before,” she said. “They’re helping us learn the trails, learn what’s out there, make recommendations for programs. We are moving forward with it.”