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History of Conservation Science

The establishment of Mohonk Preserve’s Conservation Science program is rooted in the evolution of the ecological values of Daniel Smiley and tightly entwined with the formation of The Mohonk Trust itself. Young Dan’s interest in observational science matured to a commitment to environmental education and conservation. Dan, along with his brother Keith, began recording bird observations in the mid-1920s, with Dan collecting scientific specimens beginning in 1930. In 1938, Dan became the official Mohonk Lake Weather Observer. In 1950, Dan helped to found the John Burroughs Natural History Society and later became integrally involved in a developing organization called The Nature Conservancy, serving on its Board of Governors from 1956-1961. As a member of the TNC Board, Dan traveled throughout the country, observing a network of committed conservationists acting locally to protect this country’s natural heritage. This responsibility to understand the natural world, while protecting natural areas and sharing an awareness of their importance, combined with a Quaker responsibility to humans and land, culminated in the organization of The Mohonk Trust in 1963. Dan spread his passion for the natural world through hundreds of popular articles and nature walks and talks. With Frank Egler, Dan published the Trust’s first educational pamphlet, “The Natural History of Undercliff Road,” in 1968 to interpret to visitors the importance of Trust land.

In 1971, Dan resigned from active Mountain House management and devoted his energies to monitoring the Shawangunk environment and ecosystem management. He began investigating acid rain in 1972 with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the findings from this study helped bring the subject of acid rain into public consciousness as an important ecological threat. Research focused on understanding the structure and function of ecosystems. A collaborative comprehensive study was begun in 1974 to describe and understand the biodiversity of the Duck Pond Watershed through botanical surveys, a Breeding Bird Census, and soil survey. Dan worked with Heinz Meng of SUNY New Paltz and Tom Cade, founder of The Peregrine Fund to begin reintroducing Peregrine Falcons to the Shawangunk cliffs in 1975. With the recovery of hemlock-northern hardwood forests and a burgeoning Porcupine population, Dan collaborated with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to reintroduce Fishers as a top predator in 1976. Recognizing that human fire suppression had removed fire as a natural process shaping plant and animal communities, Dan worked with the DEC to reintroduce fire into the landscape in 1977 with prescribed burns off Overcliff Road. A deer exclosure was established off Short Woodland Drive to demonstrate the impacts of deer overbrowsing to nature programs.

In parallel to the development of The Mohonk Trust, an important ecological theory developed in the 1960s that greatly influenced how land trusts operate to protect land. Island biogeography theory is the understanding of how many species are supported on an “island,” an ecosystem that is different from surrounding ecosystems. This conceptual “island” could be an actual land mass surrounded by water, but also the concept applies to nearly any isolated habitat: an oasis in a desert, a forest surrounded by fields, or a mountaintop surrounded by lowlands. The number of species on an island depends on the size of the island. Larger islands support more species, smaller islands support less species. More accessible islands closer to the “mainland” support more species than more isolated islands. Nature preserves seek to protect large contiguous areas of “core” habitat and maintain connectivity to other areas of “core” habitat so that species that only live in large intact forests can migrate to other areas of suitable habitat. Dan saw the Shawangunks as a “sky island” isolated from the Catskills by lowlands of increasing housing development. This concept has defined how nature preserves, including Mohonk Preserve, plan and function to sustain biodiversity and promote ecological connectivity.

The transition of The Mohonk Trust to Mohonk Preserve, Inc. in 1978 foreshadowed a number of more drastic changes, ecological and otherwise, in the 1980s. Dan alerted the DEC to the decline of Allegheny Woodrats. Flowering Dogwood declined due to a fungal infection. The coincidence of Gypsy Moth defoliation and drought in the late 1980s killed many of the Shawangunks’ oak trees. After Dan’s death in 1989, Paul Huth became Director of Research and continued to champion long-term studies, scientific collaboration, and public outreach.  

Paul worked to computerize the long-term data sets so that they could be more easily analyzed and shared. The Nature Conservancy designated the Shawangunks as one of Earth’s “Last Great Places” and the need for landscape-scale conservation was recognized with the formation of the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership in 1994 to preserve intact habitats to ensure species survival. Renowned atmospheric scientist Vincent Schaefer and his wife Lois established the Schaefer Research Internship in 1993, a ten-week immersion in the Preserve’s science program.

Because Dan and Keith Smiley had the foresight to record the timing of bird arrivals and Dan meticulously recorded weather and natural events throughout his life, today the Preserve's Daniel Smiley Research Center is recognized as one of the best phenological data sets in North America. With the dawning of the 21st Century, through analysis and increased collaboration with other scientists, the value of the length and breadth of our record began to be realized in scientific and popular publications. Through the generosity of the Loewy Family Foundation we established the Loewy-Mohonk Preserve Liaison Fellowship in 2006 to promote environmental monitoring and applied ecology studies of the Preserve that guide our management. Through collaboration with our partners, the Preserve became more active in ecological management such as prescribed burning, invasive species, and deer management to begin to manage at an ecologically meaningful scale.

As the Preserve enters its sixth decade, we are looking at the implications of a warming climate combined with extreme weather events, and serving as a resource for understanding and addressing dramatic global environmental change – the challenge of our generation. 2012 ranked as our warmest year in 121 years and all of the top ten warmest years have happened since 1990. Within this warming climate, we have witnessed extreme weather events. Our wettest year, 2011 (79.31 in. of precipitation), included our wettest day with Hurricane Irene on August 28th (8.21 in. of rain in one day), and the snowiest October (17.3 in. snow). Our largest snowstorm on record was observed February 23rd-27th, 2010 (43.5 in. snow).

We have also been studying how plant and animal species are responding to these changes, with notable effects such as earlier plant bloom dates, earlier migratory bird arrivals, changing hibernation patterns in bears, skunks, raccoons, and chipmunks, and several new species extending their ranges from southern areas, such as the Clay-colored Sparrow, Black Vulture, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.

The evolution of Mohonk Preserve’s Conservation Science program shares a symbiotic relationship with the development of the conservation movement itself, through Daniel Smiley and people who shared his ecological understanding. Our long-term research is networked with other sites studying environmental change indicators and provides a strong and unique underpinning of ecosystem management and an understanding of changes in the world around us. As an important biological field station and living laboratory, the Preserve’s data helps us and others to predict, manage, and adapt to a rapidly changing environment using sound science to support decision making.

As the climate is changing and the sustainability of our ecosystems is becoming more and more dependent on the decisions our society makes today, we are challenged to carefully observe, understand, and synthesize information, use that information to make decisions to safeguard our landscape, and share our findings with others so that we can all meet our responsibility of shared stewardship.

To learn more about the Preserve’s Conservation Science program, and how you can help support ongoing environmental research, click here.

Banner photo by Steve Aaron