Friday, April 20, 2012

Following Louisiana's Restoration and Wetlands Education Trip, Smithtown Teacher Using Gulf Experience to Help Sunken Meadow Park

The New York Marine Education Association and New York Sea Grant's 2012 trip to the Louisiana coast made the paper on Wednesday (April 18, 2012). Check out the article, "Smithtown teacher using Gulf experience to help Sunken Meadow Park," in the Port Times Record, one of several newspapers covering Long Island's North Shore communities under Times Beacon Record Media - see pdf of article (click here) or text version below.

Also, see our coverage in the first section of Newsday's Sunday March 18th paper - see pdf of article (click here) or text version (click here)

Smithtown teacher using Gulf experience to help Sunken Meadow Park
Port Times Record / April 18, 2012 by Elana Glowatz

Smithtown High School West science teacher Elizabeth Platt, with science teachers Coleen Grant, from Centereach High School, and Thomas Armentrout from Seattle, Wash., worked with others to plant approximately 500 trees on a restored ridge recreated from sediments that were excavated during dredging in Port Fourchon, near Grand Isle, La. Photo from Paul C. Focazio/NY Sea Grant

One of the lessons Elizabeth Platt is bringing back to her students after her trip to Louisiana is "instilling in people the need to protect what we have rather than having to restore areas."

The Smithtown High School West teacher recently visited the Gulf of Mexico with the New York State Marine Education Association and New York Sea Grant, which has a local office at Stony Brook University, to learn about threats to the environment and help with restoration efforts. To mitigate plant loss from storms in Louisiana, she spent time learning about wetlands and planting certain plant species: bitter panicum, gulf bluestem, bulrush, oyster grass and Spartina patens.

Larissa Graham, New York Sea Grant's Long Island Sound Study outreach coordinator, said this trip to Louisiana was different from last year in that one of the focuses was "to make more of a connection to what's happening in New York." Graham said many of the problems in the Gulf, such as wetland loss, are more extreme versions of what is happening here.

Participants, a number of them from the Island and New York City, are required to do follow-up local projects, taking in lessons learned down South.

Platt, who lives in Huntington, teaches Advanced Placement environmental science and biology at Smithtown HS West. She wants to get her students, juniors and seniors, involved in projects at Sunken Meadow State Park.

Her goal is for them to have an experience that will give them a sense of responsibility for the area: "If they have some ownership of an area, if they're the ones cleaning and taking care of it ... they'll feel more connected."

One of the ways she may get the kids involved is in helping a small population of chestnut trees at Sunken Meadow, partly by pulling invasive plants away from them.

Ariana Newell, a regional natural resource steward-biologist for the state Parks Department, said chestnut trees were once the most dominant trees in forests in this area. At Sunken Meadow State Park, roughly three out of every four trees were chestnut trees, she said.

In the early 1900s, however, a blight came through and killed many of them. There are few left — Newell estimated only a handful in Sunken Meadow — and "what we do have in state parks, we want to keep."

The state plans to protect these trees by trimming vegetation around them to prevent overcrowding, Newell said, and will possibly put up a fence "to keep people from messing with them."

Platt said she would like to help with the effort to reestablish and help the population.

However, she said budgeting is a factor, as she has already used all her field trips for the year. If Platt can't organize a field trip for her classes this semester, she said, she will work on this project in the fall. She is also an ecology club adviser, so that is another way she can work on this project with Smithtown students.

Another problem at Sunken Meadow State Park is wetlands loss, the root of which dates back to the 1950s. Newell said at that time, the creek channel was diverted using two culverts, which restricted fish passage and the tidal flow to the marshes.

She said it is unclear why the channel was diverted, although some reports suggest it was done to create a larger area waterfowl could use.

Since then, invasive phragmites — large perennial grass found in wetlands — have taken over. Newell said her group is trying to remove the culverts and restore the tidal flow, which would benefit the ecosystem and open up the marsh for fish passage.

This is a project in which Platt said she has interest.

The teacher said she talks a lot with her students about habitat destruction and what people can do to help. After the trip to Louisiana and working on solutions with the other environmentalists and educators, she said she can now bring information to the kids "about exactly what's involved in restoring and kind of how things get messed up in the first place."

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