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Growing Closer to Carbon Neutrality


“We are responsible for 11,700 tons of carbon in the atmosphere every year,” said Brian Hansen, Hamilton’s director of environmental protection, safety, and sustainability. The reduction of this imposing number, which stands between the College and its goal of carbon neutrality, is being approached from a variety of angles, among them, switching energy systems from fossil fuels to greener sources.

With the help of several Hamilton students, the College’s Sustainability Working Group also is aiming to combat carbon emissions in another way: by reforesting plots of land on and around campus. By ultimately adding 150 acres to Hamilton’s current 800 acres of forested land, Hansen said that the capacity for trees to sequester carbon will go up “to 3,000, maybe 4,000 tons” from its current capacity of 1,800 tons. 

This summer, work will be concentrated on one particular plot of land — “tract 11” as it’s called — which occupies 16.91 acres in the Rogers Glen. Previously, tract 11 was open, fallow land, as was the case with several of the other plots marked for reforestation (others were being leased for agricultural purposes). 

The nine students working on this project are divided into three groups, each concentrating on different parts of the process and reporting to different faculty members accordingly. Sara Soika, an environmental health and safety specialist, and Hansen’s group will focus primarily on protecting the newly planted trees. To accomplish this, they’ll place plastic tubing around the saplings and construct a deer fence around the plot. “This fence is essential to the success of these different trees,” said Avery Morgan ’22, “as deer are highly attracted to low grasslands like these and like to eat the tree saplings.”

Our long-term goal is to assist the forest in producing tall canopy trees that sequester large amounts of carbon.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong’s group will be analyzing soil cores from tract 11, looking mostly at moisture and carbon levels to determine the effectiveness of the reforestation project. Going forward, this information will be crucial when the project moves to other tracts. “Our long-term goal is to assist the forest in producing tall canopy trees that sequester large amounts of carbon,” said Maddie Lawson ’22. This will also be done, in part, by removing buckthorn, “which blocks sunlight from saplings and takes nutrients from native trees,” she said.

Associate Professor of Biology Andrea Townsend’s group decided which species of trees to plant and will also be evaluating the success of certain methods (i.e. tubing, deer fencing) down the line. According to Bella Zegarelli ’24, the species planted so far include red maple, sugar maple, paper birch, hickory, poplar, white pine, oak, cherry, and willow trees.

Katie Neilsen ’22 elaborated on the sort of research questions Townsend’s group will be asking: “Did the trees in the tubes have a higher survival rate than those without? Are there any specific species that were particularly successful?” Answering these questions, she said, will help them understand “which tree species survived and why.”

Climate Commitment

In 2007, Hamilton’s 19th President Joan Hinde Stewart signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, and in 2009, a Climate Action Plan was developed that calls for the College to be carbon neutral by 2050.

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Other benefits of this project, said Hansen, include “healthy ecosystems for local flora and fauna, and low-impact recreational opportunities.” These will come mostly in the form of new trails, designed by Director of Outdoor Leadership Andrew Jillings, which will connect to those in the Rogers Glen.

Looking forward, the students involved all expressed excitement about returning to Hamilton and seeing the results of their work. “I cannot wait to come back for my 20-year reunion and see a young forest that I helped plant,” said Jeffrey Bush ’22.

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