Boggling the Mind

Bog Bog

While other Bates students were taking notes within comfy, sixty-eight-degree classrooms, these students were outdoors, knee deep in peat.

Wearing hiking boots, down vests, and polar fleece, and with conversations peppered with phrases like “hydrological value” and “wetland mitigation,” the students of Geology 266 and Environmental Studies 302 looked and sounded every bit the legacy of L.L. Bean and Rachel Carson as they trekked into Garcelon Bog, just a quarter-mile from bustling Sabattus Street in Lewiston’s urban zone.

Though they carried field notebooks, a global-positioning satellite unit, survey implements, and abundant water gathering and sampling devices, they trod gently over the lattice of roots and low shrubs covering the spongy sphagnum moss growing in tangled mats. Jump up and down, and shrubs several feet away bounce along with you.

The students’ mission? To determine, among other things, how proposed construction of a new cross-town connecting road would impact the verdant, three-hundred-acre wetland, which stands in the proposed road’s path.

“The road could drain the bog, it could flood the bog, it could kill the bog,” said Laurie McKenzie ’00 of Portland, Oregon. “The effects — to the area and to the surface and groundwater influences — would be serious. Bogs are very hydrologically complex, and building a road has the potential to completely change all of its characteristics.”

After several weeks in the bog and in the lab last fall, the students emerged to present their findings to the Lewiston City Council. In turn, city officials will use the information to move forward with an environmental plan for the road project.

The bog project began about a year ago, when assistant professors Lois K. Ongley (geology) and Curtis C. Bohlen (environmental studies) agreed that two of their fall-semester courses — Ongley’s groundwater hydrology course and Bohlen’s wetland science and policy course — might nicely complement one another. They just needed a project to prove it.

So the two academics approached Lewiston City Planner James Lysen to see what their students might tackle. At around the same time, the city was dusting off plans for a cross-town road project initially proposed nearly three decades ago. As originally presented in the city’s 1972 comprehensive plan, the connector road would extend from the Maine Turnpike in the south (near the Ramada Inn) to near the intersection of Russell and Sabattus streets in the east. The route would give drivers, especially truckers, a faster way across the southeastern side of the city, as well as an alternative to crowded Lisbon Street.

The road project has moved to the front burner after the city completed a section of the cross-town connecting road last summer. But completing the road on its original route, a plan hatched in the environmental dark ages three decades ago, would mean bisecting Garcelon Bog. (The bog is likely named for Alonzo Garcelon, Lewiston’s leading citizen of the late 1800s and a Maine governor, whose home and property were near the bog and whose name graces the Bates football field.)

“One of the initiatives of the comprehensive plan is strong language to pursue completion of the [cross-town connector] at the earliest opportunity,” Lysen said. “But there is also strong language about protecting Garcelon Bog and what an important natural resource the bog is.”

Together, Ongley, Bohlen, and Lysen agreed that students from the two classes would identify the range of environmental issues facing the project — including an overall scientific assessment of the wetland area. The goal: to bring clarity to issues that can be as tangled and layered as the peat in Garcelon Bog itself.

What evolved was a joint service-learning project for Geology 266 and Environmental Science 302. The project was supported by the College’s Center for Service Learning, a three-year-old initiative that helps faculty members develop projects that offer students hands-on experience, while at the same time retaining an academic focus.

The students relished the opportunity to create something that helps the local community. “The finished product doesn’t just sit on a shelf somewhere. It makes a difference,” said Kate Osborne ’99 of Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

“The nice thing about service-learning is that it provides students with a real-life problem to work on instead of doing labs out of a manual,” Ongley said. “We really enjoy doing this kind of work at Bates because it gives back to the community. It saves the town money and gives direction for what the town needs to do and think about.”

“We wanted to have a project that would make students move beyond the basic understanding and get them to think about other human needs,” Bohlen explained, “and you can’t do that without having students wrestle with a practical example.”

The practical example at hand was to investigate the environmental impact of three possible road alignments through the bog. The first (the 1972 route) would go right through the middle. The two others would skirt the bog, one on the east side (farther from the center of town) and the other on the west side of the bog, closer to the target of Russell and Sabattus streets.

The two classes gave the project a potent one-two punch. Bohlen’s wetland policy class used their information to discuss the general pros and cons of the three proposed routes. Meanwhile, Ongley’s hydrology class conducted a chemical analysis of the area’s surface water, hydrology, and groundwater, zeroing in on specific impacts and benefits.

Bohlen’s group conducted a wetland assessment, asking themselves hard, qualitative questions about the area’s value, as well as the significance of possible damage to the wetland due to the road project. They framed their assessment using a three-part question: What are the hydrological, societal, and biological values of the area?

“A wetland like Garcelon Bog, which is in an urban area, is doing a lot of things when it comes to water,” said Kirsten Walter ’99 of Los Gatos, California, a member of the wetland assessment team. According to Walter, the bog cleans water by getting rid of sediments and pollutants as the water flows through on its way to nearby Androscoggin River. The bog, Walter says, also serves as a storm-water buffer for the Androscoggin.

Working against the public’s general appreciation of bogs, unfortunately, is the weight of literary bog canon, which has imprinted a range of forboding bog images (choice examples: Grendel emerging from a bog to attack Beowulf’s castle, or the hound of the Baskervilles lunging across the moors). Thus the students took care to identify Garcelon Bog’s societal benefits. Walter and her group found walking trails within the main peat mat, for example, suggesting recreational value. Walter and her group also believe that the area holds educational value. “We could do service-learning like what we are doing now. Also, the public schools in Lewiston could use it for environmental education,” she said, echoing an interest of city planner Lysen. “It also offers possibilities for a nature center, nature hikes, or bird watching.”

The group also found that the bog has unusual biological traits, especially given its location in an urban zone behind a residential community and just a few hundred yards from a busy Shop `N Save supermarket on Sabattus Street. “There’s nothing like it nearby,” Bohlen said, noting that the group found a beaver dam near the bog. According to Walter, the vegetation within a bog can include carnivorous plants that munch on bugs. In addition, peat bogs of this type are usually found farther north, where they can be thousands of acres in size. “And there are unique soil dynamics, including at least six meters of peat, which is quite a lot of organic soils,” she said.

Bohlen’s class also provided an overview of the federal environmental regulations involving wetland use, specifically Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (a law that’s the legislative legacy of one Senator Edmund Muskie ’36, by the way), which protects “navigable waters,” a phrase that has been interpreted to include wetlands. One important criterion for federal approval is mitigation, according to Neil Prendergast ’98 of Ridgewood, New Jersey. “The policy says that if you need to develop a wetland area, you need to compensate for whatever you remove from your habitat,” he explained.

For Bohlen, the group dynamics and the project itself taught his students more than traditional lectures and labs could have.

“Going out in the field on their own teaches at least as much, if not more, than having me leading them around and telling them what to do,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to know that something matters. It gets beyond learning the facts and the policies, and you have to use some judgement: find out what’s important and how it affects the wetland. They get engaged with the real context.”

Ongley’s class conducted chemical analyses of the water and its movement within Garcelon Bog. The students used a piezometer, a device that’s plunged into the ground to sample from several levels of the water table. A global-positioning satellite device helped the group place the location of the piezometers precisely on working maps.

“Our surface-water analysis began by trying to choose sites that illustrated the chemical variations throughout the watershed,” said Brian Gagne ’99 of Groton, Massachusetts.

Gagne’s group measured the bog’s cleaning effect on surface water that passes around the bog in a semi-circular channel. Their results showed higher concentrations of elements like copper, zinc, and sodium (urban runoff from streets, parking lots, and buildings) in water that entered the bog on the north side. Lower concentrations were measured where water leaves the bog, suggesting that the bog itself — its soil, vegetation, and microorganisms – cleanses water passing around it.

“There’s no question that the bog will be affected if the road is put in. You create a whole new source of urbanized water runoff,” Gagne said. “But it’s hard to say whether the road will have a really deleterious affect. It’s hard to say whether the cleaning action of the bog will continue if you dump a lot more runoff into the situation, or will the bog break down and not do this.”

Another group in Ongley’s class studied the flow of water around the bog and discovered an important phenomenon. “We found that the bog and the channel around the bog are a dynamic system,” said Janna Levin ’98 of Princeton, New Jersey. “Depending on the amount of precipitation that falls over the bog, the bog can feed the channel or, if precipitation is great, the channel can feed the bog.” In times of heavy rainfall, the bog acts much like a sponge sitting in a saucer of water, absorbing water that might otherwise flood low-lying areas near the bog.

In the end, the students recommended the route around the bog’s west side. While not as environmentally friendly as an east-side route, the west-side route leads traffic closer to the target area: Sabattus and Russell streets.

Bohlen cautioned that the Bates contribution was not providing answers, but clarifying the problem. “Our job wasn’t to tell the city what to do,” he said. “We don’t have the planning or engineering expertise for that. But we did identify the issues, such as the value of Garcelon Bog, what’s wrong with the middle route, and the likely impacts of the other routes.”

Lysen and the other city officials, as well as other community leaders who attended the early-December presentation, will use the information presented to continue their planning. City Administrator Robert Mulready praised the students for an “absolutely stupendous job.” The next step, said Lysen, is to hire a consultant to expand upon the student’s data. Eventual construction of the road is still several years away, officials said. “This is a major environmental project,” Ongley observed.

After presenting their material and research, the students in Bohlen and Ongley’s class looked like experts, having used their hands, sophisticated equipment, and their own judgment. “The quality of learning that comes out of this is a further degree of mastery of the material,” said Bohlen. “I’ve seen an incredible amount of learning in this class and this project is central to that.”

Did the students learn more than they would have at a countertop in the bowels of Carnegie Science Building? The all-around consensus is, yes, they did.

“Service-learning projects allow us to learn how to begin asking the right questions and approaching the problems in a way that will end up with answers,” said Bettina Schuler ’98 of Briarcliff Manor, New York. “There is no better way to learn than to do real-life, hands-on stuff. Especially with environmental issues, there are so many things to take into consideration you can’t imagine until you begin. Things are always more complex than they originally seem.”

Schuler and others agreed that service-learning projects can be more inspiring than traditional college work.

“There is a much stronger motivating force when you work for people other than yourself,” Schuler said.