Friday, April 22, 2011

Washington College Announces Its Acquisition Of Chester River Field Research Center

The research station at Chino Farms in Queen Anne's County will offer hands-on research opportunities in habitat management and sustainability.

CHESTERTOWN, MD, April 22, 2011— Washington College today announced that it has acquired the Chester River Field Research Center (CRFRC), the nonprofit corporation that leads and facilitates scientific research and environmental studies at Chino Farms in Queen Anne's County.

The CRFRC was founded in 1999 by conservationist Henry F. Sears, a retired surgeon and the owner of Chino Farms, a 5,000-acre property on the Chester River. Under an agreement reached with the board of directors of the CRFRC, and with financial support from anonymous donors, the College's Center for Environment & Society will take over all operations of the Research Center, coordinating the study projects underway there. The College acquires no Chino Farms land in the agreement.

The research center's two full-time field biologists, Dan Small and Maren Gimpel, will join the staff of the Center for Environment & Society (CES). Founding scientific director Douglas E. Gill, a professor emeritus of biology at University of Maryland, will serve as a consultant. And Jim Gruber, a retired Natural Resources officer who volunteers his time and expertise as the director of the bird-banding operation at Chino Farms, will become an Associate of CES.

Sears sees the transfer of operations to the College as the next step in the growth and stability of the CRFRC. "This gives the investigations part of the Research Center a broader base, a broader scope, and longer legs," he says. "And it provides institutional longevity— a future beyond the lives of the current participants."

He says he has been following the growth of the College's Center for Environment & Society over the past few years. "I appreciate the interest and enthusiasm the CES staff has shown for the kinds of conservation and farming techniques we've been exploring at Chino Farms," he says. "And I couldn't be more excited about the commitment Washington College has shown for maintaining the community's rural and agricultural heritage."

"This is exciting news for all of us at Washington College," says President Mitchell B. Reiss. "We expect this acquisition to bring a quantum boost to the environmental field work our faculty and students can conduct. We are grateful to Dr. Sears and the CRFRC board for the trust they have shown in our Center for Environment & Society and its ability to maintain and expand the research on farm practices, habitat restoration and wildlife happening at Chino Farms."

The CRFRC is best known for its work in grassland restoration and migratory bird banding— it has successfully restored 246 acres of Atlantic prairie grasses, creating one of the very few large-scale coastal grasslands on the Eastern Seaboard, and has banded more than 150,000 new birds at its Foreman's Branch Bird Observatory.

Washington College has been involved in a limited way in programs at Chino Farms over the past several years. A handful of students have worked at the bird banding station as part of their paid internships with CES, and professor Leslie Sherman has conducted research on soil chemistry there. The acquisition of the CRFRC facilities will enable those who work in environmental studies to think and dream big when it comes to grant-funded research and environmental study.

"This opens up unparalleled hands-on field opportunities to our own students and faculty, and to scientists and educators from other schools and organizations as well as state and federal agencies," says John Seidel, the director of the Center for Environment & Society. "We can expand research projects into the other rich habitat areas at Chino Farms, including forest habitat, wetlands and seasonal wetlands, and farmland. We'll be the portal to this wonderful resource and all its rich habitat areas."

All 5,000 acres of Chino Farms are protected under conservation easements, making it one of the largest easements in Maryland history. Three thousand of those acres are farmed commercially by Evan Miles of Bluestem Farms, who uses a mixture of precision agriculture and organic methods.

Other subjects now under study through the CRFRC include wild turkeys, songbird communications, bobwhite quail, breeding birds in managed grasslands, and nutrient recycling in soil.

Gill, who led the grasslands restoration, is glad to see Washington College take on the work of the research center he and Harry Sears created 12 years ago. "It has been a somewhat private affair led by Dr. Sears' vision and my expertise as an ecologist," he says. "It makes sense to have a top-quality academic institution like Washington College, so close to the research station, take it on and make it available for teaching and research. It's what I always envisioned should happen. And John Seidel at CES will provide superb leadership."

Washington College senior Rachel Field, an Environmental Studies major from West Chester, Pa., knows first-hand the kinds of opportunities the CRFRC can bring to students. As a CES intern at Chino Farms, she has spent two summers and much of the spring semester mapping Grasshopper Sparrow territories, banding birds at the Foreman's Branch Bird Observatory banding lab, and studying mate selection in Blue Grosbeaks. "As a scientist, this experience has been invaluable," she says. "I have gained practical experience in conducting field experiments, designing experiments, completing bird surveys, and banding migratory birds. And, as an individual, my time at the Chester River Field Research Center has helped me to become more confident and independent."
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