Campus Life

Three decades of succession for New Kensington campus nature trail

Half-mile loop serves as environmental education resource

Penn State New Kensington's husband-and-wife biologists, Bill Hamilton and Deborah Sillman, walk the campus nature trail and observe the flora and fauna. The trail was constructed in 1985 by Hamilton's students.  Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. — The Penn State New Kensington nature trail turned 30 in October, and it’s showing its age. And that is fine with campus faculty members Bill Hamilton, assistant professor of biology, and Deborah Sillman, senior instructor in biology, the husband-and-wife team who supervise the trail and its virtual sidekick.

“Over the past 30 years we have watched wave after wave of successional changes in the forests along the nature trail. Gypsy moths and lightning strikes killed many of the tall oak trees in the 1990s, while age and non-optimal conditions killed the black pines,” Hamilton said. “Fast growing yellow poplars and white ash trees grew into these open spaces, but now the ash borer is killing off the ash trees and wind storms are breaking up the fragile poplars.

“The new spaces, though, where the poplar and ash once stood are full of slow growing oak seedlings. You can get a glimpse of the oak forest that in a hundred years will dominate this whole ridge-top. You need a decade by decade perspective to see the wonder of the changes going on along this trail.”

The brainchild of Hamilton’s biology students, the trail serves as an environmental education resource for the campus community and local school districts. A spring semester field trip in 1985 to Wallop’s Island in Virginia was the catalyst. Observing the ecological succession of the trails they walked piqued the student’s interest.

“We stopped at and walked several trails on our drive down to Wallops Island, including the Trail of Change in Pokomoke that really captured the imaginations of the students,” Hamilton said. “After coming home, they realized that we had great examples of ecological change and succession right in the woods here on campus.”

During the fall semester, Hamilton and the students scouted out a location and found a crude path in the southwest section of campus, which is located behind the far goal on the soccer field. Bob Arbuckle, the campus executive officer, helped the group secure funding for construction materials from the Student Government Association.

“We spent a number of Saturday afternoons out in the woods clearing the path,” said Hamilton. “It took about two months to carve out the half-mile loop.”

The trail meanders through a forest on a ridge before heading down to a ravine. White ash, red and white oak, and yellow poplar trees stand sentry on the ridge, while American beech and red maples guard the stream that cut the ravine.

“You can hike the loop of the trail just to feel the peace and quiet and restfulness of the place,” Hamilton said. “It also can be hiked with the intent of identifying trees, wildflowers and mammals.”

The Alcoa Foundation invested in the refurbishing of the trail in 2007. New signs and a system of tree markers were installed. In addition, more trails were added to the original pathway. Former campus student Chris Hone, a graduate of the School Of Forestry at Penn State, located and identified 25 species of trees along the trail. Hone’s work was condensed into an arboretum guide.

Envisioning the benefits of an electronic version of the trail, the Alcoa Foundation made a second investment in the campus for building of a virtual trail. The virtual version went online in 2002 and continues to be a popular destination for school districts. It is a practical alternative to a field trip.

“The Virtual Nature Trail still draws almost 3,000 visitors a month,” Hamilton said. “It has over 100 species pages describing the plants and animals that can be found along the trail.”

To view the virtual trail and the arboretum guide, visit  SuccessionSuccession is the change in the species structure over a period of time, which can be tens or thousands of years. The process can take up to 20 years after a wildfire or more than a million years after a mass extinction. A good example of succession can be found at the trail’s entrance, which features mowed grass and a roped-off plot of unmowed grass.

“The 'grass' under your feet consists of dozens of different plant species in a complex ecosystem only an inch or two tall,” Hamilton said. “The plants that are growing in the succession plot are quite different in appearance and in species composition from the mowed sections.”

Periodic mowing is a powerful selection force for plants that are able to rebound from the cutting of their above-ground biomass. Removal of the controlling force of mowing allows the process of succession to proceed. The roped-off plot has not been mowed since 2000.

The trail gets a facelift every spring through the efforts a group of students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends. Logs are cut, brush is removed, and general maintenance is performed. A fresh trail and a pizza party are the rewards for the volunteers.

Hamilton is already putting a call out for sprucing up the trail in 2016.

“The trail right now is in rough shape,” Hamilton said. “Lots of trees have come down and there is a huge need for an extensive spring cleanup. Watch your emails for an April date.”

To volunteer for the cleanup, contact Hamilton at BloggingIn addition to maintaining the trail, Hamilton and Sillman write about the birds, insects, mammals and flowers that herald the arrival of the seasons. On their blog site, "Ecologist's Notebook: Reflections on the Natural World of Western Pennsylvania," they report on their observations around their Apollo house and on local nature trails, as well as the campus trail.

Their primary observation venues are the Roaring Run Trail and the Rock Furnace Trail in Apollo. The 5-mile long Roaring Run Trail follows the Kiski River and terminates at the village of Edmon. The 1.5-mile Rock Furnace Trail follows Roaring Run from its confluence with the Kiski River to Brownstown Road in Apollo. The trails are maintained by the Roaring Run Watershed Association.

They posted the first observations of winter Nov. 19. “Tiger in a Tree” is about Hamilton finding a great horned owl, also called a tiger owl, in his black locust tree during daylight. The owl, a huge female, was hungry and looking for a mate. She turned her head from side to side (owls have excellent binocular vision but are not able to move their eyes about in the eye sockets) as she scanned the yards below for mice, voles, squirrels, or anything else that might be moving around.

“Once prey is spotted (and they are not picky about the types or sizes of prey species, they will take almost anything from tiny birds to skunks to even small cats and dogs), they swoop down and use their powerful talons to kill the animal,” Hamilton wrote in the blog. “Great Horned Owls have also been known to hop along on the ground scaring up and grabbing small rodents. Small prey is swallowed whole, and bones and fur are later regurgitated in a pellet.”

To view their blogs, click here.Bill HamiltonHamilton joined the New Kensington faculty in 1983 after earning an undergraduate degree at Texas Tech University, a master’s in forest ecology at Ohio State, and a doctorate in soil ecology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University.

He teaches a broad range of biology courses, including principles of biology, population biology and ecology, cell and molecular biology, anatomy, and physiology. He has an active research agenda that focuses upon the historical ecology of western Pennsylvania. He is the co-coordinator of the campus’ International Travel and Honors programs.

Hamilton has been recognized by the campus and University for the quality of his teaching. He was the recipient of the campus’ Excellence in Teaching Award in 1996, the Commonwealth College’s Excellence in Academic Integration Award in 2002, and Penn State’s George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003. The Atherton award, named after Penn State’s seventh president, who served from 1882 until 1907, is presented each year to six full-time faculty members who have devoted substantial effort to and developed a record of excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Deborah SillmanSillman, who also is the instructional development specialist at the campus, holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Carleton College and a master’s degree in entomology from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. After eight years as an adjunct at the campus, Sillman was promoted to full-time faculty in 2000. She teaches the laboratory component of a variety of courses, including basic Concepts and biodiversity, populations and communities, molecules and cells, mammalian anatomy, and physiology laboratory. Her research interests include the development of Web resources on the ecology of western Pennsylvania and the use of technology in enhancing teaching and learning.

As instructional development specialist, Sillman develops training programs, delivers workshops, writes documentation, and coordinates a number of campus programs, which promote the use of technology in teaching and learning. The programs include Digital Commons, Student Orientation to Electronic Resources, Student Personal Response System (“Clickers”), and Angel, a course management system. Sillman has the distinction of receiving the campus’ Excellent in Teaching award as a full-time and a part-time faculty member.Tree planting in New KensingtonHamilton not only writes about the environment, he actively participates in renewing it. He was joined in the spring by biology students and Science Club members for the tree-planting project in the city of New Kensington. Sixteen trees, featuring a mixture of plane trees, hawthorns, oaks and ginkgo, were planted at six sites in the city: Valley Heights park, Parnassus park, the post office parking lot, the memorial across from the Peoples Library, Industrial Boulevard, and the corner of 5th Avenue and 9th Street.

Hamilton and his students did a similar project in 2014. Twelve trees, a Kentucky coffee bean and 11 honey locusts, were planted along Industrial Boulevard, which is located in the southeast section of the city.

The tree-planting program was sponsored by the New Kensington Shade Tree Commission and supported by a grant from Tree Vitalize, a program funded by the Department of Natural Resources. Jane Glenn of the Shade Tree Commission organized the event, and Brian Wolyniak, an urban forester with the Penn State Extension Office, was on hand to demonstrate tree-planting techniques and supervise the work. Glenn, a Lower Burrell resident, has campus connections. She is the administrative executive of three campus endowments — the Elizabeth S. Blissell Scholarship, Hazel L. Hug Scholarship and Thelma M. Clausner Scholarship — that provide annual support to 15 campus students. For the 2015-16 academic year, Aaron Holness, Danielle Richardson and Branna Wyant earned Blissell scholarships; Mackenzie Degreen, Zayne Aniszewski, Austin Porter, Ryan Kieffer, Zachary Crowe and Justin Leone received Hug scholarships; and Mathew Kish, Ashley Worlds, Justin Leone, Victor Valco, Nathaniel Coup, Samantha Kovach and Brandon Obryan merited Clausner scholarships.

Alcoa FoundationCommunity service has been the cornerstone of the Alcoa Foundation's mission for more than 50 years. Company employees from around the globe heed the call to service and devote their time and talents on a regular basis to serving their individual communities, working with local nonprofit or non-governmental organizations.

Alcoa and Penn State New Kensington have a long history of collaboration. In 1963, the company donated land to Penn State, and three years later, the present Upper Burrell campus opened on the 35-acre parcel. Since then, Alcoa and Penn State have worked together on numerous initiatives, such as scholarships, the virtual nature trail, "green chemistry" and service projects that have benefitted the campus and the community. In July 2009, Alcoa was the recipient of the campus' inaugural "Corporate Partner of the Year" award.

Six years ago, the foundation invested $70,000 to enhance the campus’ STEM learning in elementary and secondary schools program. The initiative is designed to increase the number of grade-school students, especially females, minorities and the underrepresented, in the STEM fields and to create the local workforce needed for the future economic prosperity of the region. Penn State students and faculty provide on- and off-campus program support and serve as instructors and tutors for students.

A succession plot at the entrance of the nature trail hasn't been mowed since 2000. Visitors can compare the unmowed area to the mowed area underfoot.  Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated December 02, 2015