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Newell, ESSYI Featured

Professor of Biology Elizabeth Newell was recently featured in the Wayne Post for having led a group of 30 students from the U.S. and around the world as part of the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute.

The article called the fieldwork in the bog, “a unique opportunity to learn more about environmental studies and the bog’s unique ecosystem.”


Since coming to the Colleges in 1988, Newell has completed research projects in Costa Rica and Panama and has mentored students in research projects at Zurich Bog. Recently she completed a project that examined the impact of white-tailed deer on vegetation in a local landowner’s woods.  Newell has numerous journal articles published in the area of plant physiological ecology and was a Diplomacy Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Newell received her B.S. from Bates College and her Ph.D. from Stanford University.


The full article follows.

Wayne Post
A hidden treasure: The Zurich Bog is like taking a step back in time to the Ice Age

Tammy Whitacre • staff writer •Messenger Post August 19, 2012

Arcadia, N.Y. –
She was a high school student in the Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute at Hobart William Smith Colleges. Now she he was up to a knee in the Zurich Bog.

One of 30 students from across the country and around the world in the program, she was visiting the bog just a few weeks ago in a unique opportunity to learn more about environmental studies and the bog’s unique ecosystem. Leading the group was Beth Newell, associate professor of biology at Hobart, joined by Peg Pelletier, trustee for the Bergen Swamp Preservation Society, which owns the bog, as they entered the fen – an area where most hiking through the bog can’t enter.
The rules were simple: Step in the footsteps of the person in front of you and be careful, Newell said.

“It’s usually on the way out that people fall in,” Pelletier said. “They get confident and think, ‘I did this once, I can do it again.'”

Sure enough, the student failed to step right and her leg went through into the water hiding underneath. A scream alerted Pelletier to the girl’s predicament and two strong lads on either side of her helped pull her free of the thick mud that acted like a suction cup, threatening to keep her boot as a trophy.

“She kept screaming ‘My boot! My boot is stuck!'” Pelletier recalled, her voice tinged with laughter at the memory. “She got to keep her boot.”

This student, who left the bog with mud caked all the way up her leg, has fine company. Society trustee Ken Townsend once fell through up to his chest, all while carrying thousands of dollars of GPS equipment, which he held high above his head as he struggled to get his way back out.

The fen’s surface is about 6 inches thick of a root mat with floating vegetation. Walking on top of it is like walking on a waterbed and very precarious, which is why its access is restricted to researchers and touring students of environmental studies. Old stories speak of quicksand and teams of horses that fell through and were lost in the bog. Most likely it is of the fen from which these stories originate.

The fen is but one small part of a greater whole that makes up the Zurich Bog. The bog, a natural treasure, is about 625 acres and growing as the society continues to purchase sections of land to reach the bog’s borders. To enter the bog is like taking a step back in time to the Ice Age when enormous glaciers cut through dirt and clay to carve the drumlins and valleys that make up the local topography. The glacier moving through Zurich Bog left behind a deep pocket, called a kettle hole – deeper than any other area. In its wake, the glacier also left behind plants and seeds that took root in the ground and miraculously continue to grow throughout the bog today.

The bog is thick with peat, which is composed primarily of sphagnum moss. To reach down and pick up a chunk of the vegetation, it feels dry, even cool. But squeeze it and water will pour out of it like a sponge.

As stewards of the land, Bergen Swamp Preservation Society members seek to preserve this landmark and protect it from forces in the outside world that would disrupt the fragile ecosystem. Pelletier said the bog holds life that couldn’t possibly grow anywhere else.

The proposed development of a landfill next door to the bog, which has been named a National Natural Landmark by the National Parks Service, poses a very real threat to the bog’s delicate ecosystem, Townsend said. The society is already worried about the long-term effects of the old landfill in the event leachate filters through to contaminate the bog’s only source of water. To reopen it presents a host of short-term dangers – from the introduction of pathogens and invasive species to air quality issues and litter.

Oddly enough, water quality generally isn’t as much of a concern for the bog, since no surface water flows into it. Townsend said all water in the bog flows out, to the north and south. The bog is fed by an aquifer deep in the earth, the depth of which has never been mapped. The possibility that leachate from the old unlined landfill could be absorbed into the ground and enter the aquifer is a very real concern. Groundwater runoff from neighboring farms has not been a problem. Townsend said this is because they maintain a good relationship with their neighbors.

“We have really great neighbors,” Pelletier said. “We try to keep them in the loop with what’s going on.”

These neighbors also alert the society trustees to problems. Hikers are welcome at the bog, but Pelletier said large groups are asked to contact the society first for a guided tour.

The bog is a natural grower of peat, and in the early days of Newark, local businessman C.H. Stuart purchased the bog to mine the peat. In the 1950s, the Bergen Swamp Preservation Society acquired the property, as another of several pieces of land they seek to preserve and protect throughout the region. Once upon a time, Newark High School students enjoyed an annual field trip to the bog, inspiring some youth to pursue studies in the environmental and natural sciences. Today, for a variety reasons, Pelletier said young people don’t even know the bog exists, let alone of its natural beauty and history.

“Many hikers tell us they remember their trip through the bog when they were in school,” Pelletier said. “Now when you mention the bog to kids who are in high school, they don’t even know what we’re talking about. It’s unfortunate.”

The ground acidity of this botanical preserve defines it as a bog, an area where organic decomposition has been slowed significantly. Peat grows readily there, but Zurich Bog is host to several threatened species of plant and an endangered species of turtle, as well. There are also some less friendly types of plants in Zurich – at least to the common house fly. A variety of carnivorous plants make their home in the bog, and their prey are the variety of flying insects who also call the bog their home.

Among those is the pitcher plant. This plant doesn’t clamp down on its prey like a Venus fly trap, but instead subtly lures a thirsty bug to its death. Tube-like appendages of the plant hold a quantity of water. Bugs see the water and enter the pitcher-like tubes for a drink, Pelletier explained. But the tube’s interior is lined with fine hairs all facing down, so when the bug falls into the water, it can’t escape. The acidity of the water allows the plant to then digest the bug.

At the bog’s center stands a large drumlin, but the bog is reported as the lowest point in Wayne County. Neighboring Brantling, home of ski slopes, is the county’s highest point, and from its vantage, one can see the Zurich Bog stretching out below, the magnitude of what it represents to local and world history evident – a history that draws hundreds of college students every year to see its rare, ancient beauty.

“It’s a freeze frame in time,” Pelletier said, and for hikers, “It’s rough terrain.”
“But it’s well worth it,” Townsend added.