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Classroom with a View
Studying New Zealand's endangered wildlife, scientists say, is like studying life on another planet.
by Chris Hegan
with Linda Bercusson

IT'S HOT—TOO HOT FOR THIS. But here I am, practically running to keep up with five hyper-motivated students from UNH's EcoQuest program as they tackle a near-vertical section of forest trail. Minutes later, from the peak of Mt. Ruawahine on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, we get our reward.

Far below, at the ocean's edge, a tiny strip of bone-white sand, like the stopper in a giant bottle, almost seals in a tidal basin the size of a small farm. The cirrus-feathered sky is a perfect blue, the pastoral landscape placid in the afternoon sun. Islands shimmer in the haze of heat over the Pacific Ocean. In the estuary, a team of fellow students paddle kayaks in water so clear the colorful plastic shells seem to float on air. Even for me, a nature-loving Kiwi accustomed to such scenes, the view is stunning.

The natural beauty is far from lost on my new friends, but they are not here to gush and take pictures. They are putting the finishing touches on their assignment—a habitat classification and ecological-process map of the estuarine ecosystem spread out before them. When they finish, they will understand how the estuary developed, what physical and social processes are shaping it, how human use affects it, and what its future will be. A breathtaking landscape has become an object of rigorous academic scrutiny.

Bill Brownell '67 has always believed that the best classrooms are located in the midst of nature—on the edge of cliffs, along mountain paths, in the deep forest. Brownell's early career as a fisheries biologist took him around the world and finally to New Zealand, where he settled in 1984. So it makes sense that when he helped found the UNH EcoQuest Field Studies program in 1996, the UNH affiliate assistant professor would put the emphasis on studying, quite literally, in the field.

New Zealand is an ideal laboratory for ecological studies. The archipelago was created 80 million years ago when a small slice of land broke off from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. The islands' long isolation resulted in the evolution of many species of reptiles, invertebrates and birds, but only a few mammals: fur seals and two types of bats. Over time, with no mammalian predators, many of the birds lost their ability to fly. In effect, New Zealand became a giant bird sanctuary.

Most of the country's species are found nowhere else. All of the native reptiles and amphibians, 90 percent of its insects and 25 percent of its bird species are endemic to New Zealand. Great Britain, by contrast, has just two endemic species. Studying New Zealand's wildlife, scientists say, is as close as you can get to studying life on another planet.

Humans, who finally arrived between 900 and 1200 A.D. with their dogs and Pacific rats (and later their cats, weasels, ferrets and stoats), drove dozens of New Zealand's species to extinction. Today, many more remain endangered, including the country's icon, the kiwi. Ninety-five percent of these flightless birds succumb to predators while still juveniles. Then there's the kea, an inquisitive mountain parrot that peels strips of rubber from car windows and pops the tops off of beer cans. The kakapo, another ancient parrot—and the world's only flightless one—weighs in at more than eight pounds and has a voice like a bagpipe. Fewer than 100 still exist.

Since the early 1900s, New Zealanders have been working to save many of these indigenous species and have become world leaders in ecosystem- and species- restoration efforts. "What makes New Zealand so attractive from a science perspective," says Kim Babbitt '84, associate professor of wildlife ecology and EcoQuest's academic program coordinator at UNH, "is that we face the same challenges in the United States, but the magnitude of the problem in New Zealand is so severe that it really makes an impression on students."

The first group of EcoQuesters—all 10 of them—arrived in September 1999. Today, the program's promise of "ecology in action" lures close to 60 students a year. "We start off with the conceptual learning skills that the old scientists had," says John Longden, an EcoQuest field leader. "They looked and they thought. Then they asked themselves, 'OK, what is happening here?'"

Along with analyzing ecosystems, students also learn to read the political subtext, the complex tangle of issues that have a bearing on the future of the natural environment. The program's larger aim is to produce "ecosystem decision makers," leaders with field experience who also understand the underlying concepts and are primed to take action.

"EcoQuest is so much more than a 'trip abroad,'" says Babbitt. For one thing, it draws on the expertise of New Zealanders, from environmental lawyers to policy specialists. "There are many significant conservation and management issues in the country, so the students are actively engaged with ongoing restoration efforts. Their work is not just an exercise—it has real value for New Zealand," she adds.

EcoQuest "campus" is an assortment of structures, including various academic buildings, a dining hall and several cabins. A makeshift volleyball court is marked by shoes and hats. But there's not much time for play. When I arrived, two weeks into the program, this group of 24 recruits—11 of them from UNH—had already been trained in basic forest and water safety and had completed two wilderness excursions. They had also been formally welcomed by the local Maori tribe, Ngati Poaoa, and received an in-depth rundown on the political, legal and procedural issues driving New Zealand's environmental management. They celebrated New Zealand's national day, and some shook hands with the country's prime minister. Working on average six days a week, the students took in a steady diet of lectures, discussions and activities in the field.

Just a few days after arrival, for example, when they still qualified as FOBs ("fresh off the boat"), they confronted a Gondoresque rock outcropping called the Pinnacles. The challenge was blunt: Without any prior knowledge of the biology or ecology of this place, what observations and explanations can you muster about the environment?

"We were supposed to figure out what we were seeing from hints they gave us," recalls Dave Fry '05, an environmental conservation major from UNH. "Nothing was obvious." The academic challenge was tough enough. And then there was the rain. The students wrote with waterproof pencils on waterproof paper. They crossed rushing rivers. As they hiked through different elevations, picking their way through the mud, they discussed the impacts of land use on forest succession and the underlying geology and soils. After the first half hour, their raincoats were useless.

"I could not believe that 24 people who hardly knew each other could have a coherent discussion in the pouring rain on a trail that was hardly wide enough for two people," says Iris Levine, a biology major from Bowdoin. By 5:30 a.m., however, the rain had stopped and the students watched the sun rise over the ocean. "It was so beautiful, it was a little intimidating—360 degrees of beauty," she says.

Along with their study of the environment, the EcoQuest students gained insights into the customs of the Maori, New Zealand's native people, who gave the island its original lilting name, Aotearoa, and who play a significant role in the country's resource management and conservation efforts. During their three-week trip to the South Island, students spend four days on the South Island as guests of the iwi (tribe), which operates a whale-watching franchise. They stay at the marae (gathering place) and observe tribal etiquette and customs. The relationship EcoQuest has cultivated with the Maori means students enjoy the status of tangata whenua (people of the land) whenever they return to Aotearoa.

One of the features of the EcoQuest program is its highly integrated approach to academics, a reflection of the real-life complexity of natural resources management. Each week has a broad theme, such as management of coastal and marine ecosystems or the impacts of eco-tourism. The integration reflects "the connections that exist between the natural environment, and people and their socio-economic and cultural needs," says Ria Brejaart, co-founder of EcoQuest and program director in New Zealand, "which are important in decision-making aimed at sustainable resource management."

Students also carry out four-week directed research projects known as "DRPs." Recently, in response to growing concern about mammalian predators at the Miranda Ramsar site, a wetland of international significance, EcoQuest students have been involved in tracking and trapping small mammals. To reach the tasty morsels left for them, predators must walk across an ink pad and then across a white board, leaving telltale footprints behind. The information students have gathered will help to determine whether further predator-control efforts are necessary.

For her DRP several years ago, Jillana Robertson '01 researched the Mahoenui giant weta. These large wingless crickets were thought to be extinct until a small number were discovered in 1962. Robertson and several other students caught 100 weta to help establish a population in the Warrenheip Reserve. Now a technical support officer for the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust, Robertson spends most of her week in Warrenheip, a 40-acre plot protected by a special pest- and predator-proof fence, waiting and listening for signals from the radio tags worn by the few and elusive kiwi.

"Part of the fun of my job is helping people care about bugs and plants and animals, about how much has been lost—and about how much can be saved," she says.

Other students, too, have found their lives altered by their EcoQuest experience. "EcoQuest was the most challenging and most rewarding semester for me as an undergraduate," says Jesse Bishop '02, who stayed on to pursue a master's degree in natural resources from UNH. Bishop is studying five restoration areas around New Zealand, using satellite imagery to assess changes in biodiversity.

"EcoQuest is a change of pace and a change of place that inspires the creative thought process," he says. "You come home a better student, knowing more about yourself." Ultimately, he feels, EcoQuest can help to broaden the perspective of participants and make them better world citizens.

In the voices of these EcoQuest alumni, there's hope, vision and determination. "Every student who participates in the program knows they're leaving something positive behind," says Babbitt. And for Robertson and Bishop, the studying continues, quite literally, in the field. For them, "ecology in action" has become a life philosophy.

Chris Hegan is a freelance writer, photographer, editor and book author in New Zealand. Linda Bercusson, also of New Zealand, is a photojournalist and author of two natural history books. Additional reporting by Suki Casanave '86G.

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