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Home > Biology Class Partners with Harper's Ferry National Historical Park

Biology Class Partners with Harper's Ferry National Park

December 7th, 2012

By Alissa Robertson.

CONTACT:  David Halbrook
Patrick Henry College
(540) 441-8722

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Students Will Thetford and Sarah Chaffee at Harper's Ferry. Photos by junior Kristen Kiel.

During the fall at Harper’s Ferry in W.Va., the wind whisks colorful leaves off the tops of trees rooted next to the Potomac. The leaves float past wedding photo-shoots, kindergarten field trips, and historic shops before crashing into the two rivers’ confluence; the only place where the Shenandoah and Potomac meet.  

J. Geoffrey Edling, a homeowner for over 30 years near Harper’s Ferry, regularly takes friends down to see the historic site. “It is absolutely gorgeous year round,” he said.

Although Harper’s Ferry was always naturally beautiful, Edling points out that the beauty was not always so dramatic.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s the land surrounding Harper’s Ferry was all farmland. The trees didn’t hang over the roads like they do now and farm equipment could be seen in the distance. Back then, said Edling, a large quantity of vulchers would hover over the bridges and rivers creating an eerie spectacle.

“There is a place on the Shenandoah, close to Berryville, where we were told that we couldn’t even eat the fish,” said Edling. We very rarely saw wildlife back in those days, Edling remembered, but now, they are everywhere.

Edling has seen more wolves, bears, mountain lions, deer, osprey, seagulls, and other wildlife recently than when he and his wife first moved to their home – which is only a few minutes away from Harper’s Ferry.

Dale Nisbet, Harper’s Ferry’s Natural Resource Specialist, along with other park rangers, have been monitoring the wildlife at Harper’s Ferry by camera. “There has definitely been a substantial increase in wildlife recently,” he said. One of the main reasons that wildlife is increasing so rapidly is that the ecosystem is becoming sustainable again. According to Nisbet, this improvement is largely due to the attention to the park’s water supply.

Patrick Henry College’s Biology department joined with Harper’s Ferry this fall to help research the condition of the Shenandoah and Potomac’s water supply.

Dr. Neal Doran, PHC’s biology professor, and the Bio lab students are taking and testing samples from the Harper’s Ferry watershed to track either the progress or denigration of its water supply.

“We are looking at various chemical constituencies and quality levels in the water,” said Doran. His hopes are to do a long term study of the chemical product in the system by collecting data, and then share the data with the park.

Junior Chris Lloyd collecting water samples at Harper's Ferry.

“Two teams were assigned to the project,” said PHC junior Kristen Kiel, “One was assigned to take water samples in three different places – the upper Potomac, lower Potomac, and Shenandoah – and the other was assigned to land, animal, and plant observation.”

Kiel sees the project as a venue for students to apply what they have been learning in class. “It gives us field experience and a little taste of what biologists do for a living,” she said.

Doran thought taking the class down to the park to get some samples would be a good opportunity for them to understand an ecosystem. He contacted Nisbet last summer and obtained a permit to sample at Harper’s Ferry. The permit gives the Bio lab class the ability to sample areas in Va., W.Va, and Md. In the process of preparing for the trip, Doran discovered that he would receive a $4,000 grant to investigate Harper’s Ferry through the summer of 2013.

“If the project goes well, and the students produce good reports, we will be allowed to continue working on the project for years to come,” said Doran.

“The key is to know what the data is saying and in a little while, we can have a better understanding of the state of the eco system, what is causing harm, and how the problems can be fixed.”

Harper’s Ferry is a beautiful place, said Kiel; Doran wants the class to do their part to help preserve it and the surrounding areas from harmful chemicals.

Harper’s Ferry is a part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed which is under intense study by the Federal Government. A study done in 1999 of the Potomac River by the US Geological Survey said that the Potomac is the second largest river draining to the Bay and the second largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus. It contributes about 20 percent of the total streamflow, 28 percent of the total nitrogen load, and 33 percent of the total phosphorus load from the nontidal part of the Chesapeake Bay Basin.

Kotnik’s research indicates that the water conditions at Harper’s Ferry were terrible in the 1970s. Thankfully, he said, the standards have been raised and the water quality has improved. A study by the USGS showed that from 1990-2007 the aquatic life in the Potomac River had doubled.

“The work Dr. Doran and the Bio lab is doing is of great importance,” said Tom Kotnik, a senior at PHC.

“This is the first serious data we have had,” said Nisbet. The park service appreciates the work that PHC students are doing and the benefit it brings.

“The park is a beautiful place,” said Kotnik, “it is nice to see the eco system return to normal conditions and native species begin to thrive again. In some places, the native species have increased tenfold.”

Though Kotnik did not observe any wildlife, one of his group members claimed to have seen a bald eagle.

“There are two bald eagle nests at Harper’s Ferry,” said Doran. The preservation of the water supply will help preserve the prosperity of this endangered species.

This is the first year that PHC has experimented at Harper’s Ferry and the Biology department is still figuring things out, said Doran. In a few years, if the project is successful, they can observe progress.

As for now, the class must stick to the formula: “Look, analyze, and communicate. That is how we will see real results,” said Doran.