Hard at work with loppers, bow saw and a swing blade, an eighth–grader from Stratford, NH, paused to share the complexities of conservation work as he had begun to see them.

“Last spring, we were planting trees,” he said. “Now, we are cutting trees down.”

So it was that—through the Nulhegan Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative—more than 50 seventh– and eighth–grade students living near Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge’s Nulhegan Basin Division in northern Vermont experienced firsthand the vagaries of conservation management.

The recently completed two–year initiative was funded by a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Nature of Learning Program grant and led by the NorthWoods Stewardship Center. Via the initiative, the students used the watershed refuge as their classroom, first to study how climate change and increased water temperature affect Atlantic salmon native to the Nulhegan Basin. Then, they focused on the American woodcock.

They started each phase by asking: What is the goal of conservation?

In spring 2011, the students asked that question as they looked down a steep eroded bank along a wide sweep of the Connecticut River. There, the answer was clear. Years of agricultural grazing had led to destabilization of the riverbank as the soil and its vegetative cover eroded. Nearby farmland and a highway made that particular area a conduit for runoff into the river. Sediment and agricultural inputs of nitrogen and phosphorous degraded water quality, to the detriment of native cold–water fish species.

The answer that day was to plant trees—white pine and white ash saplings. Though slow growing, those trees are well–suited to the sandy environment and have a substantial root system that provides stability. The conservation goal was clear: improve water quality by stabilizing the riverbank and enhance fish habitat by providing a future source of shade and woody debris.

In fall 2012, the same students found themselves in the Nulhegan Basin Division’s 134–acre Woodcock Management Demonstration Unit 1. To understand the conservation goal there, they learned that American woodcock need areas of habitat for courtship, nesting, foraging and roosting—all within a half–mile.

With guidance from Silvio O. Conte Refuge wildlife biologist Rachel Cliche, the students helped create singing grounds—open areas near dense cover where the male woodcock can perform his dawn and dusk courtship flight and singing ritual. To return the site to open singing ground, the students had to cut down trees.

“One of my principal goals has been for the refuge and our staff to serve as a resource for the larger community, which can be a challenge given our low population density,” says Nulhegan Basin Division refuge manager Mark Maghini. “The initiative has been successful in meeting that goal in that it helps the local schools achieve their science curriculum needs while getting kids engaged in actual refuge fieldwork.”

How much effort was involved on the refuge’s part?

“For the value achieved, I’m almost embarrassed to say, very little,” says Maghini. “But, in some ways, that’s how the Conte Refuge operates—we depend on our partners a great deal. We offer them support in efforts that meet their mission, and in turn their work benefits the refuge’s overall goals.”

One of those goals, as the Refuge System’s Conserving the Future makes clear, is to foster the next generation of land stewards. Through the Nulhegan Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative these students learned that, to address the habitat requirements of wildlife and encourage species’ survival, sometimes we in conservation must plant trees and sometimes we must cut trees down.

Maria Young is education and outreach director at the NorthWoods Stewardship Center in East Charleston, VT.