Monday, July 28, 2003 7:46AM EDT

When every plant counts

NCSU grad student Emily MacFadyen notes the names of plants in a 10-meter-square plot in the dunes of Bird Island.
Staff Photo by Scott Sharpe

NCSU grad student Kristen Rosenfeld uses a sighting compass to lay out a plot for her vegetative survey on Bird Island. 'There are not many plants that can make a living on the beach,' she says.
Staff Photo by Scott Sharpe


BIRD ISLAND -- The sun rose high and hot, and Kristen Rosenfeld knelt in long pants and a long-sleeve shirt next to a spriggy little green plant, making notes on a clipboard and having, it seemed, the time of her life.

"Cakile edentula ," she said. "Which is commonly called sea rocket. Which is a really cool plant." She paused. "It's an herb."

Rosenfeld likes learning, and she likes teaching, and she loves the idea of conserving a natural resource threatened by development.

For two summers, Rosenfeld has been methodically charting and counting flora on the southeastern tip of North Carolina. Her work will help the state understand how to protect its newest coastal reserve, bought just last year for $4.2 million. The tally also is part of an experiment much larger than herself. A 25-year program, involving dozens of scientists and volunteers, is aimed at surveying all the plants throughout the Carolinas.

What a great master's project.

"I'm all for knowledge for the sake of knowledge," said Rosenfeld, who is working on an advanced degree in botany from N.C. State University. "I think it's grand. But personally, I wanted whatever I do for my master's work to be practical as well."

Two years ago, Rosenfeld spread out an aerial map of Bird Island and started charting one-centimeter grids. She numbered each and asked herself: Are these grasslands? Dunes? Marshes? Thickets?

She divided them into four piles, tossed the numbered papers into a bucket and pulled the numbers out randomly. These would be her plots, more than 100 in all.

For weeks at a time, Rosenfeld hoofed out to uninhabited Bird Island from nearby Sunset Beach, weighed down with equipment. Often she had volunteers in tow -- other students or, once, members of the N.C. Wildflower Society.

She measured out 10-meter-by-10-meter plots and, carrying her clipboard, listed each plant species and how much of it she saw.

She wrapped up her last plot about a week ago .

It's this quantitative count that is so unusual for plant surveys, said Tom Wentworth , an NCSU botany professor and chairman of Rosenfeld's graduate advisory committee.

Wentworth is among a group of vegetation scientists who decided back in 1988 that the Carolinas needed an all-encompassing survey of their ecologi-

cal habitats and the plants that live there.

The group developed a strict protocol of plot-charting and counting that is used by every researcher and volunteer who ventures into the woods or through a meadow.

When Rosenfeld's work is done, her project and data analysis will join the wealth of information.

"All of our data is collected from permanent plots that we've established and can be revisited in the future," Wentworth said. "If people want to look at change in time in these natural communities, they can do that.

"That makes it special. It also makes it an enormous amount of work."

He thinks the Carolina Vegetative Survey, as it's called, could take another decade to complete.

Plotting the plants

One afternoon earlier this summer, Rosenfeld trooped across the beach and cut inward to a point among the dunes.

She was joined by Emily MacFadyen , another graduate student at NCSU who volunteered to help.

Rosenfeld raised a measuring stick in her right arm.

"Okay, let's do a 10-by-10 plot. Let's corner it right here."

Together, the women squared off the plot, with MacFadyen clambering up the dunes and picking through the sea oats to plant her stakes.

Compared with the lush environments of the mountains or savannahs, this plot looked pretty sparse. A little sea rocket, some sea oats, a thinner grass called Spartina patens.

"There are not many plants that can make a living on the beach," Rosenfeld said as she jotted notes.

"Between the wind, and the sand is very, very nutrient-poor and it doesn't hold water, and the plants must be tolerant of drought and sea spray and occasionally of salt water coming up -- "

She stopped to explain that her next step was to count the plant cover.

"-- That's why there's so few species in this environment. It's pretty harsh."

Rosenfeld has walked all 150 acres of the uplands on Bird Island and waded through much of its 1,200 acres of wetlands. Sometimes she calls it "my island."

A change in beaches

Rosenfeld, who is 33, moved to North Carolina with her family when she was 7 years old. As a child she played in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, but she also grew up watching homes and businesses spring up on the barrier islands.

"There's not a lot of natural areas left," she said. "We've just sort of changed the nature of beaches. We've stabilized them. Barrier islands are not stable things, but we've made them so."

She went to school at Appalachian State University, earned a degree in political science and considered law school, thinking that someday she would be shaping public policy in Washington, D.C.

That background makes a difference now, she said.

She understands how science gets turned into government attitudes. She knows how to make her conservation research matter to state and federal agencies.

"You can have all the facts you want," she said. "But if those facts don't get turned into useful public policy, they don't help."

She has also learned a bit about the practical side of science.

She had to get research permits and wade through funding applications. She received a $5,000 grant from North Carolina Sea Grant, a federal/state agency that promotes education and research along the coast.

Two years into her project, Rosenfeld is surprised more by what she didn't find than by what she did.

She expected some maritime forest, the woods that are characterized by live oaks and are so common on other barrier islands. Instead, Bird Island has fewer than a dozen trees, period, she said.

She never found a rare plant called the seabeach amaranth. She led a group of federal officials and volunteers in reintroducing some of the plant on the island earlier this summer, but those don't count.

A different view

"I've definitely learned there are lots and lots of plants out there that I didn't know before," she said.

"I don't look at barrier islands the way I used to. I used to go to the beach and look at the water, and now I spend most of my time looking at the interior."

Walking down the beach and away from her plot, Rosenfeld laughed at the idea of finding a brand new species in her work.

There are maybe 200 plant species on the whole island, among them at least 15 that Rosenfeld can't identify. She took samples home, flattened them in a wooden plant press and is now ready to embark on the hunt for their names.

Who knows? she said last week.

"There still may be some really exciting find in that stack that I haven't encountered yet."

She's still looking.