Research in Conservation Biology
Rich Niesenbaum - Department of Biology - Muhlenberg College

In the area of Conservation Biology we have been studying  international community forestry projects in Guatemala, watershed conservation in Abangares, Costa Rica, invasive plants and rarity, and conservation and environmental education.  We are collaborating with the International Programs Department at the Rodale Institute on measuring the success of sustainable forestry practice in northern Guatemala, and on developing ways to effectively link social, economic, and ecological indicators in the evaluation of international conservation and development projects.  We also work with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in our studies of ecology and conservation.

Current Research Projects:

Ecological Knowledge to Generate Income for a Women's Cooperative in a Rural, Mining Community in Costa Rica
Las Juntas de Abangares is a small town of about 70,000 people located in the northwestern Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica. It was once supported by large North American gold mining efforts, but now is economically driven by small scale, unregulated independent Cota Rican miners and suffers the social and environmental ills associated with this economy. Las Juntas sees no benefit from the ecological tourism that helps to preserve the economy, culture and environment for which Costa Rica has a model reputation. Given the economic limitations in this community, a group of single women with children have formed a cooperative, Coopeproca, which relies on ecology-based income generation including recycling and river clean-up, medicinal plant cultivation, and butterfly farming. I report on what ecological information they are using for income generation, where and how they obtained that information, and their motivations for taking an ecological approach to poverty reduction. Regarding their medicinal plant project, our original hypothesis was that the knowledge was being passed down from older generations, and that they were motivated by a lack of satisfaction or access to contemporary health care. We found that although there was some family-based knowledge about medicinal plants, the women were obtaining most of their information from public and foundation supported workshops. They were motivated purely by the potential for income generation, and that medicinal plants could be marketed to northern visitors much like traditional pottery. Despite external support, the potential income from these ecological activities cannot currently support this cooperative and more training in market and product development is required.


Resource Use, Regeneration, and Sustain ability in a Community Forest Concession in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala

Forestry Research Group - Centro Maya - Bethel, Guatemala
We are working on an initial assessment of a community forest concession in northern Guatemala, which is located within the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, part of the Man in the Biosphere Program.  Implementing the poly-cyclic felling system 20 forest plots are to be harvested in succession, one every 20 years.  Within the harvest areas and at control sites, permanent monitoring plots were established to study tree growth and natural regeneration.  An average incremental growth rate was determined to be 0.5 cm/yr and was independent of whether or not harvest occurred, but was not independent of the commercial classification of the trees.  Size class structure revealed a mixed-aged stand for all commercial categories that was minimally impacted by harvest.  Natural regeneration of saplings and small trees may be affected by harvest and could impose long-term limits on the production of marketable trees.  However current cutting practices, size class structure, and conservative estimates of tree growth indicate that consistent harvests can be sustained well into the future.  Community income from and participation in forestry related activities were significant.  Finding new markets, enhancing the marketability of new species, and developing non-timber forest resource trade and related activities will be crucial for the success of this program. 

Collaborators:     Amadou Diop, The Rodale Institute
                         Mauro Salazar, Centro Maya, Guatemala

Publications: Niesenbaum, R.A., M.E. Salazar, and A.M. Diop. 2004. Community forestry in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. The Journal of Sustainable Forestry 19:11-28

Does Conservation Education meet the needs of Conservation Biology?
We are conducting content analyses of text books and course syllabi used nationwide in undergraduate courses in Conservation Biology.  Our goal is to assess both content and pedagogy of current books and courses to determine if they meet the needs for training in this "crisis discipline".  We are particularly interested in whether or not skills such as critical thinking, communication, coalition building, and working with politicians are integrated with the presentation of the science of Conservation Biology.
Collaborator: Tammy Lewis, Muhlenberg College
Student: Emily Kluger

Niesenbaum, R.A. and T. Lewis. 2003. Ghettoization in conservation biology: How interdisciplinary is our teaching? Conservation Biology 17:6-10
Niesenbaum, R.A. and T. Lewis. 2003. Reviewing conservation biology textbooks: A response to Primack. Conservation Biology 17:1


The links between attitudes towards environment, environmental policy, water quality, and public health in Abangares, Costa Rica.
We have established a long-term interdisciplinary study on the Abangares watershed near Las Juntas, Costa Rica.  We are collecting data on the relationship among attitudes towards conservation, conservation policy, restoration of the riparian buffer zone, water quality, and public health.  We are also exploring how watershed restoration influences bird and monkey populations that might attract ecotourists. 
Collaborator: Tammy Lewis, Muhlenberg College
Students: Diana Garretto, Matt Frye, Jill Friedman, Rita Schafer, Melissa Koberle

An Interdisciplinary study of the Effects of Rarity on an Invasive Population of Mirabilis nyctaginea.

Mirabils nyctaginea
One of the most important issues facing conservation biology today is the phenomenon of invasive species, but unfortunately, it is also one of the least understood.  The threat to endangered species and the economic burden imposed by invasive species dictate the urgent need for research on this subject.  Also, fundamental to the area of conservation biology is a furthering of research into the effects of rarity on a population, both genetically and demographically.  The unique opportunity exists here in Allentown to study both issues at once due to the presence of locally rare population of the invasive species Mirabilis nyctaginea.  We are addressing the following questions by examining this population: (1) what happens to a normally abundant invasive plant species when it becomes locally rare? (2) How does an invasive plant perform ecologically in the early steps of invasion?  We are using a combined demographic and genetic approach.


Student Collaborator: Brian Tavernia
Funding: Muhlenberg College Student Summer Research Fellowship