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A stroll with Erik Kiviat

by Antonia Shoumatoff
Fri Jun 17th, 2016

Erik Kiviat (photo by Tonia Shoumatoff)

When you hear the word “Hudsonia” you automatically think biodiversity, birds, butterflies, native plants, frogs, turtles, salamanders and other wetlands creatures.  This relatively small organization says its mission is to “conduct environmental research, education, training and technical assistance to protect the natural heritage of the Hudson Valley and neighboring region...including education, basic and applied research on rare species and their habitats, wetlands and estuaries and the study of invasive species and other threats to biodiversity.”

photo by Laura Heady

We had a chance to take a stroll with Erik Kiviat, one of the masters of local natural history and the founder of Hudsonia, at the World Peace Sanctuary in Wassaic recently.  Erik Kiviat, PhD and his dedicated staff at Hudsonia have managed to create a broad awareness about the need to protect native habitats as the area is increasingly faced with changing land use and even the larger challenges of climate change and hydro-fracking.

The staff at the World Peace Sanctuary were so excited that Dr. Kiviat was there that they produced a two page list of all the butterflies that they have documented seeing in their early successional transition meadow: among which were hairstreaks, skippers, monarchs and tiger swallowtails galore.

We found out that Dr. Kiviat, whose doctorate was in a field called anthropological or cultural ecology, has a keen sense of the need to include people in his studies of forests, shrubland and other ecosystems.  His PhD thesis was on non-industrial societies whose habitats were next to wetlands and documented how these communities adapted to living near and in wetlands.

“Let’s take biodiversity into account while we try to get to our human goals such as building and growing things.  Living systems provide carbon sequestration, clean air and water and other services vital to the environment.  So we need to make the best combination we can for all concerned,” explained Kiviat on our walk as he pointed out a butterfly called a fritillary.

“Environmental science is often too specialized.  It is important to have a broad awareness of natural history that includes people, rocks, plants, animals, and habitats.  You don’t have to take a dogmatic approach and automatically remove all non-native plants in every situation. 

“Take the multiflora rose for example, which is an invasive.  The New England cottontail, a Special Concern species, eats the bark, can hide in the dense brush, and since it is a spiny plant it protects them from predators.  Removing non-native plants needs to be done selectively.  And as we do so we need to ask three important questions: What are our goals, what is there now and what do the science and social factors tell us about what we can and can’t do.

Kiviat bends down to look at lichens and succulents growing out of the stones along the Peace Path and says that most of what he does can be done with a hand lens, binoculars and a microscope.

photo by Kristi MacDonald

“I’m pretty low-tech in the field,” he explains, “although once in a while we need water and soil chemistry, such as for the project I am working on right now to restore bog turtle habitat that has been degraded by water pollution.  We are trying light cattle grazing as part of the restoration.”

Kiviat explained that in ‘fens,’ favorite bog turtle habitat, nitrogen is the main cause of overgrowth that prevents light from getting through and thus prevents the turtles from thriving.  “We will need a physical description of the soil, because now, even though the sun is getting through, the bog turtles cannot get into the areas we have restored because the soils are different and they are not used to them.”

The journey to becoming a biodiversity expert for Kiviat started when he was nine years old.  He was fascinated by birds, turtles and other creatures he found on his family’s summer camp in Clinton in upstate New York.  His parents let him roam the 80 acre property. He taught himself, using field guides and visiting the Sharon Audubon center.  He was offered a summer position as a high school student volunteer  through the American Museum of Natural History at a field station in Huntington, Long Island under herpetologist, Dick Zweifel. It was the early ‘60’s, and soon he was studying bullfrogs, milk snakes and box turtles.  

“This was my first hands on introduction to real science.  In high school, I also became interested in poetry and visual arts that gave me an aesthetic sense that I still make use of to this day.”

Kiviat attended Bard and then continued to study natural history on his own leading young people on field trips, eventually becoming a faculty member and going on to get his master’s in biology at SUNY New Paltz  His thesis was about the Hudson River shores and wetlands.  He worked at Scenic Hudson as a consultant, with Fran Dunwell, who now heads up the DEC’s signature Hudson River Estuary program that “restores the river's fisheries, expands river access, conserves habitat and scenery, and improves responses to flooding and sea level rise on the Hudson.”

Throughout the seventies, Kiviat prepared biodiversity assessments for towns and agencies.  He was interested in evaluating the impact of land use changes on the environment.  In 1980 he met biologist, Bob Schmidt and naturalist, Jim Stapleton when he gave a talk at Mohonk Mountain House.  The triumvirate found they had similar interests in natural history. They developed the idea of forming a cooperative to do field science without the political baggage most scientists encounter.  Hudsonia was born.  They incorporated as a non-profit and successfully minimized the constraints that many environmental practitioners have in the field by always taking a neutral stance based on science only.

“We did not take sides.  We decided that Hudsonia would only focus on the science and make statements strictly about what was observed.  We refused to be hired guns.”

Because of their stance Hudsonia has become a respected research and education resource.  Kiviat is often asked to present at national, international and state conferences.  His presentation on Hudson River Biodiversity have been attended by nationwide respected scientists.  He also recently presented in Romania.  Among his respected staff is Gretchen Stevens, a biologist and former environmental planner.  She heads up a series of short 1 to 3-day intensive biodiversity courses, funded by the NYS DEC which are offered several times a year.

“…only deep in a forest interior or on your knees in an abandoned meadow can you begin to understand the biological underpinnings of the spectacular landscapes visible through your windshield,” she explains in a Hudsonia dispatch.  Students from towns and non-profits learn how to  “tell a marsh from a fen, and where a spotted turtle might make its nest….they learn to analyze soil and topographic maps to locate rare and hard to find habitats….and how constructing a poorly-planned residential development can adversely affect a songbird population or a trout stream….”

Out of the work of Hudsonia has come major tools for towns and individuals: biodiversity manuals, overlay maps for towns wanting to break down areas by habitat, and a cascade of interdisciplinary solutions to environmental challenges based on scientific data.

Hudsonia has an annual budget of around $300,000, one third of which comes from individual donors, the rest from grants, government and municipal agencies, NGOs, and businesses.  The habitat mapping they provide for towns is paid for by foundations, towns and the DEC and is a useful tool in helping ascertain the impacts of development applications for local town boards.  Whether one wants to figure out the relationship of wetlands, forest, shrub land or meadows, Hudsonia has provided the technical assistance for town after town.

Hudsonia has four full-time staff members and eight interns, most of whom are from Bard, but some who hearken from as far away as Nebraska.

Dave Reagon of the Conservation Board of Amenia had high praise for their work:

“Hudsonia is a non-profit that is well known across Dutchess County for their work and expertise in biodiversity and for their scientific objectivity.  Erik Kiviat and Gretchen Stevens, along with the support of an excellent staff, have built an organization that supplies the public with insightful articles on the environment covering both local and global issues.  

“In addition they have done several biodiversity studies of Dutchess County towns, including Amenia which are invaluable resources for planners and a great read for anyone interested in how the details of the local environment works.  As chair of the Amenia Conservation Commission, I have used their biodiversity study of Amenia as our main resource when reviewing applications before the town board.

“Hudsonia is a relatively small environmental operation;  the staff is accessible to answer questions in a friendly and objective manner.  They are most definitely not "ivory tower" scientists.”

As we wrapped up our walk through the Peace Sanctuary we kept hearing the piercing calls of a bird.  “A sapsucker,” said Dr. Kiviat, “No, actually, a mockingbird imitating a sapsucker!”