March 02, 2007

Forestry program plans 'teaching forest' on campus

CARBONDALE, Ill. —Southern Illinois University Carbondale is taking the first step in implementing a management plan for some 1,200 acres of woodlands on its campus area farms.

Working with the College of Agricultural Sciences forestry faculty and farms staff, University officials are seeking bids for the first-ever timber harvest on about 200 acres of SIUC woodlots and timberland with the goal of developing a "teaching forest" that also will foster research and outreach programs.

"If we want to continue competing as one of the region's top forestry programs, we have to have a forest where experiments and demonstrations can take place," said Charles M. Ruffner, an associate professor of forestry with a strong interest in sustainable forest management.

"We're at a disadvantage when competing with the universities that have them."

John E. Phelps, forestry chair, noted that SIUC runs one of the nation's larger forestry programs.

"Because of the training they receive, our graduates are very competitive for positions
with a wide variety of land management agencies throughout the United States," he said.

"We want to keep them that way."

While forestry faculty members have always made the most of SIUC's unique location amid state and federal forestlands, they see some real advantages to adding a research and educational forest on campus.

"Half my time is spent traveling places to get students out in the field," Ruffner said.

"We have to drive 30 to 45 minutes to see anything. To see forest harvest operations — cutting and skidding and so forth — we have to go to Missouri. And because we don't control these lands, visits are strictly for observation. We have little if any chance of engaging students in activities they can actually do."

The department plans to develop campus wooded areas into outdoor lab spaces in which students can work hands-on with management techniques they learn in class — including aspects of harvesting.

"We're looking at a very limited harvest at this point to see how that opens the forest up to new growth, but it will give our students the opportunity to see the effects of doing something or not doing something firsthand," Phelps said.

Ruffner and colleagues from the forestry department marked individual trees and plotted out the access points last summer.

"We've thought these things out ahead and are doing this using all the best management practices available," Ruffner said.

Phelps said University officials will begin seeking bids soon. Once they have a buyer, timber harvest will begin, probably sometime this summer.

Whenever the cutting gets done, Ruffner anticipates the faculty will use the sites in a number of ways. He himself could create labs on laying out roads, designing access points, retiring the roads after harvest and restoring the landscape — all while improving the species composition of trees growing there. Students also will be able to study how these changes and improvements fare over time.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a win-win situation," Ruffner said.

"We will have a top-notch, hands-on program that integrates teaching and research effectively, and stands of trees that have largely been managed through benign neglect will be improved."