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UConn Forest a living tool for teaching, research, outreach

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - November 7, 2005

Tom Worthley drills into the sturdy trunk of a hemlock tree with a blue metal borer and draws out a slender, seven-inch long, cylindrical section. Carefully counting the closely spaced rings on the cork-like substance, he deduces that the tree is more than 90 years old.

It’s a technique Worthley, one of the University’s two extension foresters, uses to determine the age of trees in the UConn Forest without cutting them down. The trunk, he explains, will soon grow back around the narrow hole left where the core was removed.

Many of the trees in the 1,400-acre Forest are about 80 to 100 years old, he says, because much of the Forest has grown back since the area was cleared, first for farming and then, in the late 1800s, to provide charcoal to fuel iron production.

The trees are a mix of hardwoods and softwoods – especially oak and hickory, but with maple, birch, and ash, as well as some conifers including Eastern white pine and hemlock.

Classroom and laboratory
The Forest comprises several separate parcels of land in Mansfield, south Willington, and Coventry, and is open to the public for recreational purposes, such as hiking and cross-country skiing. For the University, it is an important resource for research, teaching, and outreach.

“It’s wonderful having such a nice outdoor laboratory within walking distance of the University,” says David Schroeder, professor and head of the Department of Natural Resources Management and Engineering. “It’s very unusual. We’re fortunate to have it.”

Schroeder says all the approximately 80 undergraduates in his department – including up to 10 who take the concentration in forestry – and 35 graduate students have some exposure to the UConn Forest.

In addition to classes in natural resources management and engineering, some classes in ecology and evolutionary biology, geology, and plant science also use the
Forest as a resource.

Forestry has been taught at UConn since the early 1900s, but it’s only in the past 15 years or so that the University has begun intensively managing its forested land-holdings for demonstration purposes, Schroeder says.

Comprehensive inventories are now compiled regularly and form the basis of long-term stewardship plans.

“As foresters, we’re used to thinking in 50 to 100-year increments,” says Steve Broderick, senior extension forester, who has inventoried much of the Forest. “The forest evolves slowly.

“We try to maintain a wide diversity of plant communities and habitats,” he adds, “so we have a wide variety of outdoor classrooms where we can teach students and the extension community, as well as supporting faculty research.”

Current research in the UConn Forest includes studies by natural resources management and engineering faculty in forest ecology, the dynamics of tree movement, water resources, groundwater, climatology, wildlife, the American woodcock, and fish biology, as well as a study of invasive species in the Forest by a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Managing the forest
Worthley says the UConn Forest, juxtaposed with the developed and cultivated portions of the UConn campus, is typical of land use patterns in the region. It provides an ideal laboratory in which to study current land use issues, he adds.

Today, about 60 percent of Connecticut is forested, and 90 percent of that land is privately owned by about 115,000 individuals or groups.

Worthley and Broderick offer extension workshops and short courses to educate private land- owners in appropriate techniques for managing the forested land.

David Schroeder, center, professor and department head of natural resources management and engineering, teaches students how to identify tree species in the UConn Forest.
David Schroeder, center, professor and department head of natural resources management and engineering, teaches students how to identify tree species in the UConn Forest.
Photo by Jordan Bender

Says Broderick, “part of what we’ve endeavored to demonstrate is the concept of the ‘working forest.’ When properly done, a number of different uses are compatible. We’ve always attempted to lead by example.”

Worthley says private landowners tend to value their land-holdings more for aesthetic and recreational purposes and wildlife habitat than for timber. “The main benefit they’re looking for may be to watch birds,” he says. “But if logging and timber harvesting are also part of their objectives, then correctly done, the watershed function and wildlife habitat can be maintained at the same time the landowner extracts some economic value.

“We teach the landowners about the number of trees to thin, what sizes to target, and how to regenerate the forest, depending on the purposes they identify,” Worthley says. “By selecting out the poorest growing trees, the remaining trees have more space to grow and can grow faster. Landowners may also be able to earn some income from what they do remove, by selling the trees for firewood or timber.”

Land use issues
The UConn Forest is also used to teach students and members of the public about contemporary resource issues, such as the value of open space and the role of the forest in maintaining the water supply.

“It’s critically important in our suburbanizing environment to maintain significant tracts of forest relatively unfragmented, to protect wildlife and protect the water supply,” says Broderick. “We work with a variety of groups to recognize the important role of the UConn Forest in that regard.”

The majority of the UConn Forest is in the Fenton River watershed, which supplies water to the University and the town of Willimantic. UConn does not plan to develop the Fenton tract of the Forest. In a Master Plan update in 2003-04, the 440-acre tract was designated as part of a preservation area, meaning that no development will occur there.

“The UConn Forest is part of the bigger picture around the state – everyone depends on water from forest land,” says Worthley.

Forest cover captures precipitation and returns it to the soil and groundwater, he says. Where precipitation falls on a road or a roof, it runs off to a surface body of water or evaporates into the atmosphere. Without forest cover, communities have to go to great expense to get water from elsewhere.

“Land use issues always become water quality issues,” Worthley adds.

“It’s difficult to quantify the value that ecosystems provide to society. When society decides to change from one use of land to another, we can generally put a value on the result, but it’s hard to put a comparable value on what’s lost in the process. If a part of the forest is converted to buildings, what’s the value of the fact that it no longer functions to catch rainwater?”

Worthley says that because most of the forest resources in Connecticut are owned by private individuals or groups, extension educators try to help them “find ways to maximize the benefits of being forest owners, to put off the day when they feel they can benefit more from converting it to another use.

“We hope,” he adds, “that when a developer calls and offers them a lot of money, they will hang up the phone.”

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