Friday, November 13, 2009

Duke Forest, by the numbers

Most laboratories at Duke are described in terms of square feet. But the Duke Forest, which performs about $3 million worth of research every year, is best appreciated in square miles -- more than 11 of them -- scattered across three counties.

(image: Professor James Clark works on his soil warming experiment| Megan Morr, Duke Photo)

Resource manager Judd Edeburn brought the forest's friends and neighbors up to date with activities in the forest during an informal annual meeting Thursday night at the New Hope Improvement Association Center, adjacent to the heavily-used Korstian Division. (Duke Forest Map, PDF) About 60 grad students, staff and trekkers noshed while Judd described the latest victories and challenges.

Victories: Education and research. More than 2,000 students from across North Carolina use the forest each year for research projects and field trips. Current research includes, of course forestry and wildlife management, but also climate change and nanotechnology.

About 1 million board feet is harvested each year to maintain healthy diversity and produce about 85 percent of the forest's operating budget. "Most of the forest, because of its past use as agricultural land, the dominant component is pine timber," Edeburn said. About half of the forest is off limits to logging as well, so-called "heritage sites," like that around the scenic New Hope Creek. The forest could sustain an annual harvest of 2.5 to 3 million board feet, but never has. Timber prices are low right now anyway, he said.

Challenges: Kudzu vine has been spotted, which is probably manageable, but a mini-bamboo grass called microstegium is running rampant. Some giant herbivores called white-tailed deer are rampant too, occurring at a density of 60 animals per square mile -- up to 80 in some spots -- when wildlife biologists recommend more like 15-20/mile to keep everything in balance.

The forest has started allowing hunters to take some deer, under carefully controlled conditions, and experiments are being run to fence off some areas to see just how much difference deer make, but fencing the entire collection of woods would be ridiculously difficult and expensive, Edeburn said.

There was some outcry when the deer hunt was introduced last year, but Duke Forest staff kept careful track of every comment they received and found that the largest response by far was "where can I hunt?"