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The Many Missions of Duke Forest

The Many Missions of Duke Forest

Duke Forest serves hikers and families while advancing research and education

July 8, 2013 |
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Judd Edeburn and Sara Childs are leading a small group through Duke Forest. Brilliant sunlight breaks through the pines and hardwoods. Unseen birds call to each other. A sign on the trail reads: "Duke Forest, a Teaching and Research Laboratory."

"The area around here is increasingly urban," says Edeburn, who oversees the 7,060-acre forest that has been among Duke University's crown jewels since its founding in 1931. "We face a balancing act in continuing to provide recreation for the community while maintaining the forest as a teaching and research facility."

That balance is becoming more challenging for Duke Forest, which last year hosted an estimated 164,000 visitors. Its ecosystem is affected daily by dogs, deer, horses, mountain bikers and others. Researchers from Duke and more than a dozen other universities depend on the forest to be as pristine as possible, and to provide a living laboratory where their nearly 80 research projects can proceed undisturbed.

"We love that Duke Forest is so valuable to the community," Edeburn says. "Duke will always offer recreational opportunities for the public, but that's not why Duke owns the land."

Edeburn, the forest's resource manager, and Childs, its program director, are explaining to the group how their team serves strolling families and other visitors while advancing the forest's research and educational mission.

In many areas of the forest, they point out, the oldest trees are younger than the university itself. When Duke started buying up land for the forest in the 1920s, most of the area was abandoned or undesirable farmland.

"This is older hardwood forest here," Edeburn says as he walks through a section of the Korstian Division in Orange County, which shares the forest with Durham and Alamance Counties. "That means it wasn't cultivated, wasn't a field in the past. Some of the trees here are more than 150 years old.

"In other areas, where you find a lot of pine cover, you trace that back to agriculture or abandoned farmland. Those trees are younger. Pines are the first to take root when a field returns to forest. In general, the forest is a mosaic of pine, hardwood and mixed, and each plot gives evidence of how the land has been managed."

Childs pauses as the trail approaches a residential community. She points out a pathway neighbors have made to connect their homes with the trail. In a hard rain, she notes, the path may become a stream and flood the trail, eroding the forest soil and potentially bringing in alien plant seeds to take root.

The path is located in one of 12 forest sections registered as a North Carolina Natural Heritage Site, which means Duke has committed to maintaining the natural plant and animal community from outside influences. "We have our work cut out for us," Childs says.

It's a cool June day, and dozens of people are walking their dogs. Edeburn is glad to see all of the dogs on leashes, with their owners carrying bags to pick up dog poop.

"We have researchers doing stream monitoring in New Hope Creek,” he says. "When folks let dogs off leash to paddle around and play and urinate in the creek upstream from sampling equipment, it artificially affects the water quality. We love dogs, but if they get loose, they can alter what someone's research is trying to detect."

Edeburn worries about horses, too, which are allowed on certain trails but can harm vegetation if they go elsewhere. "We're also concerned about horses bringing in seeds from non-native species," he adds.

Beavers also pose a challenge, occasionally flooding parts of the forest's Hillsboro Division. However, the non-human animal making the biggest impact is deer, whose numbers have grown as the surrounding area has become more urban. A 2005 survey found the deer population to be unsustainably high.

duke forest 
Judson Edeburn on Duke Forest's New Hope Creek bridge.  Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

Three to four decades ago it was unusual to see deer in Duke Forest, Edeburn says.

Now, "because of the land-use pattern around the forest and the lack of hunting, the population has grown dramatically. Researchers monitoring plant populations in the forest have seen a dramatic decline in plant diversity. All of the evidence points to that being attributed to the white-tailed deer population."

With the university's approval, the forest staff has made the difficult decision in recent years to close sections to the public during the fall so they can work with local hunters to cull the deer population.

They've also allowed some logging on a controlled basis to promote a healthy forest, provide new areas for teaching and research and some income for forest operations.

Visitors are sometimes surprised to see trees being removed from small sections of the forest, as recently occurred along Whitfield Road. However, new trees typically start appearing within "a matter of months," Edeburn says.

On this day, the last stop is deep inside Gate 25 in the Korstian Division, where new trails are designed to protect rare Catawba rhododendron bluffs. Hikers on the new trails can still see the pink and lilac blooms, but at a safer distance.

A frequent visitor to this section of the forest explains why the new trails are only the latest example of why the work of the forest staff is so important. "Our entire family regularly uses it for recreation," says Lynn Maguire, professor of the practice at the Nicholas School, who lives nearby.

"I notice things like dogs walking off the leash or people going off-trail. But what is special to me is that I've got my certain places at certain times of year to see certain things. Pink azaleas, the Catawba rhododendrons, mountain laurels, other blooms. Every year I make sure I visit those sites at the right time for the blooms. I go there with a watchful eye because I want to make sure they're back there the following year."

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