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75 Years of Duke Forest

Forest serves as valuable teaching and research lab, community resource

A resesarcher studies tree growth at the Duke Forest FACE project, which examines effects of elevated CO2 levels.

Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, has jogged the trails in Duke Forest for 25 years.

Randy Boggess, who is 93, was among the pioneer researchers who collected leaf samples from the woods.

And Judd Edeburn, forest manager, has watched the forest ecosystem develop and change over 28 years at Duke.

For these Dukies and many more people, the 7,046 acre Duke Forest is a green jewel, premier research terrain that also draws more than 170,000 recreational visits annually. On Oct. 19 and Oct. 20, the forest celebrates 75 years since its establishment in 1931. The anniversary will be marked by an evening reception, research symposium, field tour and scheduled book release, The Duke Forest At 75: A Resource for All Seasons.

"It's not only a treasure for Duke University, but a treasure nationally," said Boggess, a member of the first master's in forestry class at Duke in 1938. "Forest land is disappearing. That is prime land, and if it was up for sale, it would be wiped out in a hurry."

In these woods grow more than 900 plant species and more than 100 tree varieties – pine stands more than 120 years old and hardwood trees more than 200 years old. At any given time, more than 50 studies are underway, research ranging from plant succession and dynamics of southern forests to the interaction between forest ecosystems and human activity.

Duke Forest

Duke Forest, Circa 1930-1932

• Forest placed under intensive management for research and education with Clarence Korstian as its first director

• Of 4,708 acres, loblolly and shortleaf pines comprised most of the land - 1,690 acres

• 42 acres of abandoned fields planted with 37,000 trees at $5.90 per acre

• 10 forest fires burned 52 acres; suppression costs: $60.43

• 74 visitors from 11 states, England and 25 institutions toured the forest

• Average income per acre from forest products for fiscal year: 6 cents

• 61 Christmas trees sold

• Duke faculty began buying wooded lots off nearby streets for houses. Lot price: $1,500

• 1,200 Oriental Chestnut trees planted near Highway 751

Source: Duke Archives and Robert F. Durden's "The Launching of Duke University, 1924-1949."

75th Anniversary Events

Oct. 19

Recollections and celebration of Duke Forest

6-9 p.m., Von Canon B&C, Bryan Center

Oct. 20

Research Symposium

8:30 a.m. to noon, Von Canon B&C, Bryan Center

Duke Forest Tour

1 - 4 p.m., research sites, primarily in Blackwood Division

Reserve a bag lunch and transportation by calling 613-8013 or e-mailing

Thousands of trees each year, both young and old, are harvested for paper pulp, oriented strand board, lumber, even telephone poles. Income from these timber management products supports the forest's operating expenses.

"For most of us," wrote Rachel Frankel in her Duke senior honors seminar in 1984, "a walk through the Duke Forest is more than fresh air and tall trees…"

Historians say the Duke Forest, the largest private research forest in North Carolina and one of the largest in the country, came to be in part by accident. In 1924, James B. Duke, who created Duke University, authorized the purchase of parcels of forest and abandoned small farms. He and others envisioned part of the property as a site for Gothic buildings and as a gateway into the new campus.

By late 1925, Duke had acquired about 5,000 acres. Five years later, Clarence F. Korstian was named the first forest director, and he and others began planting seedlings in open tracts.

Pine and hardwood canopies now spread over Durham, Orange and Alamance counties, a patchwork of tracts purchased over 80 years from more than 100 landowners, including the Couch family who, for 200 years, planted corn, winter wheat and tobacco on its land.

Remnants of the past dot the forest landscape: cemeteries, foundations of homes, stone chimneys. Old furrows from corn and tobacco crops line sloping terrain.

"Since the time Duke bought the tracts and even before, there hasn't been a lot of disturbance at these sites, so people can go back and do historical, archeological mapping and reconstruction of what was there," said Edeburn, the forest manager. "These sites have information about life in the Piedmont region of North Carolina in the 19th century. But in a lot of places because of subdivisions, parking lots and shopping centers, whatever record there is gone."

The historical and cultural roots are not the forest's only assets. Duke maintains 75 miles of roads and trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Two picnic shelters stand among pine trees off Highway 751.

"One of the most beautiful parts of my run is just experiencing the sunrise through the trees," said Wasiolek, the assistant vice president for Student Affairs who runs 40 miles a week. "And even on the most humid days, when there's fog and haze, the sun just comes through the trees, and it's just revitalizing. It lets you know you're alive and the day is starting and you're there to experience it."

In 75 years, hundreds of studies have been conducted, providing scientists with a record of ecosystem changes. One of the largest projects underway involves examining effects of elevated carbon dioxide levels on the forest. Vertical pipes shower trees with carbon dioxide, which fuels plant growth.

Jen Morse and Elizabeth Sudduth are studying for doctorates in ecology at Duke. They are examining how land development affects Mud Creek, a forest stream. A subdivision covers much of the creek's headwaters. Runoff drains into the creek, where the channel has eroded and not many insects, mollusks or crustaceans thrive there.

But, their research shows, as Mud Creek moves deeper into the forest, away from development, it recovers.

"It's just so neat to have that resource right here," Sudduth said.

Perhaps, an account about a forest tour in the 1931 Alumni Register, sums up the forest best:

"The members of the exploring party turned away from the forest, which is so old, and yet so new, whose life is young, old and middle-aged, with a feeling that perhaps they had been close to the heart of one of the greatest parts of this great institution."