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ETSU’s University Woods now protected under Old-Growth Forest Network agreement

Contributed • Apr 19, 2019 at 5:01 PM

University Woods, a wooded tract on the campus of East Tennessee State University, is now protected under an agreement with the Old-Growth Forest Network.

A dedication ceremony commemorating this protected status will be held Wednesday, April 24, at 10:30 a.m. at the University Woods gazebo. Dr. Joan Maloof, a noted expert in old-growth forests, will be among the speakers, and music will be provided by the ETSU Old-Time Ramblers from the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies program.

The University Woods, which is part of the ETSU Arboretum, is a 30-acre site featuring a ridgeline covered by old trees. It is estimated that at least two dozen trees within the woods are at least 200 years old, and some may be over 300 years old, according to Dr. Kevin O’Donnell, a professor in the ETSU Department of Literature and Language, director of the Environmental Studies minor and ETSU Arboretum board member.

Fifty years ago, “an accident of history” probably preserved this forested area on the south end of campus, O’Donnell says.

“The CSX railroad bypass through campus was built in the late 1960s, in spite of the university’s opposition,” he said. “The bypass was built on an easement reserved on the deed back in 1911 by George L. Carter, the railroad magnate who donated to the state the land that would become East Tennessee State University. It’s hard to know exactly what would have happened to the property over the past 50 years, but it seems likely that it would have been developed in some way as ETSU has grown, were it not for that bypass.”

A movement to secure official preservation of University Woods began in 2018 following a visit to campus by Maloof, a writer, ecologist and conservationist and professor emerita at Salisbury University in Maryland. She is the author of “Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest,” “Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests” and “Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests,” among numerous other works.

Maloof is the founding director and board chair of the Old-Growth Forest Network, an organization based in Easton, Maryland, that works to create a network of protected forests across the United States. During her visit to ETSU, which was supported by a small grant from the ETSU Sustainability Fee Committee, Maloof gave an educational talk on old-growth forests and led a community hike through the University Woods.

This spurred the creation of an ad hoc committee that proposed preservation of the University Woods, an effort that was supported by ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland. In addition to O’Donnell, members of this committee include Drs. Tim McDowell and Fred Alsop of the ETSU Department of Biological Sciences, David Mueller of Campus Recreation, Dr. Brian Rowe of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Kathleen Moore, director of Sustainability.

“To be clear, this area is not what you would call an intact, undisturbed, old-growth ecosystem,” O’Donnell said. “It has been disturbed a number of times over the past few centuries. But it has not been mechanically logged or converted to agricultural use, which is very rare for an Appalachian forest, especially at this altitude, which is about 1,500 feet above sea level.

“This forest features notable old-growth specimens, including the white oaks along the ridge. It’s a special place, and as such, the area will receive a ‘Community Forest’ designation within the Old-Growth Forest Network.”

Forests dedicated into this network are chosen because they are excellent “representative” forests for their specific locales. Inducted forests have exceptional ecological integrity and are among the oldest native forests in their counties.

In February, Noland and Maloof signed a memorandum of understanding between ETSU and the Old-Growth Forest Network stating that the University Woods parcel “shall remain unlogged and preserved,” and that it will “be open to visitation by all ages.”

The April 24 dedication ceremony is a public recognition of this agreement. The memo has no expiration date.

The ceremony is free and open to the public. Participants are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes for tours of the University Woods, which features five miles of hiking, running and mountain biking trails.

The University Woods gazebo is located at the top of ETSU parking lot 13, just off Southwest Avenue near the J.L. Seehorn Jr. intersection and adjacent to Sherrod Library and Governors Hall, south of the concrete railroad bypass. For a map, visit https://bit.ly/2UuXnX8.

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