Public Outcry Increasingly Becoming Safeguard of University Forests: College-Owned Lands Are Morphing from Educational, Research, and Outreach Assets into Financial Assets

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Many universities and colleges own forestland. Although these lands can be worth billions of dollars, most are devoted to the institutional goals of education, research, and outreach. These forests become an integral part of the university and serve as teaching and research laboratories. They are usually called university or college forests or sometimes just school forests.

There are about 50 university forestry programs in the United States, and these institutions alone control nearly 120,000 hectares (300,000 acres) of forest (Burkhardt, Straka, and Bullard 1988). Of course, other universities without forestry programs also have school forests, ranging from the Harvard Forest at Harvard University to a small teaching forest at Haywood Community College in North Carolina.

What are University Forests?

University forests are large forested areas owned or controlled by a university and devoted primarily to its teaching and research programs, often in forestry education and research (see figure 1). About 90 percent of U.S. forestry schools control forests that each average about 2,500 hectares (6,185 acres). These forestlands were acquired mainly through donation (63 percent) and government transfer (12 percent). In terms of their importance to the forestry programs, 77 percent of forestry schools rank their school forest as crucial or important to their teaching program; 68 percent rank the forest as crucial to their research program; and 31 percent rank the forest as crucial to their demonstration and public service programs (Burkhardt, Straka, and Bullard 1988).


University forests controlled by forestry schools are good examples of how these types of lands are used by universities. The primary objective of ownership and management at 52 percent of the institutions is field instruction; at 39 percent of institutions, research; and at 7 percent of institutions, demonstration. Just 2 percent of these lands are primarily used for timber production and revenue generation, but three-quarters of the forests do generate revenue. Most of the revenue generated is used to support forest operations and management. This means a significant asset often does not generate any cash flow for general university use (Burkhardt, Straka, and Bullard 1988).

Revenue production is a necessary secondary goal in order to provide funding for forest operations and other activities. Many school forests are tightly integrated into university programs; however, tight budgets are forcing some administrators to take a hard look at the recreational, timber, and development values of these landholdings. It is possible that some of these forest holdings will be liquidated or that forest budgets will be diverted to cover other budget deficits. Reallocation of these assets has broad implications for long-term university development.

University Forests as Revenue Generators

Many forest-owning universities that attempt to generate revenue from their holdings run into problems. The University of Georgia acquired about 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of forest from a donor in the early 1990s "for such purposes as the School of Forest Resources deems best" (Van Der Werf 2000, p. A36). A key advisor and close friend of the donor suggested, "Who better to manage the land and preserve it?" (Van Der Werf 2000, p. A36). He ended up regretting that advice. Within a decade of the university's acquisition of the land, timber was being clearcut on a third of the tract and even the stumps were being sold for their resin content. Timber sales generated about a half-million dollars annually and summer cabins were planned for the property's lake frontage (Van Der Werf 2000). The donor's vision for the property very likely did not include clearcuts and summer cabins. But donated property is often not located close to the university, and teaching and research needs may be satisfied by existing university forests. …


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