Campus natural areas as outdoor classrooms: Conservation, restoration, and applied learnings for student and community engagement
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has two separate natural areas that provide the opportunity for experiential/field-based learning in multiple fields. There is a main campus 100+ acre xeric sandhill longleaf pine community and a 10-acre preserve with wetlands and mixed hardwoods. UNCW also owns an offsite 174-acre preserve that provides opportunities to investigate succession, forest ecology, soils, wetland properties and delineation, and more. In addition, both of these areas are historically significant as there is evidence of the naval stores industry present with boxed trees and tar kilns. We have approval for the construction of an outdoor exhibit highlighting the importance of the longleaf pine ecosystem, prescribed burns, and naval stores to our region’s history and to the management of this endangered ecosystem. The acreage of the longleaf pine forest in the Coastal Plain has dropped from approximately 90 million acres in pre-colonial times to less than 3 million acres today.
Numerous classes utilize the on-campus and off-campus natural areas. A survey indicated that 12 departments and 49 classes used the forest including the sciences but also creative writing, art, and athletics. With this usage it is imperative that we manage the forest/natural areas. We have implemented a prescribed burn plan for our on-campus forest that includes 5 burn units of 25-40 acres. These serve to maintain the fire-dependent longleaf ecosystem but the burns also reduce the potential for a catastrophic wildfire. The burns also provide an opportunity for students in courses that discuss conservation, biodiversity, and other ecological principles to have outdoor labs on the effects of prescribed fire with continual monitoring of plots in the forests. We also study soils, groundwater, animal and plant populations and more.
At our off-campus Ev-Henwood Preserve we have initiated several programs in recent years to further manage and restore the area. Longleaf pines have been planted on 5 acres and another 2 acres are planned. We are monitoring growth and survival. A plan has also been started to return some of the overgrown fields to the classic old field succession. Plowing sequentially will yield changes over a 6-8 year time frame for monitoring of plant succession. Town Creek borders the property and water quality monitoring is performed as well. These efforts have provided our students and the community with valuable experiential learning opportunities.