Applying ecology to campus land use decisions
Sweet Briar College has a campus of more than 3000 acres of forests, fields, lakes and streams, providing a wealth of resources for educating undergraduates. Opportunities for place-based projects and long-term field research are an ecology instructor's dream, and my colleagues and I use the campus as a field station. In reality a college campus differs from a biological field station, and land use decisions are frequently made by administrators who are unfamiliar with ecological theory and practice.
Early in the 20th century Sweet Briar was managed as a farm and produced much of its own food. As agriculture waned the college failed to develop a vision to guide land management. In 24 years as the college's ecologist, I have served on a succession of appointed, elected and ad hoc committees addressing broad to narrow land use issues. Land use decisions are the responsibility of a Vice President in consultation with the Board of Directors. For many major decisions (closing the campus dairy, designating new sanctuaries, converting hayfields to biofuels fields) faculty with expertise were involved and our recommendations were followed. On the other hand, the Board used dissension among faculty as cover during a decision to log a swath of mature forest; and the administration has been inconsistent in supporting controlled hunts to reduce the local deer population.
One consistency of the Board is its unwillingness to permanently restrict the uses of its property. Sweet Briar's most ecologically valuable forests, including old growth fragments, are designated as sanctuaries. These are protected from logging and development, but they do not have permanent legal protection, and one was destroyed a decade ago for a highway bypass.
At the current time there is good communication and general agreement among the faculty, staff and administrators about Sweet Briar's natural areas. I am concerned, however, by the impermanent nature of our committees, and the absence of legal protection for our sanctuaries. A welcome outcome of these Campus Natural Areas sessions would be the collaborative development of guidelines for the ecological management of natural areas, which could be adopted by the Boards and administrators of universities and colleges such as Sweet Briar.