1994 Newspaper Article

Herald Sun, Durham, North Carolina, October 30, 1994
Copyright Durham Herald Company, Inc.

Duke Forest: An outdoor lab that looks like a park

by Jennifer Talhelm

DURHAM: As Duke Forest Manager Judson Edeburn maneuvers a large pickup truck over a concrete bridge in a popular spot of the Korstian Division, a visitor looks up in surprise. “I didn’t expect to see cars back here,” the man mutters in a protective tone.

The man’s reaction is a common one, said Tanja Vujic, a staff specialist in Edeburn’s office. “People are very protective because they see it as their natural beauty area,” said Vujic, a Yale University graduate who will begin graduate work in Duke’s School of the Environment next year. “A lot of people are unaware [of who owns the forest] and feel like this is public land and a big park.”

But it’s not. It’s private land – and it has been since the 1920’s when James Buchanan Duke began buying up land for the brand-new Duke University. The forest, which stretches out in disconnected lumps, now spans Durham, Orange, Chatham and Alamance counties. It is listed among the Triangle’s great resources, and it attracts an estimated 270,000 nature lovers, hikers and bikers a year, according to a 1990 survey. Since the 1930s, Duke Forest has been a managed forest. Today, it is home to dozens of experiments by scientists. The focus (of the research) has changed from forest conservation and management to ecology and global change.

As the forest’s manager, Edeburn and his staff of two or three student assistants and four full-time employees are the forest maintenance crew. Edeburn controls all prescribed burning or cutting to sustain a certain age or stand of trees. His staff also maintains the roads and firetrails and is responsible for safety and public access. If there is a problem in Duke Forest, Edeburn knows, and it’s his job to help solve it. For example, an outbreak of Southern pine beetle contaminated a number of trees this summer. Edeburn and his staff were at work burning the infected trees to contain the outbreak.

The real value to Duke now is the research that goes on in the forest and the grant money and notoriety it brings. Two experiments in particular have attracted national attention. Because of the size and nature of the forest – and because 60 years of records exist – Duke Forest was identified as a super-site for a radar experiment by the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Another experiment not far away is measuring the effects of carbon dioxide on a stand of trees and the earth and foliage beneath. Both projects involve predicting environmental change over time.

The constant stream of visitors to the forest has accelerated in the past 10 years. Combined with a technological advance in the equipment used by researchers, the increased traffic is creating a security and environmental headache for Edeburn. The forest has 22 miles of fire trails and roads made specifically for Duke Forest maintenance vehicles and workers. Visitors are welcome on the roads, but when they form their own trails, they may cause erosion on vulnerable land or destroy plant or animal habitat that is being studied. Sometimes even well-meaning but ignorant hikers interfere with researchers’ equipment. Mountain bikers create the biggest hazard right now, Edeburn said, “Twelve years ago, there wasn’t such a thing as mountain bikes; you couldn’t ride off road with 10 speeds,” he said.

About two years ago, large blue signs marking Duke property and stating the rules for forest use were added. We’ve been fortunate to not have to restrict public access altogether,” Edeburn said. “But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to provide for teaching and research needs.”

“In 2094, if there’s still a Duke Forest,” Edeburn said, “given we fully understand that development around the forest will continue, perhaps it will be the largest forest tracts in Durham and Orange counties.”