Strategic Plan Highlights: Part 1

A Living Legacy

In the first half of 2023, our office is reflecting on some of the major accomplishments coming out of our 2017-2022 5-Year Strategic Plan. This plan has been a pivotal one for the Forest. As we move to advance these goals and accomplishments into our next strategic plan, we thought to share some of our highlights with you.

Strategic Plan Overview

Goal 2.C. Develop strategy and capacity to centralize sharing and access to historic and current research data, especially from long-term research plots and historical sites; and enhance the availability of baseline research and teaching information.

The Duke Forest is Duke University’s biggest and oldest teaching and research laboratory. Since its founding in 1931, the Forest has grown from its roots in the fields of forestry and natural resources management to become a destination for research in dozens of fields as divergent as zoology and electrical engineering.

However, with the mounting pressures of climate change, the foundational research — the long-term study of trees and forest succession — has never been more important. The extraordinary vision of the first director Clarence Korstian and the later researchers Norman Christensen and Robert Peet to establish hundreds of permanent research plots across the Forest — some of which have been studied since the 1930’s — allows us not only to see how forests change over time but also to predict how they may adapt to a changing climate.

Christopher Payne

The classical theories of forest succession outline the once predictable sequence of abandoned farm fields slowly transitioning to Oak and Hickory forests at their climax. However, in 2018 UNC doctoral student Christopher Payne analyzed long-term Duke Forest data from our permanent plots and found that, contrary to those classical theories, Piedmont forests are in reality transitioning to more moisture tolerant species such as Maple, Sweet Gum, and Beech. A changing climate is likely the driver, and the implications are grim for forest ecosystems.

Without the nuts and seeds from Oak and Hickory (i.e. mast), this foundation of the forest food chain is undergoing a major disruption. All forest life, as we know it, will change with it. As some of the world still debates climate change, we can see its effects clearly in our long-term data, the availability of which is extremely precious.

Some of the big questions we are working with now for our next strategic plan are: As researchers retire, who will take up the mantle of studying these long term plots? What opportunities are lost if they are abandoned?

In the 2021 LOG we highlighted Peet’s transfer of his years of data into the Duke University archives.

See the full story about Chris’ research below.

Research Spotlight: A Living Legacy

This story appeared in the 2018 Duke Forest LOG

Since 1931, the Duke Forest has provided research opportunities for Duke University faculty and students in the fields of forestry, botany, zoology, and environmental science. Today the Forest is also used by local universities and institutions across the country to study subjects as far afield as nanotechnology, atmospheric chemistry, aqua-terrestrial biogeochemistry, remote sensing, forest economics, global climate change, and computer science. With hundreds of flexible research sites – from fields and towers to waterways and historic forest succession plots – the Duke Forest is a 7,050 acre living laboratory unlike any other in our region.

As recently outlined in a multimedia Duke Story [], the Duke Forest has contributed significantly to the study of Piedmont forests and particularly to the theory of old field succession, or the established patterns of regrowth and change after an agricultural disturbance. The foresight of Clarence Korstian, the first director of the Duke Forest who established and began collecting data on a variety of field and forest plots in the 1930s, has resulted in nearly 90 years of research that continues to shape our understanding of forest succession.

The predominant theory suggests that in the Piedmont of North Carolina, land subjected to agricultural disturbance will grow back in a century or two to become a mixed hardwood forest dominated by Oaks and Hickories. But that established theory is changing before our eyes.

This summer Christopher Payne, Ph.D., defended his doctoral thesis entitled, The Long-term Temporal Dynamics of the Duke Forest, a monumental project lasting eight years. Chris used almost 80 years of historic data from 37 of Korstian’s permanent sample plots and also collected new data from hundreds of thousands of trees. Payne discovered that more stands are transitioning to species that are more moisture tolerant than Oaks and Hickories, like Maple and Beech. He also found that secondary hardwood forests, while already surpassing the typical biomass volumes found in old-growth stands, continue to gain more biomass at a higher than expected rate.

What does this mean for the future of Oaks and Hickories in North Carolina? What will the Forest look like for your great-grandchildren? Whether these shifts are a result of rising global temperatures, changing weather patterns, overabundant deer, invasive species, and/or the effects of human activity, the future of Piedmont forests may not happen as predicted.

Further research is necessary to even begin grasping the meaning of these changes. To protect and facilitate the use of these data by future researchers, Payne and his primary investigator, Dr. Robert Peet, are working with the Duke Forest Office and the Duke Digital Repository to create a comprehensive digital record. This will be supplemented by a complete paper file housed in Duke Archives. In addition, the Duke Forest Office has worked with Duke Archives to create an official Duke Forest collection to preserve and promote the use of historic maps, photos, and other mementos from the Forest’s long history at Duke.

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