Geography students partner with nonprofits and communities to help research and repair ecosystems.

By:    Date: 10-23-2014

Students helped return a former mine site to a mixed hardwood forest in Fall 2013 and partnered with the USDA Forest Service to collect and analyze data
in a national forest in Spring 2013.


UntitledWhen most people look into a forest, they just see trees. Students in Justin Hart’s Forest History and Restoration course at The University of Alabama see hundreds of years of history and, more importantly, potential.

Through the GY 409/509 course, students learn the theoretical foundations of restoration ecology and techniques and tools used to reconstruct ecosystems, many of which have been affected by human actions.

The 28 students in Hart’s Fall 2013 service-learning course partnered with the Freshwater Land Trust in Birmingham, Ala., to help return a former mine site to a mixed hardwood forest. They devoted 588 service hours to the project.

Restoration is becoming a priority for land management, said Hart, assistant professor of geography. Returning a forest ecosystem to its prior state increases native forest biodiversity, restores critical ecosystem functions such as carbon storage and promotes forests that may be more resilient to future perturbations, he said.


Student Matt Meko is coring a loblolly pine to document its age and annual growth rates. ABOVE: Students Chris Sferra and Kait Riley quantify the crown classes of trees in their inventory plots.

His students learn how to asses a site and create desired future conditions. “If you’re going to restore something, you have to come up with a goal of what you want it to look like,” Hart said.

The Freshwater Land Trust plans to use the Coalburg Experimental Forest as an outdoor classroom with trails and interpretative signs so members of the community can learn about forest restoration and observe the process firsthand, Hart said.

Students helped the nonprofit develop a plan for the forest. “This gave students real-world experiences,” Hart said. “They learned how a land trust operates and found out why it wanted to do the project. “Sometimes what may sound good on paper isn’t realistic. This is a dose of reality of what it’s like to work in this field.”

Amanda Keasberry, a geography and forest science graduate student, spent many hours at the site, evaluating its condition and planning what it could be in the future. Along with studying surveys and plots, students also used old photos and records dating to the 1800s to research the history of the site. “The main thing is assessing what happened to know what to do in the future,” Keasberry said.

She said the project provided an opportunity to see what she will be doing in her career very soon. “In the end, it’s for the Birmingham community to get more use out of this area,” she said. “It’s awesome to see everything unfold. It’s a big deal that we could make that much of an impact.”

Keasberry hopes to manage natural resources one day. “This class makes me realize how important knowing every single detail about a forest is,” she said. “Now I look at a forest in a more intense way and analyze everything about it.”


Student Jon King measures the diameter of a tree to quantify forest conditions.

Hart also teaches GY 494 Forest Measurement and Analysis, in which students learn to conduct forest inventories.

In Spring 2013, the class partnered with USDA Forest Service personnel to collect and analyze data in the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest. Twenty-three students spent a total of 552 hours gathering information to assist Forest Service staff, who were trying to make decisions based on limited data.

Hart said most of these students want to work in natural-resource management, and practical skills in this field are hard to come by in a classroom. This experience teaches them, in a hands-on way, to measure resources in order to make informed decisions. “They will ask themselves things like, ‘Is this a good habitat for woodpeckers?’ or ‘How should we manage this stand to reach our goals?’” Hart said. “As they’re doing that they are learning skills they will need in the workforce.”

Students worked in groups of five, each with a graduate student leader. Crews navigated to various points on a map and put in an inventory plot, documenting the species, size and age of the trees. Hart said service-learning courses offer opportunities for his students to meet professionals in their field and learn about applying for jobs. “For a lot of them, this is the first time they have interacted with professional foresters because they have mainly just been around professors,” Hart said.

Erin Wilson, a May 2013 graduate of New College with a depth study in conservation GIS, spent four hours a week in the field as part of GY 494, doing everything from measuring trees to calculating canopy cover. While working in the forest, she discovered she would prefer a field job over a desk job. “I enjoy hands-on activities and learn best this way,” Wilson said. “The service we did directly related to the information we were learning in class. Our lectures would go over the skills we would need and then we would put our skills to use in the field each week.”

She said the service-learning experience taught her a lot about cooperation, communication and teamwork. “I think more students need to get outside of the
classroom and explore the world around them in order to get a well-rounded education,” Wilson said.

Cindy Ragland, Oakmulgee district ranger for the Talledega National Forest, said students observed and inventoried an altered forest site, focusing on identifying non-native tree species and what could be done to restore the site to its natural condition. Ragland said she is thankful for the work UA students have done to help the national forest, but also for the chance to invest in future foresters. “Doing that work takes time, and it’s not something we have time to do often,” she said. “If they do work for us, they get us data that we really need. In turn, we give them field experience. They get dirty and learn how to figure it out themselves. Jobs are tough to find, so that’s an asset. It may set them apart.”

Even if students do not pursue a career in the forest industry, they can still reap the benefits of this servicelearning experience, she added. “It helps them have an understanding of national forests and public land management, and have an appreciation of it,” she said. “They have a sense of what it’s about and can share that understanding throughout their lives.”

For more information about GY 494 or GY 409/509, contact Justin Hart at 205-348-1673 or