Geography students research and restore environmental conditions in Alabama woodlands.

By:    Date: 03-08-2017

Article by Katie Bedrich and Olivia Grider  |  Photos by Dr. Justin Hart

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Brett Barton had thought for a long time about pursuing a career with the U.S. Forest Service, but he says a University of Alabama service-learning course in forest history and restoration cemented his plans and gave him a deeper understanding of why the Forest Service is so important.

“They are more than just a federal entity that deals with trees,” says Barton, who graduated in December 2015 with a bachelor of science degree in geography. “They care for our lands.”

Barton and fellow classmates in GY 409/509 Forest History and Restoration and GY 494 Forest Measurement and Analysis, both taught by Dr. Justin Hart, associate professor and director of UA’s Environmental Science Program, assist U.S. Forest Service staff in managing the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest, a 157,000-acre tract of land that was abused by farming (an application for which it was poorly suited) and industrial logging before it became federal property in 1935. The area, which is a 30-minute drive from the UA campus, was once dominated by longleaf pine – the state tree of Alabama and a species that was prolific from Texas through the Gulf Coastal Plain and up the Atlantic Coast to Virginia prior to the arrival of European settlers. The low estimate is that only 3 percent of this ecosystem remains, Hart says. The Oakmulgee District also is home to Alabama’s largest concentration of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, a tenant of mature pine forests – particularly those with longleaf pines.


Student Anna Davis examines the terminal bud on a longleaf pine tree. ABOVE: Student Parker Sheffield uses a prism to determine which trees to measure while student Davis Goode records the information.

Because Forest Service lands are public, responsibly managing them benefits everyone, Hart says. It provides a sustainable natural resource in the form of wood products and a plethora of outdoor recreation opportunities including hiking, biking, bird watching (one of the fastest-growing hobbies worldwide), camping and hunting. Well-managed public lands are great resources for promoting healthy lifestyles, Hart says, especially in Alabama, which has the fifth highest adult obesity rate in the nation, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In the Talladega National Forest and national forests across the country, the number of staff members has steadily declined since the 1980s, while the amount of paperwork and other tasks has increased. The Oakmulgee District’s staff has been cut approximately 30 percent, and it now has 20 full-time employees.

Service-learning partnerships provide the Forest Service with a trained labor pool; a class of 15 to 20 students can do in one week what it might take one staff member months to accomplish, Hart says. The collaborations also give students a chance to shadow and develop relationships with people working in their field of study.

“This experience taught me that I can have an impact in my community even if I am a student,” Barton says. “I also learned that teamwork is key if you are going to get anything done in the job world.”

In the GY 409/509 Forest History and Restoration class, students learn about restoration ecology and practical ways to reconstruct prior ecosystems.


The group gets ready to work in the forest.

In spring 2015, 24 students in GY 409/509 spent approximately 1,080 hours analyzing a 2,500-acre portion of the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest and writing recommendations for restoring it to a longleaf pine woodland. At the end of the semester, the students presented their work to Forest Service staff members, who combined the data and recommendations into an Environmental Assessment, a document required before significant changes can be made in a national forest. The Forest Service is now implementing the students’ recommendations, which included removing loblolly pines and conducting prescribed burns in areas with existing longleaf pines.

“From the Forest Service perspective, a lot of the groundwork was laid and they got to hear some diverse ideas on this restoration project,” Hart says. “From the students’ perspective, they got to actually help prepare a document that is required by the federal government. It allowed them to look behind the curtain and see what that is really like.”

Some of the data students in the Spring 2015 GY 409/509 class used in their project was provided by students in the Fall 2014 GY 494 Forest Measurement and Analysis class.


Student Alex Makris measures the diameter of a tree to quantify forest conditions.

Through that course, students learn analytical methods used in forest science and how to quantify tree-stand (a group of trees of a similar species, age and size) and forest-level attributes and conduct field sampling.

In Fall 2014 and Spring 2016, 29 students in GY 494 spent approximately 950 hours working with Forest Service personnel to collect and analyze data in portions of the Oakmulgee District the Forest Service hopes to restore to longleaf pine woodlands.

Students also trained under the Talladega National Forest fire management officers to work with prescribed fire. All 29 students earned their firefighter type two red cards, which certify them to work with controlled and wild fires for the Forest Service and other agencies. During the past five years, approximately 75 students have been trained, and students have assisted with an average of five prescribed burns per year in the Oakmulgee District.

“That training opens doors for them to launch their careers,” Hart says. This is because there’s an enormous need for qualified personnel to fight fires in Western states during summer. The federal government spent approximately $2 billion fighting wildfires in 2015, Hart says. In fighting wildfires, students who want to work in natural-resource management make connections that are assets to their careers.

Keith Dunlap, a senior majoring in geography who took both GY 409 and GY 494, says he and other students researched which trees in particular areas were compatible with longleaf pines and whether spaces were being invaded by other tree species.


Student Tyler Dodd measures the slope gradient of an inventory plot.

“Doing research and being able to back up what I say with accurate facts and reasons will stay with me forever,” Dunlap says. “If asked ‘why?’ you should have a reason.”

Cindy Ragland, district ranger for the Talladega National Forest Oakmulgee District, says having students in the field to lay a foundation gives the Forest Service the ability to better manage more areas in the national forest. While partnerships like this are unusual now, she says they will be increasingly important in the future as a mechanism for the Forest Service to build capacity while incorporating the ideas and values of the next generation into forest management.

“We think of this collaboration with UA as building a body of work that will one day help direct greater involvement by UA and other academic institutions in partnership with the Forest Service,” she says. “Each project leads to another, each discussion leads to another question and each question helps define a potential research project.”

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