Gopher tortoises are not known for their foot speed. But on this 94-degree August afternoon, this big fellow was picking ‘em up and laying ‘em down as he headed back to his burrow in the new ABAC Teaching Forest.
Before our short visit to the 1,000 acres of amazing outdoor scenery off Willis Still Road in Tift County was over, ABAC Natural Resources Technician Grant Rentz pointed out three more gopher tortoises, four deer, and a flock of mourning doves. A brilliantly colored butterfly fluttered his way effortlessly right in front of our cameras as an extra added attraction.
“Oh yeah, there are all sorts of wildlife in these woods,” Rentz said as he navigated the pickup truck over a huge washout in the already rugged terrain. “I have seen deer, turkeys, and a covey of quail out here.”
Dr. Mark Kistler, Dean of the ABAC School of Agriculture and Natural Resources, provided a running commentary as we maneuvered our way past towering pines, a beautiful pond, and a former tobacco field, all a part of the first teaching forest in the 110-year history of ABAC.
“We are all excited about the opportunities this teaching forest affords our students, faculty, the forestry and wildlife communities, and the Tifton community,” Kistler, a relative newcomer to the ABAC Family after his appointment in March 2018 said.
In fact, it was just days after Kistler had come aboard that ABAC President David Bridges announced at the finale of the 61st Annual Southern Forestry Conclave on March 24 that the ABAC Foundation had purchased the timber land for the teaching forest.
“ABAC has made tremendous commitments to our agriculture and natural resource programs in recent years,” Bridges said. “We will continue to do so because agriculture and forestry are Georgia’s leading industries. Our commitment is for ABAC to be the leading provider of human capital to work, lead, and grow these industries.”
That line of thought certainly resonates with employers in the natural resources area, who employ ABAC graduates in forestry, wildlife, and conservation law enforcement.
“I think it’s a safe guess that 60 percent of the game wardens in Georgia came through ABAC,” Dr. William Moore, Head of the ABAC Department of Forest Resources, said. “Our conservation law enforcement track for the bachelor’s degree in Natural Resource Management is designed specifically for students who want to be game wardens.”
Moore said ABAC has 260 Natural Resource Management majors. About 40 percent of them are pursuing a bachelor’s degree in forestry, 40 percent are aiming for a bachelor’s degree in wildlife, and 20 percent are in the conservation law enforcement track for a bachelor’s degree.
All these students took part in laboratory experiences for the first time in the 2018 fall term in the new teaching forest where trees cover 60 to 70 percent of the landscape.
“We’re going to be able to centralize our labs because of this forest,” Moore, an ABAC faculty member since 2002, said. “In the past we have relied on private landowners to help us with land for our labs, and we’ll still do some of those.
“The big difference in using our own land is that we will have permanent labs set up. It gives us a lot more leeway and flexibility. We will have student engagement happening on our own property.”
Dr. Jerry Baker, the ABAC Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, believes the teaching forest elevates what is already a highly-regarded program.
“Having our own teaching forest with the diversity of resources helps us achieve the next level of excellence in instruction,” Baker said. “We will be able to demonstrate more situations that students may experience after graduation, leading to better prepared graduates. We will create more unique outdoor lab settings on land we control.”
A prime example involves the annual laboratory exercise for ABAC students focusing on controlled burning which is a vital cog in any forest conservation plan.
“Since most of the timber on the land has been thinned once, the main strategy to improve habitat will be prescribed fire,” Kip Hall, an assistant professor of forest resources, who has spent 32 years teaching forestry and wildlife students at ABAC, said. “According to our preliminary planning meetings, about one-third of the teaching forest will be managed for wildlife habitat.
“Some stands of timber in the forest have had fire in the past but there are others that look fire-excluded. The ones that haven’t seen fire lately are generally more daunting to burn given the heavier fuel loads.”
Prescribed burns will be only a tiny part of what goes on in the new forest.
“Every class that had a lab fall semester was out there at some point,” Moore said. “The majority of classes in our curriculum will likely be using it for something.”
Kistler loves the fact that the forest is only 12 minutes from the main ABAC campus.
“Its close proximity to campus will provide the necessary experiential learning opportunities for our students in the Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management degree program to apply the principles learned in the classroom to a real-world field laboratory environment,” Kistler said. “It’s very rough out there right now but there is unlimited potential.”
The timing of the land purchase by the ABAC Foundation could not have been more perfect. The Society of American Foresters was at ABAC in November for a site visit.
“The teaching forest will be the ‘icing on the cake’ for the forestry track of the Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management degree program to be fully accredited by the Society of American Foresters,” Kistler said. “Even though the focus will be on the teaching, research, and outreach efforts of the forest resources department and ABAC, it will also be a venue for us to host events once the infrastructure is developed.”
As evidenced by the trio of tortoises we saw on our expedition, gopher tortoise burrows abound in the new forest, and Hall has overheard his compadres talking about deer population evaluation using trail cameras.
“Those cameras can sometimes provide incidental information about other ‘critters’ such as coyote and bobcat,” Hall said. “I foresee tremendous utilization of the property for the capstone class senior project.
“There are a number of wetland seeps and other areas that should be evaluated for reptiles and amphibians. Once we discover what we have, then we can proceed with the most appropriate management strategies.”
Moore said the property includes two fields, several pastures, a small pond and a gorgeous 15-acre pond.
“We’ll manage the large pond for our fisheries class,” Moore said. “We might stock the smaller pond with catfish, maybe even have a kids’ fishing event on the property.”
Bottom line. The addition of the teaching forest places bachelor’s degree graduates from the ABAC Natural Resource Management program on a level with diploma-holders from the top programs in the nation.
“The forest puts us on par with them,” Moore said. “Not having our own forest has been a missing link for us. All these other programs had a forest. Now ABAC students will reap the advantages.”