A Living Lab for Woodland Stewards

By Christina Drain

Mansfield's Woodlands Steward program participants

Armed with tree-identification booklets, 30 area woodland owners spent a recent afternoon practicing what they learned in an outdoor living laboratory at the OSU Mansfield campus.

“It’s unique to have that kind of opportunity,” said Kathy Smith, OSU Extension program director – Forestry. “When we do classes around the state, it’s always a struggle to find a nice classroom space that you can just walk outside and have that natural lab right there.”

The lush acreage of diverse woodlands, along with wetlands and plenty of flora and fauna, centrally located off I-71 and SR30, makes an ideal place to base the Ohio Woodlands Stewards program.

“The program reaches out to the assets of the university that have not really been taken advantage of until now,” said Brian White, superintendent of Facilities Maintenance and Security. “We have 640 acres of beautiful woodlands out here, and their programs can look at everything from endangered species to wetlands to forest management. OSU Extension all across the state can come here and can use this as a living laboratory and platform, and it’s within the Ohio State system.”

The Ohio Woodland Stewards program is a statewide woodland owner outreach education program, in existence since about 1988. Smith’s main audience is the 340,000 private woodland owners across the state, but classes are open to anyone. Master gardeners and Ohio certified volunteer naturalists often attend. Classes are typically one-day or evening sessions.

Many woodland owners are interested in managing wildlife, even more so than timber, according to Smith. Marne Titchenell was hired as Wildlife Program specialist and offers classes in game species management as well as nongame and recreational wildlife identification.

“We gear these programs to landowners to help them manage for wildlife in their woods,” Titchenell said. “For example, here is what you can do to manipulate your woods to attract deer, turkeys and songbirds.”

Recreational wildlife viewing has become very popular, according to Titchenell. It can be as simple as walking through woods or a park and looking for wildlife.

“When you look at the surveys, a large percentage of the people in Ohio want to view wildlife in their own backyard,” she said.

“We’ve recently tried to target landowners who own smaller parcels of woodlands and natural areas. What can they do on those lands to make forests healthy and bring wildlife in on a smaller scale? In a backyard, it’s things such as birdfeeders and individual plants that attract wildlife.”

The Woodland Stewards program and the tie-in with the School of Environment and Natural Resources and OSU Extension is just what administrators at the Mansfield campus were looking for to help develop its strategic plan as well as add more undergraduate and graduate courses and community interaction. About 91 percent of the Mansfield campus remains undeveloped.

“When we were developing the Framework plan, we started to look at the total assets — not just the 10 or 12 buildings we have here in the center for academics — but the whole 640 acres,” White said. “That’s when we said we really need to know what we have out here, so we reached out to the School of Environment and Natural Resources and Extension and said ‘please come and help us.’”

Smith and Titchenell, along with OSU Extension educator Amy Stone and Professor Bob Gates, conducted a cursory survey of the campus woodlands last summer while a May session class performed more in-depth data collection this spring.

The findings will be presented as a woodlands management plan next year.

The land’s diversity was a surprise, even to Smith, who is a Mansfield native. The group found pine plantations planted through a conservation program, older woods in existence when the property was transferred to Ohio State in 1964, as well as vernal pools.

“There are some pretty unique habitat features for wildlife as well,” Titchenell said. “There are several areas of remnant older mature woodlands that are offering a lot of resources to deer and turkey, both of which have been spotted on campus. The woodlands also host a nice diversity of songbirds. The vernal pools and ephemeral wetland hold water for certain portions of the year and then dry out, which is significant for amphibians such as salamanders and tree frogs. It’s a resource across Ohio that’s in short supply.”

Students from the May session suggested creating a terrestrial lab similar to Stone Laboratory, the university’s freshwater field station on Lake Erie, with summer classes and coursework unique to the natural resource.

“The hope is that it would become a hotspot to go to, just like Stone Lab,” Smith said.

White sees classes and research growing as the resources are identified.

“The nice thing is it’s just the beginning. A lot of these classes have been going to state parks religiously, and they have been studied and studied,” he said. “We offer a brand-new area to study, and it’s within our system.”

Article originally published in onCampus - http://oncampus.osu.edu/a-living-lab-for-woodland-stewards/

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