High-tech forestry research flourishes in rural Virginia
August 15, 2016
High-tech research on forests, nestled in a pastoral setting, offering outreach to citizens — the Reynolds Homestead has it all.
Located in Critz, Virginia, just above the North Carolina line, the homestead site is a Commonwealth Campus Center of Virginia Tech consisting of several components. The restored historic home, the birthplace of tobacco manufacturer R.J. Reynolds, is designated a State and National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Registry of American Homes. The site’s Community Enrichment Center offers a wealth of art, music, and entertainment programs for all ages.
But the vast majority of the site’s 800 acres are devoted to the Reynolds Homestead Forest Resources Research Center (FRRC), created in 1969 to study forest biology, including genetics, physiology, and soils. Operating as one of the state’s 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers, the FRRC integrates Virginia Cooperative Extension, research, and outreach programs that impact the region, serving groups such as Master Gardeners, school students, forest landowners, and scout troops, as well as the general public.
FRRC Superintendent Kyle Peer collaborates extensively with Lisa Martin, senior program manager at the historic property, on educational programming. “The exposure I get to the public at large by collaborating with the historical programming aspects of the homestead is invaluable,” Peer said. “Instead of having one field day where the community is invited to come tour the property, individuals can come any day of the week and hike the trails, take a knitting class, or learn about grafting heirloom apple trees. Those things all get the word out about the FRRC’s outreach activities, including the classes and the resources we have available to the public.”
Peer developed a trail that is part of the state’s Link to Education About Forests (LEAF) program, which combines outdoor forestry and natural resources education with heritage tourism. The trail’s eight stops are divided between forestry education and historical knowledge about the Reynolds Homestead.
The FRRC is also a valuable resource for the college’s forestry researchers in Blacksburg, offering an ideal setting for long-term studies.
One example is work at the genetic level to understand how trees adapt to different climates. Associate Professor Amy Brunner is able to manipulate specific genes in Populus species and their hybrids, commonly known as cottonwoods, aspen, and hybrid poplar, which are grown for wood products as well as bio-energy. “We can let a tree be a tree in the trials at Reynolds Homestead,” she said.
Associate Professor Jason Holliday, who examines the genetic basis of traits related to local climatic adaptation, added that he and Brunner use the center’s new 1,800-square-foot greenhouse for the controlled experiments on tree responses. Staff members at the FRRC do some of the monitoring and measuring of the trees in the trials, providing information to the researchers on campus.
Another project, visible from the front porch of the historic home, includes 20-acre plots to understand the management practices that influence forest growth. “We may get different answers when comparing data from the past five years to that from 35 years,” said Professor Tom Fox, whose research focuses on improving the health, productivity, and sustainability of southern pine forests. The work at the FRRC provides an established research infrastructure to study long-term questions, for example, about climate change, examining such things as management practices of fertilization, different genotypes, or numbers of trees per acre.
Professor Mike Aust directs research projects to develop Best Management Practices (BMPs) for protecting water quality. He and fellow faculty members Kevin McGuire, Chad Bolding, and Scott Barrett test forestry management techniques to understand the effects of timber harvesting operations on stream crossings, roads, and trails. The BMPs developed are shared with the industry through workshops, seminars, and publications, including Virginia Cooperative Extension activities. Research and outreach is vital to Virginia’s forestry industry, which contributes $17 billion annually to the state’s economy and generates more than 103,000 jobs, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry.
“The Reynolds Homestead truly is a model facility for us as a land grant university,” said Jay Sullivan, head of the college’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “The site provides our faculty invaluable opportunities for cutting-edge research but also gives Virginia Tech a connection to the pubic through outreach and education programming, serving as a community hub for festivals and events of all kinds, as a generator of local economic activity, and as a window into the history of our region.”