Old-growth forests such as Virginia Tech’s 11.5-acre Stadium Woods are extremely rare, says master’s student Rodney Walters, who is developing a stewardship plan to guide the use and management of the forest fragment behind Lane Stadium. “Old-growth forests of this sort are so rare — less than one-half of 1 percent of the land in the Eastern United States — and an old-growth forest in an urban setting is even more exceptional,” he said.

Walters worked as Montana State University’s lead arborist before coming to Virginia Tech in 2014 to pursue a master’s in urban forest ecology and management. “Rodney is a dream come true,” said Professor John Seiler. “Only someone with his background and maturity could handle the complexity of writing a plan for Stadium Woods.” Seiler, who uses the forest for a dendrology course, identified dozens of trees more than 300 years old, supporting evidence the woods are a rare remnant of a vast, ancient forest stretching across the mid-Atlantic region.

Walters and members of the plan’s advisory committee, including Seiler and Associate Professor Eric Wiseman, will be balancing stakeholders’ diverse viewpoints as the plan is developed. Recognizing the needs of a growing university as well as the educational and emotional value of a campus forest, Walters has been gathering perspectives from campus and community groups to identify potential activities in the woods and their impact on the health of the forest. “People have given me the history as well as insight into their values,” he said. “I’m learning things I wouldn’t have found out any other way.”

Walters, whose work represents a collaborative partnership between the college and the Office of University Planning, can already see the forest as a type of “green facility” for research and community outreach, as well as leisure activities such as bird watching. “It will be difficult work, but people must be involved in this process for the stewardship to work in the long term.” He expects the stewardship plan to be completed in spring 2016.

In 2011, the university’s athletic department proposed to build an indoor football practice facility on about three acres of Stadium Woods. The forest became a focal point as various groups responded to the proposal, leading the university to select an alternate site for the facility.