Duke Forest: A 7,000-Acre ‘Living Lab’ for Research, Learning and Recreation

December 18, 2018

By Parker Brown, Communications Specialist

DURHAM, N.C. — The Duke Forest is a 7,000 acre teaching and research forest used by the university since 1931 to facilitate research and education.
Today, it remains an outdoor classroom and living laboratory but the topics under study and the people driving the work are far more diverse than ever before.

Duke Environment corresponded with Sara Childs, director of the Duke Forest, to discuss more about the Forest and how Nicholas students are utilizing it for research, education and recreation.

How can MEM and MF students benefit from having the Duke Forest nearby, regardless of concentration?
Regardless of concentration, there is no shortage of ways that MEM and MF students might use the Duke Forest to enhance their academic, professional and personal experiences while they are at the Nicholas School.

Duke Forest staff are here to help facilitate any student use of the Forest, but here are some of the most obvious connections:  

  • Participate in ongoing research
  • Enroll in classes that use the Forest
  • Initiate your own research (like a master’s project)
  • Create an independent study
  • Develop environmental education opportunities
  • Apply for assistantships or work study positions
  • Relax and take a hike along the roads and trails

The Duke Forest is a responsibly managed working forest, a live and in-color chance to see what truly renewable resource use looks like via our certified timber management program and overall holistic approach to forest management. 

Duke Forest by the Numbers

  • 6 divisions and 1 dedicated natural area
  • 63 miles of streams, creeks and rivers
  • 12 registered N.C. natural heritage sites
  • 43 public access gates
  • 40+ miles of gravel road
  • 10+ miles of hiking trails

2017 – 2018 research stats:

  • 47 active research projects
  • 33 different principle investigators
  • 15 unique institutions

2017 – 2018 teaching stats:

  • 31 teaching activities
  • 24 lead educators
  • 96 visits
  • 870 individual students

In this heavily developed region, it’s a bastion of protected species, ecosystems, historical artifacts that can’t be found elsewhere and an opportunity to learn about conservation and restoration.
It’s an environmental education and outreach tool for people to learn about natural resources and forest management – to connect with science; people within and outside of Duke.
It’s a place to relax and disconnect; an easily accessible antidote to our collective nature deficit disorder.

How did you utilize it when you were a student?

What’s funny is that I didn’t. I really didn’t understand what a resource it was, didn’t recognize all the ways it could enhance my personal, professional and academic experience while I was a student. 

In my current role, I’ve worked hard to ensure that students get some level of exposure to all that the Forest has to offer.
What types of research projects are being done in the Forest?
The Forest is used by local universities and institutions across the country to study subjects like nanotechnology, atmospheric chemistry, aqua-terrestrial biogeochemistry, remote sensing, forest economics, global climate change, solar science and computer science.


With hundreds of flexible research sites - from fields and towers to waterways and historic forest succession plots - the Duke Forest is a living laboratory unlike any other in our region.  

What are some examples of student research that has utilized the Forest in some way?
Some of the most recent master’s student research has looked at understanding wildlife populations and their distributions across the Duke Forest. Both undergraduate and master’s students have also looked at ways to use citizen science to expand data collection on Duke Forest wildlife.  This work is helping us build a base of information we may be able to use to better protect animals and their habitats in the Duke Forest.  

Currently, an undergraduate is beginning an examination of the threats, vulnerabilities, and risks to Duke Forest resources that will allow us to eventually build an explicitly responsive and adaptive management plan.  

Last semester, three undergraduates undertook studies on different aspects of plant ecology, and in the last several years, student research projects have explored the Forest as a source of carbon credits and assessed the timber management program.   
Where is your favorite place in the Forest and why?
There are several, but I love the area along the banks of New Hope Creek. There is so much variation in the topography, the soils, the plant and animal life. In a fairly short hike you can experience quite a breadth of diversity, and the sound of the creek running alongside you never gets old.


What is your favorite Forest fun fact?
There are so many. It’s difficult to choose! One is that the quarry for “Duke stone” --used for many of the Gothic style buildings on Duke’s west campus-- is located in the Forest. Here are 10 more of my favorites.