Duke Forest turns 90 this year but Forest director Sara Childs and her team aren’t spending much time looking back at past glories.

They’re too busy focusing on the future.

“We’ve reached a really exciting point in our history that’s bringing some intriguing new opportunities, as well as challenges,” Childs said.

To adapt to the changes occurring both within the more-than-7,000-acre Forest and outside it, and to maintain its long-term health and viability as a research and teaching laboratory, her strategic plan for moving the Forest forward into its second 90 years calls for ambitious growth in three core areas: stewardship for long-term sustainability; research and teaching; and community engagement.

Stewardship on a New Scale

Decades of rapid development has transformed much of the land surrounding the Forest. Farms and fields have been replaced by housing developments, and roads crisscross the landscape, fragmenting the forests that remain. As Emily Bernhardt, a Nicholas School biogeochemist who conducts much of her stream biome research in the Forest, likes to say, ”Duke Forest is an island of green in a sea of suburbs.”

That brings problems.

Wildlife are being pressed into smaller corridors, and losing vital foraging, hunting and nursery habitats in the process. Recreational demands on the Forest, some of them unauthorized and highly destructive, are rising. During the COVID-19 lockdown, for example, mountain bikers – emboldened by GPS-based mobile apps – have caused extensive damage to trails and plants.

“We can’t just put up a ‘No Entry’ sign to keep out the effects of climate change, development, forest fragmentation and destructive activities. What happens beyond our boundaries affects the Forest’s health and can impair its role as a connectivity corridor for wildlife, a provider of vital ecosystem services, and a resource for respectful community members,” Childs said. “We need to be working toward collaborative, long-term landscape-scale stewardship that protects ecological health on both sides of the property line, and benefits humans as well as nature.”

To that end, Childs and the Forest staff have joined in a large-scale effort, called the Eno-New Hope Habitat Connectivity Plan, that aims to create, restore and protect wildlife corridors across the region, with Duke Forest serving as an anchor.