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Thursday, May 23, 2024

UNCW professor starts petition to preserve campus forest

UNCW professor Roger Shew has created a petition to save 100 acres of the campus’ forest from development. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

WILMINGTON — As large tracts of unused land are becoming few and far between in New Hanover County, one UNCW professor is pushing for 100 acres of forest to remain untouched.  

READ MORE: UNCW launches new strategic plan prioritizing research and community benefits

The university sits on around 650 acres along South College Road. Along with its 10-acre Bluethenthal Preserve, there are around 175 acres of forest spanning the north to southeast side of campus. 

Roger Shew, a geology and environmental science professor at UNCW, started a petition earlier this year to dedicate 100 acres of the forested area for preservation. Doing so would prohibit the land from development and to protect the natural resources, wildlife, recreational value, and history and culture of the tract. 

Shew said maintaining the university’s natural areas are among students’ two most cited priorities in an annual sustainability survey, along with the implementation of renewable energy on campus. With little effort, Shew said, the petition already has 800 signatures. 

“There would be no problem in having many more if we want/need to gather them,” Shew wrote in an email to Port City Daily. “And the community is interested as well, as I’ve had folks contact me. The petition and signatures are just symbolic of the interest we have in our natural areas.”

There are no plans to develop the area today, and “no rumors,” according to Shew. Still, the professor said he wanted to bring more attention to the benefits of preserving the forest now as the university prepares its next 10-year campus master plan. 

According to its website, the university’s 2024 master plan principles include cultivating a sense of belonging for all by expanding access to student support and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. The plan also incorporates interdisciplinary collaboration, optimizing existing space and improving the visitor experience in arts and athletics spaces. 

The plan prioritizes intentional spaces to promote interaction and “connection with nature.”

According to UNCW Chancellor Aswani Volety, UNCW has no plans to develop the land in the foreseeable future. 

“UNCW deeply values the forested lands referenced in the petition for their ecological and educational contributions to both our institution and the broader community,” Volety wrote in a statement to PCD. “This natural space, known for the quality of its longleaf pines, enriches our environment, serves as an outdoor classroom, and fosters a meaningful connection to nature.”

Though, the university leader did acknowledge the choices of future generations may differ.

“It is possible, at some point in time, that the students and leaders who follow us will decide to pursue development to support their own priorities,” Volety wrote. “After all, the UNCW campus that we appreciate and enjoy today began with just three buildings.” 

Today, it houses over 70, with more than a dozen built over the last decade, including four new residence halls, the Coastal Engineering Building, Veterans Hall, the University Film Center, a new dining hall, and several parking decks. It added 4,000 more students to get to almost 18,000 students today; projections put the university over 20,000 in the next three to five years. 

Shew shared he met with university leadership on Monday to discuss the importance of preserving the land. 

The forest is listed as a significant natural heritage area by the Natural Heritage Program of North Carolina. The state program identifies natural areas based on biological surveys with the goal of documenting the full range of organisms and ecological processes that comprise North Carolina’s natural heritage.

“Longleaf pine is, of course, the ‘tree that made the South,’” Shew said. 

But the ecosystem is in danger across the globe due to overexploitation of lumber, land conversion to agriculture usage, and habitat loss from development. Even though occasional controlled burns help longleaf forests continue to thrive, wildfires are also an increasing threat to the land. Shew reported 90 million acres originally extended from Virginia to Texas, but by 2000 only around 3 million acres remained. 

UNCW is one of only four areas in New Hanover County with a larger longleaf pine ecosystem; the others are Carolina Beach State Park, Halyburton Park, and northern New Hanover County along U.S. Highway 421. While the former two are preserved, the land along the highway is quickly being developed for industrial uses aimed at promoting economic development in the area.

According to Shew, the 100 acres on UNCW’s campus are some of the better-quality longleaf pine forest and an example of a xeric sandhill longleaf pine community, meaning the area is mostly sandy with well-drained soils. It is dominated by a canopy of longleaf pines and a subcanopy of turkey oaks and some sand live oaks, with several wetlands onsite too. Fauna includes fox squirrels, hawks, snakes, and more.

The petition notes a past academic use survey of UNCW’s forest areas during a year;  users included 12 academic departments, 49 classes, 144 class sections, and over 8,000 uses by UNCW clubs and organizations.

Shew plans to continue discussions with UNCW administration and work with those on the campus master plan team, representing the interests of students, faculty, staff and the community.

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