Managing a 13,000-acre campus: A Q&A with Sewanee's Nate Wilson

Photo courtesy of the University of the South

Sewanee's 13,000-acre campus, otherwise known as the "Domain." (Photo courtesy of the University of the South)

At Sewanee, we refer to our 13,000-acre campus as the “Domain.” It is a way of identifying our connection to the abundant natural world that envelops dormitories, academic buildings, and most aspects of student life. Sewanee’s campus also sits in one of the most resilient and biodiverse ecosystems in North America. This can be attributed to the region’s topographic complexity, soil types, elevation, climate, and a host of other factors that provide a myriad of different microhabitats and microclimates in which a variety of species can thrive. To get a better understanding of Sewanee’s land use decisions, conservation initiatives and overall objectives regarding the land, I interviewed Nate Wilson, Sewanee’s Domain Manager. Nate has a degree in natural resource management, wildlife ecology, and forest ecology, and as Domain Manager, he is in charge of managing this enormous plot of land.

Q: Hi Nate, thank you for answering some questions for Planet Forward! First off, what would you say is the goal of Sewanee’s forest management?

A: The goal of Sewanee’s forest management is to create forests that will be resilient to a changing climate, provide high quality habitat for a myriad of wildlife species, and maintain the biodiversity that is a cornerstone of our region. 

Q: What are some of the most unique characteristics of Sewanee’s geology that define this area?

A: As with just about any other location on the planet, we are dictated by our geology. The Cumberland Plateau was able to form because of an impervious sandstone cap that allowed the Plateau to remain intact while the surrounding landscape eroded. So it is really this sandstone cap that establishes the geology and dictates the topography, both of which provide for the unique microhabitats and microclimates that enable such a high level biodiversity here on the Domain.

Q: How does Sewanee manage the use of local timber resources for new development projects?

A: One of the sustainability goals laid out in Sewanee’s Sustainability Master Plan is to use local wood as a means of helping students and the community better understand our interconnectedness to the natural world. We have tried several different approaches, including using wood harvested from our local wood basket, Middle Tennessee. Recently, we have been trying to showcase, from tree-to-finish product, how we can harvest on the Domain and use Sewanee-sourced timber in our buildings. The biggest project we have undertaken is harvesting for the Sewanee Inn flooring, all of which came from the Domain. We would like to be offsetting new projects with wood harvested from the Domain to come as close to replicating a closed-loop cycle as possible.

Q: How have students contributed to past or ongoing management practices on the Domain?

A: Students participate in lots of different ways. We have had forestry students work on timber sale preparation and administration, Eco-bio students work on wetland restoration projects, and students from a variety of disciplines have cataloged invasive species, carried out prescribed burns, and performed invasive species removals on the Domain. Generally, there is a lot of cataloging, including performing vegetation and tree inventories, and inventorying rare threatened and endangered species for both plants and animals.

Q: As Domain Manager, one of the problems you face is controlling for exotic invasive species. What are some of the strategies for limiting and mitigating their growth on the Domain?

A: As with any property that has had over 150 years of European inhabitation, there are a lot of exotic species on the Domain. So, we try and differentiate between those exotic species that are pernicious invaders, and are able to really knock the ecosystem off kilter, and those that seem to present less of an immediate threat to the larger ecosystem processes. And that is an imperfect science. But in general, we manage and eradicate aggressive plant species such as garlic mustard and kudzu, species that can rapidly take over an area. With so many exotic invasive species, the naturalization of some is inevitable. It is a matter of choosing our battles.

Q: How does Sewanee plan for and manage prescribed forest burns, and how do these contribute to forest restoration and regrowth?

A: Using dendrochronological records and historical land records, we believe that some fire has played a part in the landscape over the last several thousand years. So, we are working to reestablish fire on the landscape. We believe fire played a role in the oak-hickory forest that dominates our landscape today, and we know that through a process called mesophication, we are losing those forests, and prescribed fires are one tool we are using to counteract this. Prescribed fires also help to promote new growth in the understory, which benefits all sorts of wildlife species, particularly birds and meso-mammals. From a human standpoint, these also help control for the wildfire risk by reducing fuel loading in the forest.

Q: What are some of the ongoing ecological restoration projects taking place on the Domain?

A: We are currently using prescribed fire and harvest to help reduce the density of some of the young forests that we have on top of the Cumberland Plateau, in an effort to increase their wildlife habitat value and promote native forest regeneration. We are also reintroducing short leaf pine, which we believe had a broader distribution on the Domain in pre-European times. Overall, we are harvesting some of the overstory, planting new seedlings in the understory, and using prescribed fires to help promote the species we want. We have also been planting native grasses in some of the harvested areas.

Q: Although it is nearly impossible to say with any level of certainty now, would you say parts of the Domain are beginning to experience the effects of climate change?

A: I would say that we are noting changes from extreme weather. What appear to be extreme droughts, extreme rain intensities, and extreme temperatures seem to be creating stressors on the forest. Whether or not that is a direct result of climate change, it is too early to say. But it is happening, and it is driving some of our shifts in management towards more resilient landscapes.

Q: Here is a separate, non-Sewanee related question… You and your wife run an organic farm. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

A: Yes, my wife and I have an organic farm where we raise sheep and goats. We run all of our equipment and vehicles off of vegetable oil, so I commute here everyday in a vegetable oil-powered car. I have been retrofitting petroleum-fueled cars to run on vegetable oil for about a dozen years now. All of the vegetable oil comes from the Sewanee Inn.

Q: Anything else you would like to share about the Domain?

A: It is an amazing resource for students, and if you don’t spend any time on it, you are missing out.

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