Combining his interests in woodworking and studies in ecology, Sewanee's Domain Manager Nathan Wilson tells us about his work as a forestry consultant, about maintaining the University of the South's 13,000 acre tract of land, and what can be done to improve the forests of the Cumberland Plateau region.
Where did you grow up and what experiences led to your interest in the forestry and ecology profession?
Grew up in Northwest Georgia at the foot of lookout mountain (near Menlo, GA) I grew up in the woods and initially studied ecology in College. Also in college I began to become interested in woodworking and construction and realized that forestry, in its truest sense was the science of ecological conservation. I was struck by the polarization present between the forestry community and the ecological community at that time and realized that, though there were many commonalities, the two communities were not listening to each other long enough to recognize them.
What were the experiences that led to you taking the position of Domain Manager at Sewanee and tell us about?
Prior to working for Sewanee I was a land manager and practicing forester and biologist. I began working for a land trust managing properties under conservation easement and then later went out on my own providing wildlife habitat and timber management services for small non industrial private landowners. Through my consulting business I was able to act as an independent contractor for the Natural Resources Conservation Service writing non game management plans for landowners throughout middle tn.
As a private forestry consultant what kind of clients did you serve?
I focused on landowners who were interested in improving the habitat and ecological functions of their properties as well as generating some income from their management. Many landowners had a primary focus of habitat management for game and nongame species and timber revenue was secondary.
What challenges are you addressing in serving municipalities such as the Hohenwald and Sewanee Utility District and how are you responding?
Land application is gaining in popularity in many areas where water is a limiting factor. Because it usually doubles and sometimes triples the moisture regime for the forest, it requires many changes to the species composition to make it work. For example, because the water being distributed in the forest is nutrient rich, the decomposition rate is greatly accelerated. Leaf litter often does not make it through the winter and must be supplemented with grass and forb species.
Can your current work with municipalities be a working model for communities across the Cumberland Plateau wishing to be more sustainable?
I think it is very site specific but may be useful in some areas.
Is the market for private land management growing?
I think that it is. The demographics of rural landowners are changing and parcels are increasingly becoming smaller and owned by folks for whom maximum timber revenue is not their highest goal. I think that the growing markets for ecosystem services beyond timber will provide opportunities for both consultants and landowners.
In your experience managing a microcosm of the Cumberland Plateau, what kind of practices do you think will be essential to regenerating and maintaining high quality forests in the Cumberland Plateau region?
The challenge is being able to work in the high graded stands of the plateau and improve them. Having markets for low value wood products like biomass are essential to make good forestry work in the plateau. Restoration of shortleaf pine in mixed stands on the plateau is another area where we can improve the quality of the forest to help landowners afford to manage their forests well.
You said that managing Sewanee’s domain offers a great opportunity for experimentation. What innovating practices are you implementing there, and can they be model for communities and forests across the Cumberland Plateau region?
We are doing low quality thinning and experimenting with the time it takes from the onset of a low quality improvement cut to when enough quality regeneration is in the stand to begin harvesting some of the higher quality timber. We are also experimenting with prescribed fire, a tool that has been used on the plateau for the last 10,000 years and seems to have several ecosystem benefits. I also hope we can be in the forefront of managing forests for increased carbon sequestration. This is an area of growth for the plateau forests. High graded forests tend to have lower carbon sequestration potential than vigorously growing stands.
Thanks for your time Nate. It was great to meet you and good luck with your work!