Passion drives a renewed vision of teaching and research in the forest

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Biology 322, Experimental Field Ecology, returned to the University of Nevada, Reno’s Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area in the summer of 2022. Kelly Robinson and Devon Picklum, graduate teaching assistants in the College of Science’s Biology Department, have brought their summer session class into the Forest Life Lab to give students the opportunity to apply field study techniques for plants and animals and to design and execute ecological experiments. As part of the University’s first summer school mini-session, Biology 322 ended on July 8, 2022.

It is one of the many university activities that thrive in Whittell Forest and, within it, the Little Valley Research Station. To name a few:

  • In June, Whittell Forest hosted a Bioblitz, a citizen-led survey to identify and record plant species in the area.
  • Professor Anne Leonard and her lab team from the Department of Biology at the College of Science have incorporated the Little Valley Research Station into their ongoing and renowned study of bees and plant-pollinator interactions.
  • Professors in the Department of Anthropology at the College of Liberal Arts are assessing the impact of humans in this ecological setting, and their work could expand to include mapping these impacts.
  • Whittell Forest is now home to a mountaintop camera station, part of the ALERTForest fire monitoring network. ALERTWildfire is a consortium of the University of Nevada, Reno, University of California San Diego, and University of Oregon, and the Little Valley Camera Station was installed in 2021.
  • Other courses and degree programs include forest-based learning, such as the Bachelor of Ecology and Forest Management offered by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and natural resources.
  • The 2022-2023 Whittell Forest Graduate Research Fellowships have been awarded to Pamela Pierce, Archaeology; Kenny Hickenbottom, engineer; and Johanne Albrigtsen, hydrology.

An article that appeared in the June 2022 issue of Nevada Silver & Blue follows and shares more about the Whittell Forest vision and the people involved:

A money benefactor of the university’s court of honor and trustee emeritus of the Tom Hall ’65 foundation (finance) grew up in Lake Tahoe, on Kingsbury Grade near Stateline, in a house then surrounded by forest. As a young adult, he purchased 80 acres of wooded property on the eastern slopes of the Sierras in the Washoe Valley. On this land, he tended and observed trees for decades, sometimes seeing them fight off disease or watching growth emerge after a fire. Of this cycle of resilience and renewal, Hall said, “There is something spiritual about it.

His appreciation of forest history, heritage and stewardship led Hall to become involved in a renewed vision for the University’s Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area to support a range of learning activities experiential, research and creation in a wide range of disciplines. Hall further connects to this effort as a neighbor – his property borders Whittell Forest.

Sarah Bisbing, Whittell Forest Manager, is an accomplished forest ecologist, researcher and professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources. She describes the Whittell Forest & Wildlife Area – with its grassland system, trembling aspens and intact wildlife populations – as a natural classroom and living laboratory where students can apply what they learn. They participate in the application of modern forest management approaches and also develop forestry skills on the job.

Inside the forest is an area known as the Little Valley Research Station, “a great tool for learning, education, exploration and growth,” Hall said. “I’m 100% in getting the students on the hill to have these experiences.”

The approximately 2,500-acre mountain forest was donated to the University in 1959 by George Whittell ’60 (Honorary Doctor of Laws), an eccentric millionaire who spent much of his life at Lake Tahoe. Since then, Whittell Forest has grown to 2,650 acres through additional land purchases in the 1970s as well as a land donation by Hall and his family in 1982.

The Whittell Forest Advisory Committee was reconstituted in 2020 to assist with management plans and stewardship practices and includes representatives from the Nevada Forestry Division, United States Forest Service, university experimentation, university management and representing nearby residents, Tom Hall and Patricia King ’74 (biology), ’76 MS, ’80 Ph.D.

“The property is not isolated. It works in concert with adjacent lands and it’s important that we manage this with input from constituents,” Bisbing said.

The study of wildlife, insects, soils and forest ecology is an important part of the long history of research at Whittell Forest. As these areas of study continue, Bisbing encourages new ones, ranging from snow hydrology and climate change to social sciences, humanities and the arts, as well as an in-depth representation of the diversity and of inclusion. The Whittell Forest and Wildlife Area is also now home to a mountaintop camera station that is part of the ALERTWildfire monitoring network.

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