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'A never-ending question': When Duke's development meets trees, defenders jump to protect on-campus woods

Duke markets itself as a university in a forest, but some woods are within the campus.

Juxtaposed with new buildings and the humdrum of university life, two parcels of woods have carved out spaces in the middle of West Campus despite the ever-growing University that surrounds them. 

Anderson Woods, at the corner of Science Drive and Towerview Road, covers around six acres, while Chapel Woods, behind the Duke Chapel, covers under five. Despite their small size, both woods are influential in some ways to Duke's mission as educational, scientific and aesthetic resources to the Duke community. 

Although the two parcels of forest represent remarkably different environments, they still have much to offer the University say those familiar with them. 

'A staunch defender'

The woods that would eventually be named for Lewis E. Anderson were first sampled in 1932 by Clarence Korstian, founding dean of the School of Forestry and first director of the Duke Forest. 

The Anderson Woods have been consistently studied since 1978, when Norman Christensen—founding dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and now professor emeritus in the division of environmental sciences and policy—established the first set of permanent plots in the trees. Christensen said the woods have been sampled by faculty and students at Duke routinely since the mid-1980s. 

Some of the most recent data from the Anderson Woods came courtesy of trees cleared to make room for the Student Wellness Center in 2015. Samples of those trees revealed pines more than 280 years old, with others in the woods likely more than 300 years old.

Anderson was among the faculty who used the woods, both before and after the permanent plots were established. He arrived at Duke in the mid-1930s, staying at the University until he retired in 1982. A professor of botany, he was a consistent presence in the woods and a vigorous defender of them until his death in 2007. 

"It wasn't an accident that the woods got named for Lewis Anderson, because he was vigorous in his defense over the years," Christensen said. "He lived to be 95, died in 2007, and he was a staunch defender of the woods up to that point."

A 'University in the forest'

Duke both prides and markets itself as a campus tied to the natural areas that form much of West Campus.

"From an aesthetic standpoint, I think that many of us felt that one of the great beauties of the Duke campus was that it was a landscape that was broken by these really interesting natural places," Christensen said. "That's kind of a brand for this University."

The Duke Master Plan, last updated in 2012, lays out 12 guiding principles and goals to guide University planning.

Among these 12 core principles is that "Duke is a University in the Forest," committed to "identifying natural areas that need to be conserved and restored, limiting construction and interventions to those that maintain the quality and character of the environment." 

The University's focus on the forested areas of campus goes beyond strategic planning into the University's admissions recruitment strategies. The Duke Undergraduate Admissions website mirrors the language of the master plan, again describing Duke as a "University in the Forest."

This tenet also helps tie alumni to the school, said Jason Elliott, sustainability assistant director for the Duke Office of Sustainability. 

"That aesthetic value matters a lot to Duke," he said. "When people come back who graduated 40 years ago, they can still see those trees, and it matters to them."

A 'living classroom'

The Duke Master Plan also positions the University as "a Leader in Environmental Stewardship," recognizing the University's natural environment as a "living classroom" for the Duke community. 

The idea of on-campus forests as a "living classroom" is not lost on Duke faculty, who often use the Anderson and Chapel Woods in their teaching.

"They were important to me from a research perspective, but also from a teaching perspective," Christensen said. "Being right across the street, this is a great place to do classes."

Professors at Duke continue to use the woods not only as a teaching resource, but as a change of scenery for normal lectures and even as an alternative exam location. 

"I do it with students who have never been in the woods, and they find out immediately that it is a different place to learn," said Paul Manos, Jack H. Neely professor of biology. "Everything is different about how you take notes, about how you engage with this kind of foreign entity which is nature and the insects and the soil."

The effort to use natural resources on campus as a classroom resource is increasingly formalized and encouraged by the University. 

In 2018, the Duke Office of Sustainability unveiled the Campus as Lab (CAL) program, which encourages students and faculty to use Duke's campus as a "living laboratory." The program promotes using on-campus resources, including natural areas, to give students a better understanding of world issues. 

"There's a lot of ways that you can take things that you are learning in the classroom and apply them on campus or near campus," Elliott said.

A wide coalition of stakeholders

The stakeholders committed to preserving the remaining forests on West Campus extend beyond faculty concerned about ecology. 

When plans to expand parking for the Bryan Center were in development in 2001, the Divinity School stepped in to object to any plan that would affect the ambiance of the woods behind the Duke Chapel.

The Divinity School's Goodson Chapel's nearly floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the woods, which provide a backdrop to Divinity School events.

"The Chapel Woods have been incredibly aesthetically important for the Divinity School," Christensen said. 

The Duke administration is also invested in preserving forests on West Campus. 

The Duke Office of Sustainability and Duke Facilities Management work together to develop plans to make Duke more sustainable—including preserving campus forests.

"Looking at the forests is one of those things that kind of falls in social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability," Elliott said. 

According to Elliott, the woods go beyond providing aesthetic or educational value by improving the overall on-campus environment. 

"This campus is known as the Campus in the Forest, so we work closely with Facilities Management managing these very valuable assets that help with stormwater integration, shade, windbreaks, noise reduction, along with just aesthetics," Elliott said.

'A never-ending question'

Despite the central role of on-campus forests in the University's identity, the status of forests on West Campus has consistently come into question as West Campus has expanded over the past 40 years. 

Christensen said that his involvement with the Anderson and Chapel Woods has spanned nearly a half century. 

"I came to Duke 45 years ago and literally within days went out—it was right across the street—and almost immediately started using the woods," Christensen said.

At the time, the Anderson Woods site was being considered as the location for a new dorm. 

At the request of Lewis Anderson, Christensen wrote to then-University President Terry Sanford to defend the woods from development. 

The response from Sanford was very positive, Christensen noted, and the site was not chosen to host the new construction.

However, the expansion of West Campus was not nearly finished in the early-to-mid-1970s.

"Some years after that, [around 1980 or 1981], not quite a decade, the University was laying the foundations for the Bryan Center and the idea came up of putting parking for the Bryan Center where Anderson Woods are," Christensen said.

He once again wrote to President Sanford, who committed to protecting the Anderson and Chapel Woods for as long as he had a say in the matter, according to Christensen. Sanford stepped down as Duke President in 1985, and died in 1998.

By 2001, the Anderson Woods, still popularly known at the time as the Bryan Center Woods, were again threatened by the then-proposed Bryan Center parking deck, which now overlooks the old-growth forest. 

The Chronicle reported at the time that faculty were concerned about the parking garage's impact on the Anderson Woods and the animal populations that the woods harbor. 

A decade and a half later, the 2014 planning process for the Student Wellness Center caused tension between University administration and faculty who saw the new building as a threat to the neighboring woods

"The Wellness Center was a wakeup call to everyone," Christensen said. "You can't keep nibbling, because if you walk in that area you'll find that that area has been incredibly invaded with non-native species."

At the time, a group of 58 faculty members from the biology department and the Nicholas School of the environment filed a formal letter with Executive Vice President Tallman Trask. The family of Lewis Anderson, including four of his children, also signed the letter. 

In the letter, the faculty urged the University to both protect the woods and give concerned faculty a greater role in the decision-making process around new construction.

"We were disappointed first that this area, which provides so much environmental and aesthetic benefit and is so important for ecological research and teaching, would be selected for a project that will greatly diminish those values (albeit providing a student service)," the letter stated. 

In response, the Board of Trustees formally named Anderson Woods and Chapel Woods in April 2015, officially preserving them for the foreseeable future.

However, with no clear end to the expansion of West Campus, the tension between University development and preservation of natural spaces on campus seems unlikely to dissipate entirely.

"I look at this as kind of a never-ending question," said Dan Richter, professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.


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