The Elon University Board of Trustees voted Oct. 22 to designate a 56-acre undeveloped tract north of University Drive as the Elon University Forest, a dedicated land preserve and natural area. The action protects the largest remaining intact forest in the Town of Elon and safeguards thousands of species of plants, animals and other organisms.
“The Elon University Forest represents our deepest values, including community, stewardship and global awareness,” said Elon University President Leo M. Lambert. “The forest will serve primarily as a teaching resource and research site for our academic programs, and is an important component of the university’s sustainability master plan.”
Some trees in the hardwood sections of Elon Forest, which make up more than 50 percent of the property, are estimated to be 150-200 years old. About 40 percent of the area is pine forest planted on an old farm field about 50 years ago.
“It would take 120-160 years to grow another Elon Forest – that is longer than Elon University has been in existence,” Lambert said. “By establishing this preserve, we are allowing the Elon University Forest to continue to grow into a majestic oak-dominated mixed hardwood forest that will be appreciated by generations of students.”
The property was owned by the Isley family for generations and was bought by Elon in 1997 from the heirs of Nellie Tickle Isley, who died in 1961. While various proposals for developing the land were discussed, the idea of letting the area remain natural gained support.
The plan to create the Elon University Forest came to the forefront recently when a group of faculty members, led by Jeffrey Coker, associate professor of biology, raised the matter with Lambert. Coker pointed out how rare it is to find undeveloped land within a town and so close to a university. In most cases, property adjacent to campuses is already degraded, fragmented or too small to support a functional ecosystem. Coker called the opportunity to protect this large tract a “now or never chance.”
“In its natural state, most of Alamance County would look similar to this property,” Coker said. “In addition to the hardwood areas, the land contains a variety of ecosystems, including grasslands, seasonal wetlands and small streams. In the North Carolina Piedmont, a forest ecosystem of 56 acres can be healthy and maintain many of the original species of an area.”
Coker said most college science courses are unable to give students first-hand outdoor experiences, since it is rare to find a forest within walking distance of a campus. Several Elon courses currently use the area as a teaching resource, and honors students and faculty have been studying plants, soil and water chemistry there. It is expected that more faculty members will consider the forest for long-term research now that it is unavailable for future development.
The Elon University Forest will be preserved through a comprehensive management plan, and uses of the property will be guided by an advisory committee appointed by the Elon president. To protect the natural state of the land, the property will not be open for general public use. From time-to-time, the university will host guided science tours and other activities at the forest in keeping with its educational mission.