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UA Outdoor Learning Center Unveiled

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

The smile that persisted on Riley Boykin Smith’s face indicated that the mission he had embarked upon several years ago had reached fruition. The unveiling of The University of Alabama Outdoor Learning Center in Hale County recently was the culmination of the efforts of numerous people and organizations, spearheaded by Smith, the former Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
 
The $500,000 learning center project is located on a former family homestead known as “Tanglewood,” which was  bequeathed to the university in 1949 by Alma Bishop Williams. Managed by UA’s Department of Biological Sciences, Tanglewood has served as a UA field station for decades. The addition of access roads, field planting sites and study stations to the property created added valued for the university’s natural resources minor.
 
“I came to realize that if you didn’t go to Auburn or Georgia or Mississippi State or another like institution, that you were not exposed at all – not even a little bit – to anything associated with management of our forests or game or wildlife,” Smith said. “Enjoying all of that since I was a young boy, it became important to me to try to do something about it.
 
“Of course, I’m an Alabama graduate. We started talking to the folks up at the university and they were immediately receptive. The course is a minor; it’s broad; it’s general, but it’s going to give students enough of a background to ask intelligent questions and make reasonable decisions in the management of their own property or in their jobs in the workplace, say in the real estate business for example. We’ve got a tractor, a disk and this will give students a good, solid, general background and education in land management and wildlife management.”
 
Robert (Bob) Olin, UA’s Dean of Arts and Sciences, said the outdoor learning facility will allow students to study and conduct research among the pines and hardwoods of the Bishop Biological Station in a variety of weather conditions. The main facility houses an indoor classroom with all the modern audio/visual amenities, as well as a combination lab/kitchen. The covered outdoor meeting area, replete with stone fireplace, will serve as the classroom in all but the most inclement weather.
 
Olin said the natural resources minor is offered to students in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Commerce and Business Administration.
 
“It teaches Alabama’s future land owners and managers how to care for Alabama’s vast natural landscapes, whether corporate forests, hunting or public preserves, or family farms,” Olin said. “It includes an interdisciplinary curriculum of UA courses in the life and earth sciences and advanced courses focused on water, wildlife, timber, landforms, and ecological relationships.
 
“I know Dean Barry Mason (Alabama Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration) will agree wholeheartedly that this program has remarkable patrons in Riley Smith, Tim Gothard of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, Bev Leigh and other members of the National Wild Turkey Federation and our friends at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. They, along with our faculty, envisioned students spending a lot of time with the land, experiencing topography, different types of forests, soils, water flow, wildlife and land management practices first hand. Tanglewood is intended for this type of education.”
 
Smith praised the persistence and tenacity of Olin in the quest to put together the natural resources program, as well as building the learning facility.
 
“When we first started talking about the curriculum, it was apparent that if we had a place in the country, rather than just going to class in Tuscaloosa, the course would be much more effective,” Smith said. “So we started seeking funding for this facility. I can’t say enough about Bob Olin. He has been absolutely wonderful. We had some stumbling blocks, but he refused to be stopped.”
 
Smith said the project got significant contributions from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ State Lands Division, National Wild Turkey Federation, Alabama Wildlife Federation and Ben May Trust in Mobile.
 
“I’m immensely excited over the potential of this course,” Smith said. “We have the potential to affect thousands of students who didn’t go to Auburn or another land-grant school. And the National Wild Turkey Federation is going to take the Alabama model and take it into every state in the union. There’s only one land-grant institution in each state, so this will reach a large number of students.
 
“This is really a great start, and I can’t tell you how excited I am.”
 
Gothard said the Outdoor Learning Facility at Tanglewood is a tool to broaden the scope of education available in Alabama, and eventually across the nation.
 
“Basically, the UA natural resources minor gives us the opportunity to expose students who are in other disciplines to the fundamentals of natural resource management,” Gothard said. “These facilities will provide launching points for hands-on study of how natural resource management works. And where that’s going to pay off is a lot of these students are not going to go into forestry and wildlife. They’re going to be working in other business arenas, or they may be involved in the management of family land and natural resources. What we’re going to have is people in other professions who understand the basics of natural resources management and that translates into good decision-making in the different professions they’re in.”
 
Patti Powell, Director of State Lands, said the Outdoor Learning Center will hopefully facilitate a better understanding of land and natural resources management for not only the students but the public in general.
 
“We appreciate the importance of a facility like this, not just because it continues and enhances the attachment to the land that we so want to see in young adults,” Powell said. “People often ask what we do, why we do it and what it means. I’m excited that we can start pointing to the work that goes on here as a small example of why the land is so important – why understanding the management of our land and resources is so important.”
 
Olin said more than 32 guest lecturers in life sciences and natural resource management will offer their expert opinions on a variety of related topics at the Outdoor Learning Center before entering the field with students.
 
“You’ll find students returning here to catalog and analyze samples from the woods, gaining the field knowledge and passion for the land that will serve them well as tomorrow’s land stewards,” Olin said. “These facilities represent learning in service to an important need in our state, and we look forward to it benefiting landowners throughout Alabama. They are the result of an enjoyable and productive partnership between the university and our land and wildlife conservation friends. We trust that this is just the beginning of a long relationship aimed at nurturing Alabama’s beautiful natural treasures.”
 
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) The University of Alabama’s new Outdoor Learning Center will provide students who minor in natural resources an avenue to hands-on experience at the university’s Tanglewood property in Hale County. Attendees at the center’s grand opening got an up-close view of the facility’s new tractor, including, from right, Bev Leigh of the Alabama chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Riley Boykin Smith, Tim Gothard of the Alabama Wildlife Federation and Donna Leggett of the NWTF.

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