Duke University Partnership with SFLRP Offers Path to Vibrant Future for Landowners and Forestry Students

Posted: June 22, 2023 at 1:36 p.m.

by Jenna Schreiber, Forest Operations Manager, The Conservation Fund 

Summer is the season of growth, for both people and forests. Each summer people celebrate growth with graduations, end of the year parties and other festivities. In summer, trees are busy growing and accumulate annual growth rings that document each year’s change.

This year, I was fortunate enough to teach and mentor Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment’s Master of Forestry students as they embarked on the program’s capstone course, Silviculture Prescription.

Silviculture is the art and science of growing trees; it is at the foundation of forestry and forest management. Students in the Silviculture Prescription course work in groups to write forest management plans for family forestland owners who are enrolled in the Roanoke Cooperative’s Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project (SFLRP).

Duke University’s partnership with the SFLRP allows students to step into the role of professional forester. Alton Perry, the Director of SFLRP, and his team work to identify forestland owners who would benefit from having a forest management plan and are willing to engage with the students and allow access to their property.


Since 2017, when the relationship between Duke University and the SFLRP began, students have written fourteen forest management plans covering over 1,500 acres in eastern North Carolina.  This relationship between Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and forest landowners participating in the SFLRP is valuable to both landowners who need science-based advice and direction, and to the students who are evolving into resource professionals.  From an educational perspective, there is no better training than what the Silviculture Prescription is providing through the connection with the SFLRP.

Dr. Alex Finkral

Interim Silviculture Professor, Duke University and President of Eastwood Forests


When the student groups are paired with landowners, the students act as forestry consultants, and the landowners are their clients. Before meeting with the landowners, the students gather geospatial data to see the current and historic forest cover types on the property. They make maps that delineate forest stands, which are areas of similar forest composition that can be managed as a unit. The stand maps also include information about streams, soils and topography of the property.

Much can be learned about a forested property from the computer, but aerial photos are no substitute for meeting with landowners and getting out in the woods. With maps in hand, the students meet with the family forest owners to learn the history of the property and the landowners’ goals, challenges and objectives for their family forestland. The students and the landowners walk the property together, talk, ask questions and generally get to know one another while getting to know the land.

In preparation for fieldwork, students design a sampling methodology to collect data on the species, diameter, height, age and spacing of trees on the property. When taking sample plots, data are also collected on the composition of the midstory and understory, the presence of invasive species and other key characteristics.

Students visit the forest multiple times during the semester, collecting plot level data from each of the forest stands to create a forest inventory. As budding foresters, field days spent in the woods are what students daydream about while spending long hours in the classroom learning the math, science and technical tools of the forestry trade. Field days can be productive, peaceful, physical and incredibly rewarding. Field days can also make you question all of your life decisions that propelled you into the field of forestry. A bad field day can include forgotten or broken equipment, stuck trucks, getting lost, ticks, briars, mosquitos and an endless list of biting bugs, bees, wasps, hornets, extreme heat, extreme cold, rain, hail, snow and more.

Duke forestry students meet with Nash County farm owners Betty and Tony Brown

Bad field days are both inevitable and a rite of passage in the forestry world. One of the greatest lessons that students learn while working on the Forest Management plans is the value of good planning and working as a team. I hope that the field work associated with this assignment did not cause any of the students to question their decision to become foresters, but from what I observed the student groups bonded while working through adversity and came away with some good stories.

After the students collect the field data, they input the information into a forest growth simulation model developed by the US Forest Service called the Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS). FVS allows students to model different management scenarios to determine the impacts on a particular forest over time. The students model three scenarios, over a 50-year projected timeframe, for the management plan:

  1. No management scenario – this shows what the forest composition would be if no active management occurs in the 50-year time horizon.
  2. Maximize timber production and financial returns.
  3. Landowner specific scenario – given the individual landowner’s goals for his or her forestland, the students develop a model that includes management interventions that will meet the landowner’s objectives.

Toward the end of the semester, students gather all the data, model outputs, historical research, maps and observations from their time spent on the property and compile a comprehensive Forest Management Plan. The Forest Management Plan documents how the landowner’s diverse management objectives can be met through silvicultural prescriptions that manipulate individual stands at specific intervals.

The semester ends with the students and forestland owners gathering for a presentation of the final management plans. This is an opportunity for students to showcase their work and for landowners to be informed about the details in the Forest Management Plan for their respective properties.

A Forest Management Plan is essential for forestland owners for multiple reasons: the plan acts as a road map for future forestry operations; it documents the landowner’s goals and objectives, identifies opportunities for management activities that are eligible for cost-share funding, and is a requirement for landowners to access property tax savings by enrolling in the State’s present use value (PUV) tax program. Enrolling forested properties in PUV can reduce property tax obligations by 90 percent. This reduction in tax obligations allows more families to retain their forestland.

The Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project has many opportunities for landowners to gain education, access forestry professionals, obtain assistance with legal services related to succession and estate planning, and facilitate access to cost-share programs, tax benefits and more. However, the partnership between SFLRP and Duke University is unique. While SFLRP is serving family forestland owners to ensure the future of private forestland, the organization’s participation in the Silviculture Prescription Course is also training the next generation of professional foresters. By teaming up with Duke, the SFLRP is fostering an opportunity for forestry students to develop a personal relationship with family forestland owners and experience the challenges these owners are facing.

Through the process of researching and writing a Forest Management Plan for an individual landowner, students utilize the technical and analytical skills they learned in school while developing a practical understanding of the roles people play in the future of forests. This partnership and the relationships that it fosters will continue to grow as the landowners implement their Forest Management Plans and the students embark on careers in forestry.

About the Author: Jenna Schreiber works as a Forest Operations Manager for The Conservation Fund’s Working Forest Fund. Jenna manages a portfolio of roughly 200,000 acres of forestland across eleven states. Jenna is a Registered Forester in North Carolina, holds Masters of Forestry and Environmental Management degrees from Duke University, and is the exhausted mother of two wild boys, Brooks (age 6) and Bennet (4).