The Forestry Department at Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources is one of four research university forestry schools selected for a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) grant of $1.2 million to increase the productivity of plantation forests for a multiple of products, including energy sources.

Robert W. Walters, Virginia Tech vice president for research, made the announcement.

Researchers will use the grant to find ways to increase the production of wood on smaller land bases through environmentally sound, scientifically based management while preserving large areas of natural forest for other uses such as wilderness preservation, aesthetics, and recreation.

According to Thomas R. Fox, associate professor of forestry, the overall goal of the center is to increase the productivity of plantation forests both in the United States and Latin America for use of wood for traditional as well as emerging products such as biobased fuels and plastics. This can help reduce the demand for petroleum.

“We must find a way to break the stronghold petroleum has on the nation today by developing superior genetic lines that can be used to create materials now derived mostly from petroleum,” explained forestry department head Harold Burkhart. “There’s no reason why we can’t break that barrier.”

“The questions and issues facing forestry are becoming more complex,” said Fox. “These types of innovative, multi-disciplinary efforts that involve multiple institutions will be needed to provide the information to increase the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of our forests. We are pleased to collaborate with three other distinguished programs in this area.”

North Carolina State University, Purdue University, and Oregon State University will join with Virginia Tech in creating the center, which will replace an earlier Center for Tree Genetics between Purdue and Oregon State, also funded by NSF I/UCRC.

The current grant, which involves matching funds of $300,000 from forest industry to each of the four participating universities, is highly competitive. The partnership will build upon the strengths of four focused research programs to create a multi-university, interdisciplinary, single research center that will solve a variety of forestry issues through multifaceted approaches with each school providing specific expertise.

Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University will provide expertise in silviculture of forest plantations. Oregon State and Purdue universities will emphasize forest genetics and forest biotechnology research. Virginia Tech will take the lead to develop quantitative models that link the results from the silvicultural and biotechnology research into a unified system.

“The faculty, students, and alumni of the university’s College of Natural Resources and forestry department have been champions of the environmental and economic importance of our forests for many decades,” said Walters. “Their research leadership and partnerships with businesses, government agencies, and the public have enhanced and protected this magnificent resource for America and beyond. I am pleased that our participation in this new center continues to extend the reach of Virginia Tech’s expertise nationwide.”

The industry support for Virginia Tech will come from two of the College of Natural Resources existing research cooperatives: The Forest Nutrition Cooperative and the Loblolly Pine Growth and Yield Research Cooperative. These two programs have active research projects across the South from Virginia to Texas. The Forest Nutrition Cooperative also has research efforts in Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Columbia. The Loblolly Pine Growth and Yield Cooperative recently expanded into South America as well.

Burkhart and Fox coordinated the college’s application for the prestigious grant. The grant, which is a culmination of four years of work on the college’s part, will increase the opportunities for research in many different areas. “These grants are extremely high profile. Our grant is a means to an end, a way to advance research,” Burkhart noted.

The College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech consistently ranks among the top five programs of its kind in the nation. Faculty members stress both the technical and human elements of natural resources and instill in students a sense of stewardship and land-use ethics. Areas of studies include environmental resource management, fisheries and wildlife sciences, forestry, geospatial and environmental analysis, natural resource recreation, urban forestry, wood science and forest products, geography, and international development.

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