Research forest suffers from vandalism

Vada Shelby, News Contributor

Professors, researchers and students are urging the public to be more respectful of Oregon State University’s McDonald-Dunn research forest after a man was caught trespassing and building a cabin in the forest.

McDonald-Dunn research forest is open to the public for hiking, biking, riding horses, and getting in touch with nature. With the forest being open to the public, some visitors pass through with. In the past, research forest staff members have found litter, vandalism and evidence of dismissed signs stating certain parts of the forest are closed. Disregarding signs and creating unofficial paths has lead to jeopardization of research projects and historical landmarks. 

In early February, local law enforcement released photos of a man who built a cabin-like structure in the McDonald-Dunn research forest without permission. Not only did the man trespass through the forest, but he used lumber and other resources without regard for the research and other uses of the forest. The news of this incident raised questions among the College of Forestry about safety and respect in the forest. Frequent visitors such as students, researchers and staff members have voiced concerns to the College of Forestry, Department of Public Safety, and the Benton County Sheriff Department.

“My first thought was ‘hey, buddy, this is not your land. You have no right to build a cabin here’,”  Director of College of Forestry Research Forests, Steve Fitzgerald said, via email. “Illegal activities like this could and have affected research projects and cultural resources. Damage to research sites could destroy a faculty member’s or graduate student’s research project.  Many research projects cost thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars to install and conduct follow up measurements over a period of years.”

Although no research projects were jeopardized by this structure, it could have potentially changed the views and comfort levels of students and community members that use the forest. The person who built the structure has since been identified and caught, and an investigation is in progress. 

“The forest is heavily used,” Graduate student Adrian Gallo said. “I’m surprised somebody was able to build a house and go undetected. The structure should be taken down. It creates such a liability for the university and a concern for student safety.” 

An example Gallo here mentioned was if the structure’s owner continued to live there. Since students and staff sometimes use the forest for pre-dawn research, they could be walking around this person’s home before the sun comes up. Gallo believes that situations like this could lead to the homeowner attempting to “defend themselves” and potentially harm the researcher. 

As a graduate student who has utilized the forest’s resources before, Esther Baas has some concerns about this issue as well. Baas also toured the research forest last year with an orientation group for the College of Forestry. 

“I think it is disappointing that someone would jeopardize the integrity of the forest and the research being conducted there,” Baas said. “The researchers and students have sacrificed a lot of their lives to be in the forest in order to conduct studies that we don’t have the opportunity to conduct elsewhere. Having a dedicated research forest is a huge privilege in the state of Oregon and it should be respected.”

The McDonald-Dunn research forest has over 26 miles of public hiking trails, which recieve about 155,000 recreation visits each year, according to Forest Manager Brent Klumph. 

Klumph works in the forest five days a week, even if he only starts his day there and moves to other locations. All of the roads and trails prohibit motorized recreational vehicles, and some trails  are reserved for foot traffic only. However, the forest also has multi-use trails allowing bicycles, runners, horses, and other non-motorized activities. 

“Our main public trails offer many different resources to the public, students, and other universities,” Klumph said. “The public get free  access to hiking trails that are well maintained, and classrooms and research teams are able to use the area for labs, demonstrations, and tours. Also, other schools like Western Oregon University sometimes come here with classrooms, and their track team comes to run here sometimes.” 

Although most visitors come for educational purposes or to find a peaceful trail, some people visit the forest with bad intentions. 

“Last fall, we had somebody poach four elk out of the Dunn forest,” Klumph said. “Some smaller incidents we’ve seen include vandalism, littering, and the use of motorized vehicles on trails that aren’t built to handle them. We have also had to give out citations for people disregarding signs and going into restricted areas in the forest.” 

John Bailey, a professor of Silviculture and Fire Management at OSU, has also noticed destructive actions in the forest. Bailey takes his students, as well as public outreach groups, to the forest regularly. 

“I’ve seen a lot of unauthorized biking trails over the years, and dog poop everywhere,” Bailey said, via email. “There’s also a little vandalism of signage and research equipment.” 

Protecting and respecting the land is very important to Director of College of  Forestry Research Forests, Stephen Fitzgerald. 

“The Research Forest is a living laboratory where forestry and reasearch students receive hands on learning and training. They develop skills they will take with them into the workplace,” Fitzgerald said, via email. “We have an active research program that created discoveries and new knowledge to help us improve the management of not just the Research Forests, but all forests in Oregon and across the region.

According to Fitzgerald, the forest is important not only because of the information it holds, but because of impact it can have on people’s physical and mental health.

“Many people don’t realize how important recreating in the forest and getting in tune with Nature both physically and mentally, Fitzgerald said, via email. “I’ve had two people tell me that ‘this forest saved my life.’  This is very powerful statement of how forest affect our well being.”

Graduate student Esther Baas has seen just how powerful the forest is. While on a College of Forestry orientation in August 2018, Baas had many things catch her attention. 

“I had the opportunity to see some incredible research while I was there and I met with researchers who spend most of their time living and working within the forest,” Baas said. 

Overall, the research forests are unique aspects to campus worth protecting.

“The Research Forests are a special place. Please enjoy but be respectful of this wonderful resource,” Fitzgerald said.