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Buddhist Community Enjoys Healthier Forest, Thanks to WSU Natural Resource Sciences Students

Posted by struscott | September 16, 2009

One of Sravasti Abbey’s monastics heads up the trail with WSU natural resource science students to measure trees in the forest stands.
One of Sravasti Abbey’s monastics heads up the trail with WSU natural resource science students to measure trees in the forest stands.

Mark Swanson and his Natural Resource Sciences 419 class teamed up with Sravasti Abbey, a Buddhist monastic community near Newport, Wash., in order to restore the forest surrounding the abbey. The abbey, which owns 240 acres of land, received a USDA Forest Land Enhancement Program (FELP) grant, which helps small forest landowners care for their trees. The abbey contacted Swanson for help with the project last November.

Swanson used the opportunity to create a practicum course for undergraduate students. Students were able to participate in measuring, evaluating and creating a recommendation for a restoration prescription for the forest. They then marked trees that would remain after thinning, and assessed issues such as impacts on wildlife, creating fire models, evaluating economics, and state forest practices regulations. The students visited the forest five times and spent two full weekends working. Swanson said the hands-on experience would make the students more competitive when applying for jobs.

“It is the kind of experience I want to give my students before they graduate and enter the forestry working world,” said Swanson. “This project provided an opportunity to teach the skills needed to be consulting foresters or to work for a natural resource agency.”

Swanson said the course turned out to be very popular. He said he anticipated having only four students sign up for the course but ended up with 24 from three different majors.

Buddhists practice ahimsa, which is the belief in not doing harm to any living thing. This practice at first might seem to make the concept of removing trees a difficult one for the monastics. The class found there was an average of 637 trees per acre. According to the FLEP grant, the forest needed to be reduced to an average of 300 trees per acre. Swanson said that the members of the community accepted that although thinning the forest would kill some trees, it would save more in the long run by deterring disease outbreaks and intense fire events.

The class measured trees to find the average number of trees of various ranges of diameters.
The class measured trees to find the average number of trees of various ranges of diameters.

The forest around the abbey is composed of many different species of trees. Grand fir, which thrive in relatively moist areas in the West, were the dominant species in the pretreatment stand. When grand firs become too dense, disease begins to spread. Along with being the most susceptible to disease, they are also at a high risk for fire. The prescription for the forest involved removing only grand fir. The material from the removed trees was used around the abbey for walkways and as firewood.

Swanson had a chance to return to Sravasti Abbey to see the treated stands of trees. He said the before and after difference is like night and day. Now, there is more light in the forest, is easier to walk through, and the ground shrubs are experiencing enhanced growth, which is beneficial to the wildlife.

The treatments were reviewed by the state Department of Natural Resources, which approved them as being compliant with the terms of the FLEP grant.

Swanson said although the outlooks of the Buddhists are different from those of the students, there were shared goals and interests, which was a beneficial learning experience to both.

“This was a great project,” Swanson said. “It brought industry people, academics, and a nonprofit together and we are very proud to offer opportunities like this.”

Students in the Natural Resource Sciences 419 class with their professor, Mark Swanson (far right).

by Whitney Parsons, Marketing, News, and Educational Communications intern

Learn more

Visit the Department of Natural Resource Sciences Web site.