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Miami University Natural Areas behind the scene(ry): a Q-and-A with ecologist Dave Gorchov and field manager Nancy Feakes

With nearly 1,000 acres and 17 miles of trails in our backyard, the Natural Areas are an invaluable resource for recreation, teaching, and research

Bachelor pond and a clear blue winter sky
Bachelor Pond (photo by Nancy Feakes)

Miami University Natural Areas behind the scene(ry): a Q-and-A with ecologist Dave Gorchov and field manager Nancy Feakes

Bachelor Pond (photo by Nancy Feakes)

The beauty of Miami University’s Oxford campus is renowned — inspiring poet Robert Frost to describe it as “the most beautiful campus that ever there was.” 

What makes it so beautiful? One factor: Nearly half of the 2,000-acre campus is designated as forest. Also: The Miami University Natural Areas greenbelt — 1,000 acres of sanctuary lands to the south, east, and northeast of campus.

Thanks to the vision of former Miami University President Paul Pearson (1981-1992), the Miami University Natural Areas was established in 1992 by the board of trustees and protected “in perpetuity.” The Natural Areas staff, the Miami University Natural Areas Committee, and their partners are tasked with managing the lands to protect the resources for teaching, research, and recreation, and to provide for these uses in the future.

Learn more about how the Natural Areas are used and maintained through our Q-and-A with two people behind the scenes. 

Dave Gorchov, professor of Biology and chair of the Natural Areas Committee, became a member of the Natural Areas committee shortly after he joined Miami in 1990. He has been using the Natural Areas since 1992 for his research on plant population and community ecology. 

Nancy Feakes has been field manager of the Natural Areas since the spring of 2021, after retiring from a 35-year career with the U.S. Forest Service followed by three seasons of recreation area and trail maintenance at Hueston Woods State Park. 


Dave Gorchov
Dave Gorchov, professor of Biology and chair of the Natural Areas Committee (photo by Jeff Sabo)

Having the Natural Areas in our “backyard” is unique for a public university. What are some of the ways you use the areas?  

Gorchov: It has been very valuable to have these nearby natural areas available for research, especially where we want to make non-destructive experiments, such as deer exclosures and controlled invasive plant removal.  For teaching, it is especially valuable to have natural areas so close. I have made use of Western Woods for the past 10 years (plus additional Areas more recently) for BIO 433, Field Ecology, and before that for Botany field methods course. Within a three hour lab period students can walk from the classroom to one of the Natural Areas, work in groups for making observations or carrying out experiments, and return to the classroom.  This makes the Natural Areas an invaluable teaching resource.

I have had about 20 undergrads work with me or my grad students on research in the Natural Areas. Research in the Natural Areas was central to dissertations of two of my Ph.D. students, to theses of seven MS students and two current M.En. (Master's of Environmental Science) students, and Honors theses of two undergrads. 

What changes have you seen in the Natural Areas over the past 30 years? 

Gorchov: The abundance and diversity of spring wildflowers and tree seedlings have declined, at least in Western Woods, where my research and teaching activities go back to the 1990s.  Tom Crist (professor of Biology) and I did not know if the very abundant deer, or the very abundant non-native invasive shrub, Amur honeysuckle, was responsible, so we set up 5 pairs of deer exclosure and deer access plots in 2010, with honeysuckle removed from half of each.  Findings from these plots (from our graduate and undergraduate students ' research) reveal that deer are responsible for the loss of tree seedlings, whereas both deer and honeysuckle contribute to the loss of wildflowers. 

Dave Gorchov and 2 students walk down a trail in the natural areas
Dave Gorchov (right) with a graduate student in the Masters in Environmental Science program and an undergraduate student in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates 'Ecology of Human Dominated Landscapes' program, survey one of his research locations in the Natural Areas (photo by Jeff Sabo)

What does the day-to-day and the seasonal management of the Natural Areas  look like?  

Feakes: The first 8 months here, I was a crew of one trying to catch up cutting downfall and clearing trails of vegetation and downfall that had accumulated over the previous year since Jim Reid (former field manager) retired. 

For almost two years now, I have been assisted by two to four of the hardest-working and student staff that you could hope for. Though they come with various levels of knowledge and skills, they ALL are passionate about the Natural Areas and are willing to do hard work, even under adverse weather conditions. This has allowed us to address some of the huge backlog of deferred maintenance that has accumulated on the trail system, such as building or replacing about 10 bridges in a year and a half.

There's a lot of variability in what we do. With student staff, we try to coordinate schedules so that almost everyone is available for at least a few hours of "project work" (usually building or rebuilding or doing major repairs) one or two days a week, but some weeks we have to postpone project work to address our routine maintenance. 

Weather is a big factor in our work scheduling: Not only will the blowdown or a washout from a big storm change our planned priorities, but a lot of what we do cannot be done safely, effectively, and efficiently in the middle of a rainstorm. If heat indices are expected to be in the 90s or above, we try to get the most physical work done early in the day. But if wind chills are down in the teens, we plan as much as we can later in the day, and hope we can work on projects where we are moving around a lot, and/or protected from the elements. Bad weather is a good time to stay in the workshop to cut the boards and drill the holes needed for that next construction project, and to maintain our tools.

We also sometimes switch priorities or schedules to take advantage of opportunities to utilize volunteer groups. For example, each of the past three semesters, the Botanical Society helped us remove honeysuckle between the paved Oxford Area Trail System (OATS) trail and Collins Run.

Seasonally, late spring through early fall has the greatest demand for vegetation management. This is the first summer we have been staffed enough to do any project work.  

Nancy Feakes works on a set of wooden steps on a steep trail
Nancy Feakes, field manager, building a set of stairs on the Bachelor North trail with her student employees (photo courtesy of Nancy Feakes)

Do you have a favorite trail or area? And have you observed that certain areas are more popular with students than others?  

Feakes: There are several areas that are very special. Bachelor Pond can be beautiful, especially in the spring and during fall color. The east-west section of trail going through the Bachelor Pines, west of the swinging bridge, takes me back to when our sixth grade class from Kramer Elementary went to Camp Glen Helen, and that week probably had an influence on my career choice. There are several stands of big trees that I enjoy spending time in, especially those that don't have much honeysuckle around them. And of course, overlooks of Harker's Run from the Reinhart area are always worthy of a few minutes of your time. But when the bluebells are blooming on the south end of the Marcum Trail, just north of the stables, that's pretty hard to beat for a person that loves blue flowers!

On all of the trails, I have encountered a good mix of students and local residents, and a few visitors to the area. It seems like a larger percentage of the students I have seen along the Marcum Trail are there just to relax and enjoy being in the woods, compared to those in Bachelor, where there are more runners, and more students trying to get exercise, going faster and further. Lots of people enjoy the Harker's Run Trail, and especially like the swinging bridge. 

What are some of the challenges, and delights, of working in the Natural Areas?

Feakes: Challenges include the amount of work I would like to get done to bring the trails up to standard and to enhance the health of the Natural Areas, compared to the time and resources available to accomplish that. (The Natural Areas are funded primarily by an endowment and donations, so limited funding affects how and what we accomplish.) The weather, especially the recent extreme storm events, is another challenge. Delights include working with a passionate (Natural Areas) Committee, great student employees, and the people who regularly get out to enjoy the trails, as well as being out on the trails regularly myself. Another delight is just seeing what we have been able to accomplish to improve the trails in less than two years.  

Did I notice new maps of the Natural Areas? They look great.

Feakes: Yes, there is a brand new update.  Robbyn Abbitt, Geographic Information Science (GIS) coordinator and associate director of the Geospatial Analysis Center, deserves all the credit for these maps. She also had her advanced GIS class involved with data collection, processing, and the design of our new online and paper maps.

Asking for a friend: The video captured of the bobcat in the Natural Areas by one of your trail cameras sparked a lot of interest last fall. Have you seen more evidence of bobcats since then? 

No more evidence has been seen since then, Gorchov said. 

bluebells in Marcum woods
Bluebells in bloom in Marcum Woods (photo by Nancy Feakes)