Internationally renowned for his work, Northern Arizona University Regents' Professor Wallace "Wally" Covington is leading research in worldwide forest restoration as director of the Ecological Restoration Institute (ERI). Covington's research in restoring forests has lead to decades of improved conservation techniques as well as driving a future resurgence of the timber industry. He's been studying the ecology of southwestern ponderosa pine forests since the mid-1970s when he came to NAU fresh out of Yale University's doctoral program.
"My dream place to be was always NAU at the School of Forestry," Covington says. "As I progressed through my undergraduate and graduate education, I became more and more familiar with the program here at NAU. Their integrated team-taught approach really appealed to me because too much of academic instruction is increasingly narrow in focus, so that you wind up with a lot of specialists that aren't able to really see the big picture. The kinds of problems that we're addressing in society tend to be complex problems that specialists can't really solve unless they are working with some leadership that sees how all the parts fit together."
Currently, under Covington's leadership, the ERI is working on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a bold and collaborative project that seeks to restore 2.4 million acres of land in northern Arizona. Their innovative approach to forest restoration and land management has lead to new conservation and timber industry methods that will have implications for the rest of the mountain west and worldwide.
"One of the themes that we've developed and have been pushing internationally is that the safest thing to do is to restore the self-regulatory mechanisms of the ecosystems because these ecosystems have experienced huge changes over evolutionary time," says Covington. "If the ecosystems are healthy, just like if a human body is healthy, it can resist a lot of disturbances and can deal with them. Just like with a human body, if an ecosystem is not functioning well, it can sometimes not take much of a disturbance to push it over the edge."
Covington helped form the first professional society for ecological restoration in 1987. During the following decade, he was instrumental in helping to establish the Ecological Restoration Institute that he currently directs. The goal, Covington says, is to increase levels of integration among those trying to solve the same problems. It is an ideal he follows as a professor, too: Covington says it is important to keep research and teaching diverse and integrated.
"The coursework and field trips here are all integrated. You don't go to a site and study soils, and then go to another site to study wildlife, and another site to study ecology," he says. "Instead, professors go out as a team with the students and talk about how soils influence the vegetation and how the vegetation structure and diversity influences wildlife structure and diversity. It's really a unique program."
The program's uniqueness also stretches into paid research jobs for both undergraduate and graduate students. ERI's competitive interdisciplinary program receives about 140 applications each year for six openings. Students start the summer before their sophomore year working to develop a senior thesis project. The research findings are often published in peer-reviewed journals.
"One of the things President Haeger encouraged us to do was to also expand our undergraduate research assistant program," he says. "We have about 30 undergraduate students that assist us with ecological restoration projects during the summer and school year. They come from across campus—majoring in business, political science, biology, journalism, arts, just about everything. Whatever their major, they all have a passion for nature and for restoring our ecosystems." One of the program's key lessons for students is that society is making an investment in them, and by having the students participate in some form of service, it is a way for them to pay back.
Covington takes his service message to the community, region, and world as a whole. He frequently travels the globe, helping others develop forest ecology programs. He's also currently leading an effort to bring new industry to the Flagstaff area using a sensible approach to restoring area forests, while increasing economic growth from harvesting traditional lumber and creating innovative products. Covington says that it is all part of the team approach to problem solving that is prevalent at the university.
"In general the faculty and students here are very focused on: 'What are the problems that need to be addressed and how can I contribute in providing answers and the support that is needed to solve those problems?'" Covington says. "The problems are typically interdisciplinary in nature. It's not just that we have too many trees. It's not just that we have an economic downturn in the rural areas of the state. It is all connected. What I think NAU really does well is help students understand this connection, and how to better frame the questions when we address these problems, so they can develop better, long lasting solutions."