America the Beautiful: Universities Taking the Lead to Improve and Restore Nation’s Natural Resources - NerdWallet

America the Beautiful: Universities Taking the Lead to Improve and Restore Nation’s Natural Resources


With the 4th of July coming up, we at NerdScholar are thinking a lot about America and its future. In particular, we’re thinking about the natural beauty of our country and the importance of preserving it. So we’re proud to salute colleges and universities who invest in our nation with programs that take the lead in land preservation and restoration.

In general, these programs preserve local habitats, create environmental teaching and learning opportunities, and promote sustainability within the local community. They fall in two distinct categories:

  • Forest and Water Restoration
  • Arboretums and Agriculture

Restoration programs aim to protect land and train professionals who oversee its use and care. Arboretums and agriculture programs, meanwhile, strive to beautify campus grounds, provide opportunities for teaching, learning, and recreation, and repurpose land for community benefit. Here are the standouts:

Protecting our Natural Resources: Universities with Forest and Water Restoration Initiatives

New Mexico Highlands University

Based at New Mexico Highlands University, the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute supports and advises the restoration of forests and watersheds throughout the state. Its aim is to provide “technical assistance and practical knowledge” in restoration projects, “reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire and restore healthy and sustainable forested ecosystems and restoration-based economies.” The Institute works in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to help keep New Mexico homes, watersheds, and wildlife safe from wildfire. The institute also stimulates local economies by introducing employment and educational opportunities.

Texas A&M University

Established in 1914, the Texas A&M Forest Service was founded as part of the university: the legislation that created the organization also established a Department of Forestry and authorized the creation of state timber forests. Its main purpose was not only to protect forest lands from destructive forces like wildfires and pests, but also to educate Texans on forestry and its economic potential for the state. Today, the agency focuses exclusively on protection and preservation efforts, and it now employs over 375 employees across the state. Even though it has offices across Texas, it’s still based in College Station and an important part of Texas A&M.

University of Montana

The College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana offers undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral degrees as well as certificate programs. Its academic programs include: Forestry, Wildlife Biology, Resource Conservation, Wildland Restoration and Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management. Students and faculty use the vast landscape surrounding Missoula, Montana, as their classroom to study forest ecology, watershed management, timber harvest, wildlife research, and more.  The Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station of The University of Montana also owns and operates 21,000 acres of the Lubrecht Experimental Forest.

Colorado State University

Colorado State University is home to a number of conservation and preservation programs, including the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. Established in 2004 under the Southwest Forest Health and Wildfire Prevention Act, this institute is a special unit of the university’s Warner College of Natural Resources. It aims to gather and “apply the most current scientific information relevant to the needs of forest managers and communities in taking action to mitigate wildfire risk and restore healthy forest conditions.”

Cultivating Our Natural Resources: Universities with Arboretums and Agriculture Initiatives

University of Maryland

The University of Maryland began as an agricultural institution in the 1850s. Today, however, it’s a major research institution and a leader in environmental stewardship, horticulture, and urban forestry. The flagship campus has over 8,000 trees and nearly 400 acres of undeveloped forest, and it was the first in Maryland to be honored as a Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. In 2008, the American Association of Public Gardens designated the campus an arboretum and botanical garden. According to the university, the garden’s aim is not just to enhance the beauty of the campus, but to “promote awareness of conservation and preservation of our natural environment for the enrichment of the university community, the citizens of Maryland and our visitors.”

University of Vermont

Common Ground is a student-run education farm at the University of Vermont. Located at the Horticultural Research Center in South Burlington, the farm consists of three one-acre fields. Students completely operate and manage the farm, which produces enough crops to support a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) program for students, faculty, staff and alumni. Although it isn’t certified organic, the farm follows the principles of organic farming, incorporating “alternative and ecological practices such as cover cropping, rotation, and intercropping.” It also supports ongoing university courses, a fall produce stand in front of the university library, and the local food shelf, which provides weekly meals to Burlington residents.

Elmhurst College

The Arboretum at Elmhurst College in Illinois began with a single oak tree. Established in 1966, the Arboretum encompasses the entire 48-acre campus and includes over 800 trees and shrubs. Its collections feature specimens native to the Chicago region, ethnobotanically significant, excellent fall color, living fossils, and plants of Asia. It also promotes a dedicated trees program in which donors can dedicate a tree to support the Arboretum or honor a faculty or staff member.

South Seattle Community College

The South Seattle Community College Arboretum in West Seattle owes its origins to students in need of a laboratory: in 1978, students from the Landscape Horticulture Program petitioned the College to create an arboretum so they could use it for teaching and research. The College and South Seattle Community College Foundation agreed, so students designed and built it as part of their coursework. Today, the 5-acre arboretum serves as an outdoor classroom for courses in plant identification, arboriculture, pruning, irrigation, garden renovation, plant problem diagnostics, landscape management and landscape construction courses. More generally, it serves as a “garden sanctuary” for the West Seattle community. It features one of the best collections of dwarf conifers in the country, and in 2012 it was named a National Wildlife Federation Urban Wildlife Sanctuary.

Hastings College

Situated in the Great Plains, the Hastings College Arboretum is, as they put it, “one tough place for trees.” When the College was founded in 1882, the campus was a “treeless pasture.” But since the inaugural spring planting in 1883, an ongoing effort to cultivate and maintain a variety of plants has transformed the campus grounds into a beautiful arboretum that features over 1,000 trees. It provides enjoyment for the entire Hastings community, as well as teaching and learning opportunities for undergraduates at Hastings and students at local community colleges and K-12 schools. Above all, though, the arboretum’s beauty is a testament to a century’s worth of professional and volunteer work and a reminder of the importance of giving back for future generations.

Connecticut College

For a long time, the Connecticut Arboretum was ancillary to the college campus. It was established in 1931 on 64 acres of nearby farmland, and one of its main features was a grove of mature Hemlock trees. Today, the college grounds are officially part of the arboretum, which now consists of 750 acres of preserved open space. It includes a diverse collection of natives and botanicals, as well as large natural areas that preserve local habitats and ecosystems. The Arboretum serves teaching and research needs for faculty and students, provides stewardship of campus grounds for the College, and recreation and enjoyment for the local community. 

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