Flashback to ‘55: A Big Year for Forestry at LSU

Linda Benedict  |  9/8/2014 10:16:18 PM

Olivia McClure

The Old Forestry Building on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus is old for its 58 years. Its stairs, which lead to a dust-coated second floor, creak unsettlingly. Many ceiling tiles are either stained or missing.

Because of those conditions, LSU’s Office of Facility Services plans to demolish the building two or three years from now.

Not much is left in the Old Forestry Building besides a few chairs and some empty file cabinets. Bulletin boards remain decorated with faded displays from 2012, when the most recent tenant, the School of Human Resource Education and Workforce Development, relocated to Coates Hall.

As one roams the dim hallways and vacant offices, however, the building’s signature feature still stands out — walls paneled with several different types of native Louisiana woods, from red cypress to magnolia to white oak.

When administrators broke ground for construction of the building, a newspaper clipping supplied by former school director Paul Burns reported “the new modern building … [would] greatly increase the scope of forestry education at LSU.” It cost $300,000.

That was in 1955 — a big year for forestry at LSU. Burns, who had only been the director for a few months at the time of the groundbreaking, would have a new building in which to shape the future of the school.

At first, however, 35-year-old Burns wasn’t sure about coming to LSU. A native of Tulsa, Okla., who earned his doctorate at Yale University, Burns worried about moving to Baton Rouge — the city where the first bus boycott of the Civil Rights Movement took place two years earlier.

“The South was no place to be at that time,” Burns said. “But they wanted to pay twice as much as I was making.”

Burns said he became interested in forestry as a young boy because he enjoyed exploring the woods near his family’s home. Later, he realized a career in forestry also offered a chance to express love for humanity — a value he believes should be central not only in life, but also in forestry.

“I wanted to be outdoors, and I wanted to help people in a way that I knew how,” he said. “That’s what I ended up with, forestry.”

In Louisiana, a heavily forested state where logging and sawmills had long had a presence, Burns put his expertise and concern for the environment to work. When he arrived, the forestry program had already come a long way from its humble beginning in 1911, when horticulture professor J.G. Lee introduced an “Elements of Forestry” course.

Thirteen students graduated from the forestry school in 1955. The next year, that number jumped to 36. In 1976, when Burns resigned as director, there were 85 graduates.

Now 94 years old, Burns still drops by his memorabilia-stuffed office in the Renewable Natural Resources building once or twice a week.

His former office in Old Forestry has since been occupied by the director of the School of Vocational Education, which moved into that building in 1986. Like forestry, vocational education, which was later renamed the School of Human Resource Education and Workforce Development (SHREWD), underwent a number of changes during the time it spent in Old Forestry. Both programs had to modernize and expand curricula and research to meet evolving needs.

Most people at LSU today have always known the building as the Old Forestry Building — an appropriate name, many would say, given the condition it is in. In recent years, maintenance issues have plagued it.

When the Forestry Building opened, LSU was much more spacious and even had a working dairy farm. Over time, the campus has grown in every way imaginable, Burns said. There are more students, more faculty, more buildings and more degree programs.

As those things grew, so did the forestry program, which in 1984 expanded into the School of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, and in 2002 became the School of Renewable Natural Resources. In 1986, the school moved into a new $7 million facility that is about three times larger than its previous home.

The Old Forestry Building will temporarily house faculty and staff displaced by upcoming renovations to Patrick F. Taylor Hall, according to LSU Facility Services.

Even though LSU will then no longer have a building on its campus containing the word “forestry,” forestry will always be important to the university and to Louisiana. In 2013, the state’s forestry product industries were worth $2.88 billion.

"Foresters have a rapport with nature, a feeling for the good earth and the importance of protecting and preserving our forests, streams and wildlife,” Burns told the Baton Rouge Advocate in 1976. “Man must live in harmony with nature and with each other in order to survive.”

Those principles, which guided Burns throughout his life and career, are summed up by a bumper sticker taped above his desk. It reads: “For a forester, every day is Earth Day.”

That was probably easy to remember for the students and professors who worked in the Old Forestry Building, whose wood-paneled walls surrounded them with the resources they were charged with protecting through education and research.

Olivia McClure is a graduate assistant in LSU AgCenter Communications.

This article was published in the summer 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture Magazine.

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