New Facilities Welcome Researchers at Lilley Cornett Woods

Published on April 06, 2016

“After years of taking students in the field and having to make do sleeping on floors and preparing food on camping equipment, it was a true joy to have beds and a real kitchen waiting for us after a long day doing fieldwork.”

That’s how EKU faculty member Dr. Alice Jones describes the new Research and Learning Center and adjacent bunkhouse at Lilley Cornett Woods, the Commonwealth’s longest-preserved old-growth forest owned and managed by Eastern Kentucky University.

Tucked in a picturesque valley in Letcher County in far southeastern Kentucky, the new facilities opened in January and are poised to welcome scientific researchers and educators from across the region and country and enable “sustained, high-impact research of global significance.”

The 1,700-square-foot Research and Learning Center is funded by a $330,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, while EKU funded the construction of the 800-square-foot bunkhouse to house visiting scientists.

“At this point, everything is functional in the bunkhouse, kitchen and research building,” said Dr. Melinda Wilder, director of natural areas for EKU. “We are adding more equipment in the research building based on needs of faculty planning projects based out of Lilley Cornett.”

Less than 1 percent of all forested areas in the eastern U.S. is old growth, and the relatively high biodiversity in eastern Kentucky opens opportunities to link on-site and regional research to national and global research in such areas as climate change, carbon sequestration and cycling, and ecological system modeling, environmental adaptation in response to landscape change, and large-scale ecosystem monitoring and analysis.

Increasingly in recent years, the site has drawn researchers and educators from outside EKU, including college students from across the nation. The research center will better facilitate long-term projects that require data and samples to be processed immediately, rather than taken back to a lab elsewhere.

Even without the latest amenities, researchers have flocked to the EKU-owned and managed Lilley Cornett Woods for 45 years, and for good reason. “It’s one of the most unique, data-rich deciduous forest research sites in eastern North America,” said Dr. Stephen Richter, associate professor of biological sciences and associate director of natural areas. “The new facilities shift the level of research from somewhat sporadic to a potential for sustained, high-impact research of global significance.”

Much of the research will continue to focus on “disturbance ecology” in eastern Kentucky.

“Lilley Cornett Woods is situated in a landscape of high biodiversity but also where large-scale ecological disruption is occurring despite a relatively poor understanding of its effects on biodiversity and ecosystem function,” Richter explained. “We also know relatively little about the human health consequences from the airborne and waterborne contamination caused by these impacts. Research at this site can close gaps in our understanding of how these large-scale ecological changes affect the land, air and water.”

Researchers will examine multiple organisms, sediment transport, carbon cycling, water quality as related to ecosystems and human health, and other environmental factors to better understand how human disturbance impacts natural systems and study best management approaches to restoring disturbed habitat.

In the past month, besides Jones’ environmental land use planning class, the research facility has welcomed a Kentucky Valley Educational Co-Op Teacher professional development workshop, and a meeting between a group of EKU Justice Studies graduate students and environmental organizers.

Many more EKU classes will visit in the coming months. The facility will also host students from Radford University, a Kentucky River Watershed Watch training session, an adventure art camp for children, an annual field camp and research symposium, a research intern program and even a production crew using recreational tree climbing to produce a short film about old-growth forests.

Beyond the natural sciences, faculty and students are also expected from the fields of environmental health science, sociology and history, among others. The new facility will also enable increased outreach to K-12 schools as well as the public, according to Wilder.

During the summers of 2017-19, Lilley Cornett Woods will host a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, awarded to Dr. David Brown, associate professor of biological sciences, and Richter. Participating students, primarily from schools with limited research opportunities, will arrive from all across the U.S. for the 10-week program and work directly with faculty mentors and collaborators, including agency professionals, and participate in all aspects of research, including study design, data collection, analyses and presentation of results.

“Research findings can help shape resource management in a way that brings socioeconomic benefits to the region,” Brown said.

Anyone interested in basing scholarship out of Lilley Cornett Woods may contact Richter at

“We appreciate the support from the EKU administration and NSF that made this project possible,” Wilder said, “and we are excited about both the academic community’s response and the local community’s interest in using the facilities as a place for environmental learning, ecological research and other regional scholarship and efforts.”