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Students walk through the plan for a butterfly garden, the topic of their senior project

Warnell teams up with international company for experiential learning

Students are getting first-hand experience with species management and sustainability thanks to a multi-year partnership between paper and packaging supplier DS Smith and the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Based in Atlanta and managing thousands of forested acres in Georgia, DS Smith has made a commitment to increase biodiversity on its properties by 2025. The next steps in this project call for classification of conservation status and habitat improvements or rebuilding for species in need. To do this, groups of undergraduate students will conduct surveys as part of the school's Senior Project class—a capstone class taken by nearly every student graduating from Warnell.

Each semester, students will identify and categorize the habitat that should be managed in order to maintain the populations of Rafinesque's Big-eared bats, southeastern gopher tortoises and other critical animal species that call southeast Georgia home.

“We’re thrilled that DS Smith asked us to assist them on this important project,” said Dale Greene, Warnell's dean. “Gathering real-world biodiversity data like this provides our students with invaluable insights into the ways our forests, waterways, soils and animals can thrive in a carefully managed ecosystem, like the timberlands that DS Smith manages.”

This collaborative corporate-academic partnership reflects the company’s continuing support of sustainable business practices and circular packaging solutions that eliminates waste, re-uses valuable resources and protects the environment. It also provides a real-world way for students to put the skills they've learned at Warnell to use.

Senior Project takes place every semester, and breaks students into teams of three to solve a management question. Students work under faculty guidance as they use the skills learned in Warnell's classes to develop management solutions. The projects they tackle can range—for example, managing pine stands for certain yields, managing land for certain game species, controlling algae in a pond or creating an interpretive trail system at a school are all projects recently undertaken by students in Senior Project.

This partnership with DS Smith is one more example of how real-world skills can be honed before graduation.

“Forestry is a major economic engine in the South," added Greene. "And our program, regarded as one of the top five in the country, teaches students how to sustainably manage forest lands to meet society's demands for wood, clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation, conservation of forest flora and fauna, and climate amelioration.”

The project launched last semester with the first goal of identifying species in the four vertebrate groups of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles that were expected to occur in the counties of Appling, Bacon, Bryan, Bulloch, Burke, Effingham, Emmanuel, Evans, Jeff Davis, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Tattnall, Toombs and Wayne. 

In these counties, where dominant habitat types include ponds, swamps, wetlands, pine and hardwood forest, the team of UGA students identified:

  • 62 mammal species, including three classified as threatened or endangered.
  • 262 bird species, including 17 classified as threatened, endangered or rare.
  • 54 amphibian species, including eight classified as threatened or rare, with only three of those that could possibly be found on this DS Smith property.
  • 62 reptile species, including 17 classified as endangered, with only five of those that could possibly be found on this DS Smith property.

“As part of our ambitious Now and Next sustainability strategy, we've committed to measuring and improving the biodiversity on our company-owned timberland,” said DS Smith General Manger Bill Guthrie, who asked UGA students to help evaluate habitats in the approximately 17,000 acres the company owns, including at its Riceboro paper mill in Southeast Georgia.

“It’s a three-phase project that starts by evaluating the soil types and ground cover to determine if it meets what’s expected for our land,” he said. “The second part will be a field-related assessment of the flora and fauna that is on our land, and the third phase will be to bring it all together and draft ideas to improve the existing biodiversity that exists today.”

Students used a variety of resources to conduct their identifications, such as the iNaturalist app, material from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Backyard Bird website and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Environmental Conservation online system. The Georgia Biodiversity Portal also was instrumental in the development of record-keeping for the species and their habitats.

“It’s exciting to sponsor projects like these that offer students a chance to experience how corporate initiatives can translate into tangible results from a commitment to improving biodiversity and sustainability,” said Allison Berg, sustainability manager for DS Smith North America. “In partnering with the students from the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, we can be sure we’re using the latest technology, observation methods and conservation techniques to ensure that we’re proactively managing our timberlands and meeting our ambitious Now and Next sustainability goals."

DS Smith is a leading provider of sustainable fiber-based packaging worldwide, which is supported by recycling and papermaking operations. Headquartered in London, DS Smith operates in 34 countries employing around 30,000 people. Its history can be traced back to the box-making businesses started in the 1940s by the Smith family. North American operations are based in Atlanta, with 15 manufacturing, paper and recycling facilities, totaling more than 2,000 employees.

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