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June 13, 2003   Email to Friend 

Debra Davis
(334) 613-4686
June 13, 2003

AUBURN, Ala. -- Is the Southeast fated to become the next New Jersey? How can rustic rural areas across the region survive the onslaught of the most rapid population growth in the United States?

Questions about the future of rural areas are at the heart of a major initiative of Auburn University's Center for Forest Sustainability. In the search for better ways to manage urbanization, the research center has drawn together up to 16 researchers and an equal number of graduate students from five diverse colleges and schools at Auburn.

"We are dealing with quality of life and economic issues on a scale that would overwhelm any single discipline," says Graeme Lockaby, the center's director and a professor in the AU College of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

"This is not just about land use," Lockaby added. "We are studying factors in combination with one another to produce a more comprehensive picture of the urban-rural interface."

With that knowledge, he said, cities and states will be better able to manage the growth for maximum economic impact and the best quality of life.

"It is not a question of whether urbanization occurs but how it occurs," said Lockaby. "We are optimistic that we can introduce more compatibility into the equation."

Started two years ago as one of seven Peaks of Excellence research initiatives at AU, the Center for Forest Sustainability is examining urban expansion issues between two of Georgia's largest cities -- Atlanta and Columbus -- and in Alabama's high-growth area between Birmingham and Huntsville, as well as other areas near those cities.

Growth in those areas is outpacing the ability of urban and county governments to maintain services. Rapid, uncontrolled growth is also creating unwanted risks as well as opportunities for developers, taking crop and timberland out of production and diminishing the quality of life and the environment for rural dwellers and landowners.

"Land-use issues in the urban-rural interface can get very complicated," Lockaby said. "Most of these issues are not matters of right and wrong but of well-meaning people trying to protect their investment, either in the land or business or in their quality of life."

The AU center brought together on-campus experts in agricultural economics, agronomy, anthropology, architecture, biosciences, geography, forestry and wildlife sciences. These scientists are developing a computer model to help guide urban expansion into rural areas.

The comprehensive model can be used to predict land use patterns, water quality, distribution of forests and bird populations and other results of future development scenarios.

While many land-use studies focus on one or two aspects of growth in a single city or county, the comprehensive model and its subsets will eventually enable planners to examine these questions at regional scales.

The model will assess the relationships among variables such as development alternatives, economic impacts, water quality, loss of forest land and wildlife habitat and changes to the area's culture and historical features.

Timber companies and owners of forest land are especially threatened by urbanization, which drives up the cost of forest land and pushes out forest-related industries along with farmers and rural dwellers.

Lockaby said the model and its subsets will help those industries and landowners maintain forest land in an economically viable manner as urban expansion continues.

Initial results in the Atlanta-Columbus corridor of west-central Georgia are encouraging and hold promise for the North Alabama studies, as well, Lockaby said.

"We have had a lot of support from citizens' groups and local planning agencies, and we have had widespread acceptance by landowners," he said. "This has enabled us to gather data that otherwise would be very difficult to obtain.

"We have had the most enthusiastic reception of any research project I have ever worked on," said Lockaby, who holds a Ph.D. from Mississippi State University and has been a member of the Auburn faculty since 1986. "Models are not an end in themselves," he noted. "The purpose is to help anticipate and plan for change."

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