Board Breaks Ground on Lilley Cornett Woods Research Center, Honors Watts

President Benson with Robert Watts photo

The surrounding hillsides ablaze with autumn colors, dreary skies and a chilling breeze beckoned late afternoon rain showers.

But in a few short months, just on the other side of a long and desolate winter, the Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Station will spring back to life in a way that already has Eastern Kentucky University, scientific researchers throughout the nation and local officials abuzz with excitement.

  The EKU Board of Regents joined University and Letcher County officials on Monday, Oct. 20, at a groundbreaking ceremony for a research facility and adjacent bunkhouse sure to attract even more scientists to the 554-acre old-growth forest, managed by the University’s Division of Natural Areas. Construction is expected to be completed by summer of 2015.

Last year, the National Science Foundation awarded EKU a $300,000 grant for construction of the 1,500-square-foot research center. EKU is funding construction of the 800-square-foot living quarters.

When the grant was announced, Dr. Melinda Wilder, director of the EKU Division of Natural Areas, called the addition of a research center “a perfect example of regional stewardship. It will provide the venue for collaborating with not only researchers but community leaders and interested citizens in investigating human impacts on the environment – not only at LCW but within the entire Appalachian region. Currently, there are very few research facilities focusing on environmental research in the region.”

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.

“Lilley Cornett Woods is geographically situated to become a center for scientific research in surrounding southern Appalachian ecosystems,” said Dr. Steven Richter, an associate professor of biological sciences, project director and associate director of the EKU Division of Natural Areas. “The center will provide a base station for multidisciplinary regional research that might not otherwise be possible.”

Increasingly in recent years, the site has drawn researchers from outside the University, including college students from across the nation. The research center will better facilitate long-term projects, projects that require data and samples to be processed immediately, rather than taken back to a lab elsewhere. It will also boost student research by providing a teaching laboratory and advance the University’s efforts in K-12 STEM-H education.

EKU President Michael Benson said the center, “years in the making,” will allow “scientific study for an extended period of time. This is going to be unlike anything anywhere.”

Likewise, EKU Board of Regents Chair Craig Turner was beaming. “This is an exciting day for the Board and the University,” Turner said. “(Lilley Cornett Woods) is a tremendous asset for the University and an important part of what we’re trying to do.”

Before the shovels were passed out to University and local officials, Benson, on behalf of the Board, presented long-time Lilley Cornett Woods On-Site Manager Robert Watts with a framed resolution and plaque honoring his 42 years of service to LCW, the last 37 as a loyal EKU employee.

“We are about human capital,” Benson said. “The greatest asset we have is our people, and I don’t know anyone who is more dedicated to his little heaven on earth than Robert Watts.”

Benson recalled riding in Watts’ pickup truck for his official introduction to the Woods. “I was so taken by the pride that Robert has in this place,” he said.

In addition to managing the site, Watts serves as a cooperative observer for the National Weather Service, braving all types of weather conditions, never missing a day in 40 years, to record temperature and precipitation. In 2012, he was one of only 14 nationally to receive the prestigious John Campanius Holm Award from the NWS.

The resolution notes that Watts “has performed with equal aplomb and grace every imaginable duty at Lilley Cornett Woods … and instilled in everyone he met a deeper love for nature and discovery and a robust appreciation for old-growth forests and their richly diverse flora and fauna. (He) can best be described as the facility’s most treasured asset due to his broad knowledge of the forest and surrounding area, his matchless work ethic and his ability to work well with people of all backgrounds.”

For more information about Lilley Cornett Woods, visit

Published on October 21, 2014

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