In the wood-paneled lobby of Cheatham Hall, an academic building tucked between dining halls and science buildings on the residential side of campus, is a five-sectioned mural illustrating the history of the first 92 years of the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE). The history detailed on the mural stops at 2017, the 25th official anniversary of the College, which calls Cheatham home. 

Dean Paul M. Winistorfer has held his position as senior dean of the college for 12 years, the longest-serving dean at any Virginia Tech college. These 12 years have provided a passion for the college’s past, present and future, which Winistorfer spoke on in a recent interview. 

Past

“Back in 1992, we were a school in the College of Agriculture and if you keep going back, you know, we were a program,” Winistorfer said. “The first forestry professor hired … was in the College of Agriculture.” 

This is where the mural begins, with that first forestry hire in 1925. The first section ranges from 1925 to 1968, the other bookend being the creation of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife in the College of Agriculture in 1959.

The second section of the college’s history described on the mural traverses a comparably shorter span from 1969 to 1975. In 1969, the department became the Division of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, still within the College of Agriculture. Shortly thereafter, in 1971, Cheatham Hall was built at the cost of $1.67 million to provide space for the division. 

“(In) ’74, still in agriculture, (the Department of) Forestry and Wildlife split into the Department of Forestry and Forest Products and the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife — so two departments,” Winistorfer said. 

The dean went on to describe the creation of the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Research Laboratory, located where the current Corporate Research Center lies. 

He paused as we looked at the mural.

“Before anything else was there, there was nothing there but a field, and so the first building was this out at the CRC, and now it's all buildings,” Winistorfer said. 

It was this lab’s construction that completed the second segment of the CNRE’s history. 

In 1976, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences created the School of Forestry and Wildlife Resources. In 1978, a second lab at the CRC, the Thomas M. Brooks Wood Processing Laboratory was constructed. In 1979, the Department of Forestry and Forest Products split into the Department of Forestry and the Department of Wood Science and Forest Products, marking the third section of the CNRE’s history. The next important change didn’t come until 1992. 

A little further into Cheatham beyond the mural is a poster of John F. Hosner, the honorary founding dean of what we now know as the College of Natural Resources and Environment. 

“He was very well-connected and he was a strong proponent of forestry,” Winistorfer said. “He went around the university president and got all of his forest industry guys to create this college through an act of (the) Virginia legislature.”

According to a Roanoke Times article from February 1991, Hosner, a tenured professor, was fired after a resolution supporting the creation of a new college passed through the Virginia Senate Rules Committee. He had worked at the university for 30 years, first as head of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife in 1961 and through the 1976 transition into the School of Forestry and Wildlife Resources. Hosner stayed with the school until a week before the article’s release, when he was relieved of his position. The university’s reasoning for not supporting the college on their own at the time of the proposal was tight budget constraints. 

In 1992, the College of Forestry and Wildlife Resources finally came to fruition as an independent college, beginning the fourth section of CNRE history. In 2000, the college was renamed the College of Natural Resources. In 2003, the college established its first master’s program in Washington, D.C. The following year, the Department of Geography joined the college, and a year later, so did the Virginia Water Resources Research Center. At the end of that fourth section of history, the Department of Forestry was renamed the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in 2009, the same year that Dean Winistorfer came into his position.

The fifth and final section of the CNRE’s history mural begins in 2010 with the renaming of the college. Later that same year, the college created the Leadership Institute for undergraduate students.

“The first thing I did was help rename the college,” Winistorfer said. “Our work was more than natural resources, our work was stewardship of the environment — and no one at Virginia Tech had that name … Going back to when we were just forestry … forestry has gone through a tumultuous history of good and bad where people think cutting trees is a bad thing, but we can’t live without cutting trees and the products that come from trees, so we as a group decided we would be better placed to be the College of Natural Resources and Environment because so much of the work we were doing was environmental work.”

Winistorfer went on to explain what the CRNE’s Leadership Institute can offer to students.

“If there’s one thing that I would be really proud of, it’s the creation of the Leadership Institute,” Winistorfer said. “I think we need leadership and letting our undergraduate students get exposed to what is leadership and what does that mean and how do we do that.”

The Leadership Institute is a year-long program for rising juniors and seniors in the college that includes a weeklong trip to Richmond and D.C. to meet with policymakers and leaders, including two three-credit courses and a team capstone project. 

Since then, the college has created three new undergraduate degrees, renamed two departments, built a Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability in Arlington, Virginia, to house graduate programs and more. The mural ends with 2017, the college’s 25th anniversary.

Present

Six years ago, Dean Winstorfer ran a resolution through the university council to have Hosner named as honorary founding dean. The resolution was passed, and Hosner gained the recognition that he deserved.

This year marks the 30th official anniversary of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. The college in its current form has 11 undergraduate majors, more than five master’s programs, four doctorate programs and a variety of graduate certificates. These are housed under the four modern departments of the college — fish and wildlife conservation, forest resources and environmental conservation, geography, and sustainable biomaterials. The College of Natural Resources and Environment is a small college, newer than most on campus, but has a close-knit community. 

“In each department there are different kinds of student events,” Winistorfer said. “You know, in our packaging program there’s a weekend competition — it’s like 48 hours. It’s called Repack, and the packaging students compete with other packing programs from around the country and they get a prompt on a particular product and they’ve got like 48 hours to repack and develop new packaging and present it. That’s fun for them. Our forestry students participate in several regional and national competitions both fun and scholarly. We’ve got about 15 or 18 clubs and student organizations in the college, all the way from fun stuff to (a) professional-affiliated student chapter of the American Meteorological Society.”

For more information on student organizations within the College of Natural Resources and Environment, see its website’s Student Organizations section.

Future

“I’m humbled by the opportunity to help this program move forward,” Winistorfer said. “What do I enjoy the most about it? The opportunity to help create the future.”

The future of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, like any other college at Virginia Tech or any other college like it elsewhere in the country, isn’t exactly easy to predict. The college has changed with the ecological landscape of Virginia, adapting with the forestry and wildlife industries as they have become less about just consumption and more about conservation and recreation as well. When asked where he would like to see the college in 30 years, the dean spoke about supporting students.

“That’s not that long, 30 years,” Winistorfer said. “If you hire faculty today they might be here in 30 years, right? And so where would I like to see the college go — well, one, I want to make sure that the degree programs that we offer are relevant to the future of society — that we have degree programs students come to because they’re market-based, they’re of value to society and students can get jobs. That’s No. 1.”

Winistorfer discussed an upcoming program that the college hopes to implement soon that would change the way students look at urbanization. 

“An initiative we’re working on right now is the creation of a new degree program in Urban Natural Resources,” Winistorfer said. “70% of the students in this college come from the urban zip codes of Virginia — mostly D.C., the eastern seaboard, Richmond. Most of our students want to go back to the urban environment. The urbanization of our world is a freight train that we can’t stop. Every county southwest of us … every county from here to the Tennessee border lost population in the last census. Rural America is losing population and that has impacts both in rural America and in the really exponentially growing urban environments … Everybody thinks, ‘Well, you guys are out in the rural landscape.’ No — urban forests, urban watersheds, urban wildlife … urban human health and well-being honestly is influenced by our natural resources.” 

The program will provide students with a greater portfolio of places to make a contribution and help the college diversify its student body.

In closing, Winistorfer reiterated how the college plans to evolve based on the rapidly changing environment and the way we look at forestry. 

“Forestry is not what forestry was in 1925,” Winistorfer said. “Forestry is very different today, so how do we see the looking glass in 30 years? That’s where the college needs to be.” 

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