Historical Roots

Our historical roots trace to the establishment of the nation’s first four-year college dedicated to professional forestry. Though short-lived as a college (1898-1903), academic interest in forestry was sustained as a scholarly and professional endeavor by establishing the Department of Forestry in the then College of Agriculture (1911-1937). During this 40-year period, Cornell educated almost 450 foresters and provided leadership through research, teaching, and extension programs that advanced professional forestry across North America. Dr. Fernow, dean of the college while it existed at Cornell, is considered the "father of professional forestry in the United States." Fernow Hall, built in 1911, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and following major remodeling was LEED Gold Certified in 2014.

The Department of Forestry was closed in 1937 and the education of professional foresters was left to the NYS College of Forestry at Syracuse University. In return, Cornell continued offering ‘farm forestry’ courses and extension programs consistent with its agricultural-support mission, along with forest-related research and graduate education, and was charged with developing a new curriculum in terrestrial and aquatic “wild life” conservation and management. In 1948 the few foresters who remained in Fernow Hall joined with several applied mammologists, ornithologists, and ichthyologists located elsewhere at Cornell to establish the Department of Conservation.

Over the decades that followed, departmental faculty established national stature in the management of the nation’s forest, fishery, and wildlife resources, developing many new research, teaching, and extension programs and supportive facilities that exist today — Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, Adirondack Fishery Research Program, Cornell Biological Field Station on Oneida Lake, Uihlein Maple Research Forest near Lake Placid, and the NY Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Likely one of the department’s most widely known alums during this period was author/photographer ‘Woodswoman’ Anne LaBastille (BS ’55; PhD ’69), who was a role model for many women interested in professional wildlife conservation careers.

Department of Natural Resources

The department was renamed the Department of Natural Resources in 1970 to better articulate a multiple-use stewardship orientation and to better address the sociocultural and political determinants of natural resource management. Early on, the nation’s first Human Dimensions Research Unit was established to address wildlife policy and management issues, which was rebranded the Center for Conservation Social Sciences in 2018 to reflect a broader, more interdisciplinary mission.

Since the broadening of vision and mission marked by the name change in 1970, the department has continuously responded to the changing needs of society, requiring new research directions and new extension/outreach programs. Initiatives arose focused on watershed management, water quality and aquatic sciences; human-wildlife conflict and invasive species management; bird conservation; forest science and non-industrial uses of forest lands; long-term ecological monitoring; conservation genetics; indigenous studies; and international conservation. Our historical extension focus on rural populations became more inclusive and diverse (including urban youth and people of color) and environmentally oriented (e.g., the department’s Civic Ecology Lab).

The department’s student population has changed over the years reflecting the availability of more diverse research and extension opportunities and an expanded curriculum. The Department of Conservation fulfilled its original mandate to educate students interested in wildlife and fisheries management careers, while those interested in forests pursued scientific topics underpinning forestry, such as ecology and soil science. During the 1970s we added an ‘environmental studies’ concentration and in the 1990s more attention was given to students interested in natural resource policy and human dimensions.

In 2012, the Natural Resources major was combined with a college-wide environmental science major to form a new multi-department undergraduate curriculum in Environmental Science and Sustainability, which morphed into a two-college major in Environment and Sustainability in 2018. A year later, the Department of Natural Resources added ‘and the Environment’ to its name to better recognize its current research and education breadth, especially its leadership role in the Environment and Sustainability major.