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Tanasi: More than a Summer Camp


Craig Harper
Dr. Craig Harper (left) with graduate students Lindsey Phillips and Bonner Powell

The Girl Scout camp near Andersonville, TN serves as a 461-acre outdoor classroom for UT students and organizations across the nation

To most, Camp Tanasi represents a traditional camp experience filled with cabins, tents, archery, canoeing, and s’mores, where girls come to make a new friend, face their fears, and build memories of a lifetime. The camp serves over 300 girls every summer and nearly 4,500 throughout the year for troop camping. But what many don’t know is what goes on behind the scenes on the nearly 500-acre property. For nearly 20 years, Camp Tanasi has served as an outdoor classroom for graduate students at the University of Tennessee (UT) and wildlife/forestry organizations across the state and nation.

Craig Harper, Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist for the university located in Knoxville, has led the partnership between UT and the Girl Scout Council of the Southern Appalachians (GSCSA) since the beginning in October 2000. What started out as solutions for a deer problem led to a symbiotic relationship between the two organizations. Harper, who works in 20-25 states a year and speaks to several wildlife organizations, says Tanasi is the perfect outdoor classroom and demonstration area. Given that it is only a half-hour drive from the university, the property “provides opportunity to try new things, learn from our mistakes, teach the next generation of wildlife managers, and make a difference.” Camp Tanasi benefits by having a team of energetic land managers provide stewardship of its forests and fields.

As the UT Extension Wildlife Specialist, Dr. Harper not only provides graduate students with hands-on training, but he also demonstrates land management activities to UT Extension agents, wildlife and forest management agencies, undergraduate students, and 4-H’ers.

Back to the Beginning:

The GSCSA CEO at the time called about a deer problem. Deer had become a nuisance, and the camp was unable to grow flowers or gardens. Because of the dense population, the deer were in poor condition with low body weights. Harper provided camp staff with recommendations on how to improve the situation, and he and his students began helping with land management activities that would ultimately heal the property’s forests and fields from many years of chronic overbrowsing, which had not only led to nutritionally stressed deer, but also to reduced wildlife diversity as overabundant deer had dramatically altered forest structure, thus eliminating habitat for many wildlife species.

Passionate about educating on the often-unknown benefits of forest management, prescribed fire, selective herbicide applications, and population management, Harper has taught more than 20 graduate students and well over 500 natural resource professionals, undergraduates, and 4-H’ers how the latest science in wildlife and vegetation management has led to increased plant and wildlife diversity at Camp Tanasi. Girl Scouts now have the opportunity to walk the trails and enjoy nature occurring in a variety of vegetation types, from grassy meadows, oak woodlands, and mature hardwood forests.

The biggest changes Harper has seen, besides improving the nutritional condition of the deer, is better forest structure, additional vegetation types, and additional wildlife species. With controlled burns and selective herbicide applications, Harper and his students have been able to diversify the vegetation types that occur on the property and reduce the numerous nonnative invasive plants that once were nearly overtaking both forests and fields. As a result, native plants not seen 20 years ago now are widespread, and wildlife from Monarch butterfly, fox squirrel, red-headed woodpecker, white-tailed deer, bald eagle, box turtle, and ovenbird to many others are abundant for viewing.

Graduate student projects have ranged from investigating techniques to reduce the invasive plants, evaluating various no-till planting techniques and oak woodland restoration, to the effects of prescribed fire on eastern box turtles. Tanasi remains a special place for these students, and as many as possible who worked here return for an annual reunion to see what’s new and meet the latest graduate students.

“I’ve only been here a few months and I’ve already gotten lots of exposure to equipment operation, vegetation identification, and planting,” said Lindsey Phillips, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries at UT. “There’s so many learning opportunities, and coming here makes learning fun.”

Because of Craig Harper and his ongoing family of graduate students over the past 19 years, Girl Scouts can now see and enjoy a diversity of wildlife and plant species at Camp Tanasi!    

Interested in joining us for summer camp? Check out our full camp schedule and register at www.girlscoutcsa.org/summercamp.

US Forest Service silviculturist training