Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz '11
Professor Karen Arabas was one of the faculty members who mentored Copes-Gerbitz on her research projects.
Copes-Gerbitz took many core samples from trees at Zena Forest to provide data for her work.
Student’s interdisciplinary research unlocks history of Zena Forest
Zena Forest first came into Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz’s life when she was a freshman in Professor Joe Bowersox’s “Landscapes” College Colloquium class.
At the time, the forest didn’t seem too glamorous — Willamette University had yet to purchase part of the property, and Copes-Gerbitz ’11 and her classmates spent their time clearing out invasive blackberry bushes.
It wasn’t until Copes-Gerbitz took Professor Karen Arabas’ “Biogeography” class two years later that she began to see the potential of the forest, as she and her classmates studied the area’s ecology by taking core samples from trees.
Copes-Gerbitz became so fascinated by the property that she went on to conduct a summer research project there, and to focus both her archaeology and her environmental and earth sciences theses on the history of Zena.
“It started with grunt work, went to course work, and then became independent research,” she says. “Zena is such a unique place, and I’ve fallen in love with it. It provides a venue for anyone to explore what’s important to them.”
A Complex History
Zena Forest, located west of Salem, includes riparian areas, grasslands, wetlands, freshwater aquatic areas and one of the few remaining oak woodlands in the Willamette Valley to not be converted to vineyards, housing or farmland. In 2008, Willamette purchased 305 acres of the property to create a research station for students and faculty from any academic discipline.
The history of human interactions with this unique piece of land intrigued Copes-Gerbitz the most. She began studying the topic the summer after her junior year through a Willamette Carson Undergraduate Research Grant, with the guidance of Associate Professor Scott Pike in environmental science and archaeology.
She expanded on her work through her senior theses. She used her archaeological lens to create the human side of the story — piecing together historical surveys, deeds and other property documents and combining them with her own examinations of building ruins she found on the property.
Then she added her environmental science expertise to document the natural history of the forest, looking at tree rings and other ecological evidence to determine how things like climate and fire affected the development of the area.
The result was an initial sketch for a complex picture of Zena’s history, from when immigrant settlers built farms there in the mid-1800s to today’s work to maintain the property using sustainable forestry practices.
“There’s only a limited amount you can understand from the documents and people’s photographs and stories. And there’s only a limited amount you can understand from observing the natural history of the landscape,” she says. “Taking a broader approach through both archaeology and environmental science gives us a much deeper picture of what has happened at Zena.”
A Future in Sustainability
Copes-Gerbitz’s work at Zena is not the only sustainability-related legacy she’ll leave behind at Willamette.
As a senior, she co-chaired the university’s Sustainability Council along with Bowersox, making her the first student to lead the committee — a tradition that may continue in the future.
This summer, she’s participating in one more Willamette project: an archaeological field school program at the Ness of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands in Scotland.
After that, she plans to head to graduate school to earn a master’s in geography — she’s currently being courted by two programs.
“My professors at Willamette have guided me to become an independent thinker and a global citizen, which is how I have been able to accomplish as much as I have,” she says.
“Willamette has opened doors for me that were not there before. I was given the tools that I need to help me become my own person, and that’s what I’ll value the most.”