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NMSU renames forestry research center at Mora to honor the late John Harrington

MORA, N.M. - As travelers drove through the quaint mountain town of Mora in Northern New Mexico in years past, they might have missed the turn to New Mexico State University's forestry research center that nestles at the base of the mountain.

Two people with a large photo in the background
NMSU President Barbara Couture, right, and Richard Pratt, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Plant and Environmental Sciences department head, unveil the stonework sign that denotes the renaming of the forestry research center at Mora in honor of the late John Harrington. (NMSU photo by Jay Rodman)

But an impressive new sign has been built at the entrance to the center, which provides a more fitting and visible landmark to both the important work being done at the 100-acre facility, and the person who led those efforts for the last two decades.

To honor the man who directed the facility's research for the past 20 years - impacting the forestry industry in New Mexico, the Southwest region, the nation and internationally - NMSU rededicated the facility in his memory by naming it the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center at Mora.

Family, friends, professional associates and NMSU officials, including President Barbara Couture and Executive Vice President and Provost Wendy K. Wilkins, were present Thursday, Aug. 16, to recall how the late Harrington impacted their lives, and to unveil the new sign that clearly marks the facility's location along N.M. 518.

Couture introduced the new name to the 200-plus member audience.

"John Harrington left a mark by the kind of man he was, and by the attitude he took toward his work here, which was one of caring, not only about the research, but about the community's needs, " Couture said. "He was truly a land-grant university researcher. He was known not only for his research, but for taking the information to the people not just here in Northern New Mexico, but within the region as well as nationally and internationally."

It was a typical work day on June 6, 2011, when Harrington was involved in a tragic accident as he rode his bicycle home. All who knew him were shocked when they heard the news of his death.

Immediately his wife, Anne Wagner, established a memorial scholarship in his name, and family, friends and faculty and staff at NMSU donated enough for the scholarship to be endowed in less than six months.

A little over a year later, those gathered at the rededication were informed that the first John T. Harrington Memorial Scholarship has been awarded to an NMSU graduate student, Josh Sherman, a horticulture major who is working on a master's degree in tree physiology.

"It is because of the support of many of you that we got the memorial scholarship up and running in a year," said Richard Pratt, NMSU Plant and Environmental Sciences department head. "This scholarship will help students, like John and Anne, to graduate from NMSU and become leaders in their field, the way John and Anne did."

In addition to supporting the scholarship, Harrington's colleagues at NMSU were moved to honor the faculty member by soliciting the university's Board of Regents to rename the facility in his honor.
The audience learned of the uniqueness of having a College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences research center named for an individual who had served as its superintendent.

"It is a first that a science center is renamed to honor its superintendent," said James Fisher, NMSU professor emeritus, who was the first superintendent of the facility.

Dave Thompson, associate dean of the College of ACES and director of NMSU's agricultural science centers, said the Mora facility is unique among the college's 12 centers because it is the only center that focuses on forest habitat.

"Unlike the other centers that typically answer questions that are of interest around that center's particular region, this center's research impacts the entire state and most of the West," Thompson said.

Since the establishment of the center in 1972, research has been expanded from its original focus on Christmas tree production and other forestry-related products and activities, to the study of forest genetics, and the establishment of reforestation and land restoration programs.

"During the last 40 years, this station has grown more than two million seedlings for the state reforestation program," Couture said. "And more than 25 graduate students have completed their thesis and dissertation research as a result of being in the program at Mora. These programs have been funded by more than $5 million in research grants."

Harrington's contribution to the forestry industry went beyond the state's boundaries as he worked with forest professionals in the Southwest and Mexico to better the natural resource.

He also made contributions at the national level during a sabbatical in 2006-2007 when he worked with the U.S. Forest Service's policy analysis staff in Washington, D.C.

"John's work with us involved the preparation of briefing papers, which covered a variety of topics including climate change and biofuels," said Bill Lange, director of policy analysis staff, who was in attendance at the rededication ceremony. "John came to us worried that he would not measure up. I feel just the opposite occurred. John set a standard which others have since worked hard to meet."

According to Lange, Harrington was instrumental in bringing about a change in the Forest Service thinking about ecosystem restoration.

"Prior to his arrival, restoration had been one of two main focuses of the agency," Lange said. "His briefing papers on climate change for the Chief's Office pointed out the need for a new direction - away from restoration and toward adaptation - with the new objective being resilient ecosystems. Then-Chief Gail Kimbell embraced this objective as part of a new focus on climate change, and the Forest Service has since revised relevant policy directions."

Lange said within Kimbell's focus on climate change one goal dealt with the production of biofuels from wood.

"John's work was critical in the biofuels goal," Lange said. "His briefing papers on converting wood to energy summarized the current state of knowledge. John's work became the basis for discussion with the Chief's Office and the goal of our nation to replace as much as 15 percent of our current gasoline consumption with ethanol from wood, which the Chief expressed in her major policy speech that September."

During the rededication ceremony, Harrington's work on the international level was recognized by 1st Lt. Bart M. Lomont, Indiana Air National Guard, as he presented a plaque to Anne Wagner.

"For the last five years the Indiana National Guard has been sending men and women with agricultural backgrounds into the hills of Afghanistan in an effort to fight counter-terrorism insurgency efforts through agricultural outreach," Lomont said. "It was during that time we found out about the Afghan Water Agriculture Technology Transfer program at NMSU and through that program I had the privilege of meeting John."

Harrington traveled to Afghanistan to provide technical advice to the forest restoration program.

"I was gone the first time he came to our base," Lomont said. "It was only a couple of days after returning to Afghanistan that I knew I had to meet this gentleman. Everyone, including the interpreters, raved about this man and his magnetic personality. During his visits we developed a friendship."

The proclamation by Indiana's Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger that Lomont presented to Anne Wagner stated, "John's trip to Afghanistan to institute and deploy a forest restoration program is a shining example of people helping people, even during hostilities. His assistance to the Indiana National Guard while performing their mission in Afghanistan was not only valuable to the Afghan people, but to members of the Indiana National Guard."

Following the ceremony, the audience was invited to learn more about the research conducted at the facility by participating in the mile-and-a-half self-guided tour of the research facility, including visiting the chapel and morada located on the property.

Provost Wilkins, who was visiting the center for the first time, participated in the tour.

"This is an amazing facility in a beautiful location," she said. "I'm very impressed with the breadth of the work being done at this science center, the extent of their involvement in wildfire restoration efforts, and especially the perseverance of the researchers and other staff in the wake of John Harrington's tragic death."