In memoriam: Harold Burkhart, University Distinguished Professor
Harold Burkhart, University Distinguished Professor and dedicated researcher, teacher, and mentor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, died on Thursday, Oct. 20, in Blacksburg.
Burkhart, a professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, was recognized in 2019 for 50 years of service to Virginia Tech. He had been a member of the faculty since 1969.
The university recognized Burkhart with the preeminent rank of University Distinguished Professor in 1999 for his meritorious contributions that have shaped forest modeling from the late 20th century to the current day.
“Harold Burkhart was a pillar of modern-day forestry, bringing quantitative sciences, mathematics, statistics, and exceptional experimental design and analysis insight and execution to tree growth and yield,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college. “He was a living legend in forest biometrics and was known worldwide. To put his service to Virginia Tech in perspective as we recognize our sesquicentennial, Harold served Virginia Tech for one-third of the university’s existence and made a remarkable lifelong contribution to our campus community.
“His legacy will live on in the lives and accomplishments of so many students who have populated industry and government agencies," Winistorfer continued. "His former graduate students are in place in countless universities, many internationally. Harold provided tremendous academic horsepower and credibility to forestry as a discipline at Virginia Tech and, today, our program is one of the top-ranked in North America. He deserves credit for building an exceptionally strong disciplinary foundation at Virginia Tech in forest biometrics. Who knows what would have happened if he had chosen to go to some other university? We are thankful he did not. We would not be where we are today without the significant accomplishments, insights, leadership, and mentorship of Harold Burkhart. We will miss him tremendously and will honor his legacy.”
As a scholar, Burkhart’s research interests and expertise were in modeling forest stand dynamics, growth, and yield. Among forest scientists, he was considered “the father of forest biometrics, which explores the theory and applications of quantitative models of forest stands,” noted Virginia Tech President Emeritus Charles W. Steger when Burkhart was selected as Virginia’s Outstanding Scientist in 2013.
Burkhart’s principal groundbreaking achievement is the development of a comprehensive, integrated set of forest yield forecasting models for stands subjected to a wide variety of management treatments. His contributions to the advancement of forest growth are unprecedented, and he led the way in developing new methodology for tree and stand modeling and in elucidating the complex mathematical relationships between models of differing levels.
His work led many to regard him as a pioneer in sustainable forest management, as his modeling methods were adopted not only in Virginia and the East Coast, but also across the nation and around the globe. The ongoing need for these models in the timber production and management industries is critical to the forestry industry, and forest managers continue to rely on projected stand values in order to set production goals and determine forest cultivation and harvest alternatives.
Burkhart’s lengthy research career at Virginia Tech led to prodigious contributions to forest modeling science. He published more than 300 research papers, research bulletins, book chapters, and proceedings papers. He authored two widely adopted books: the undergraduate textbook “Forest Measurements,” now in its sixth edition, and the advanced-level book “Modeling Forest Trees and Stands,” considered the leading reference for this research specialty.
“Harold Burkhart was a scholar of international renown, a consummate educator, and a humble force of nature in our program, on campus, and in his field,” said Jay Sullivan, head of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “In many ways and for many years, he defined his field of forest biometrics, a good portion of forestry education, and, certainly, our program in Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech. But, above all, he is known as a friend, as a supporter, and as a mentor of innumerable students, professional colleagues, and acquaintances around the world. No matter where I travel in my role, almost everyone's first question is ‘How's Harold doing?’. The impact he leaves is immense and global, and he will be missed by many.”
Burkhart was also well-known and a leader among his faculty and professional colleagues. He served as Forestry department head from 1995 to 2008, was a senior research fellow at the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua, New Zealand, and was a former editor of the journal Forest Science. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation, and active in numerous other professional organizations.
“Dr. Harold Burkhart epitomized the adage of a polished and true southern gentleman. He was soft spoken and polite, yet the tone and verbiage of his statements were embraced with conviction,” said Ken Morgan, president of the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation, and a longtime industry partner and friend of the college. “Dr. Burkhart genuinely earned the distinction as a ‘cornerstone’ on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Forest Educational Foundation. With no hesitation, I say that he promoted and acted to the mutual benefit of the VFEF and the College of Natural Resources and Environment through his responsibility as chair of the scholarship committee. Dr. Burkhart leaves a huge void. He will be missed so very much.”
In 1979, Burkhart founded an industry-university cooperative research program at Virginia Tech aimed at developing improved models for predicting tree growth and stand development. This consortium, now called the Forest Modeling Research Cooperative, has 20 members that include industry partners and the Virginia Department of Forestry.
The mission of the Forest Modeling Research Cooperative is to develop tree growth and stand development models that advance the science of forest modeling and to provide land managers with decision support capabilities needed to practice economically viable and environmentally sustainable forest management.
In addition to the aforementioned university and state accolades, Burkhart received numerous awards and honors related to his research and scholarly accomplishments, including the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations Scientific Achievement Award, the J. Shelton Horsley Research Award from the Virginia Academy of Science, the Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Research Excellence, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award, and the Distinguished Agriculture Alumnus Award from Oklahoma State University.
Burkhart was also recognized by his peers and professional organizations, receiving the Distinguished Service to Forestry Award from the Appalachian Society of American Foresters and the Barrington Moore Memorial Award from the Society of American Foresters. He was named 2013 Forest Champion of the Year by the Forest Landowners Association, and elected a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of American Foresters.
In addition to Burkhart’s ground-breaking and significant research accomplishments, he was a major influence on the academic and professional careers of many students during his tenure at Virginia Tech, especially graduate students.
In 2010, Burkhart received the Alumni Award for Excellence in Graduate Academic Advising, an honor presented by the Office of the Provost to Virginia Tech faculty members who have been particularly dedicated and effective while advising graduate students.
Burkhart served as a committee member for more than 150 graduate students in programs across the university, including 60 master's degree students and doctoral candidates who completed degrees under his direction.
His graduate students have received approximately 20 notable recognitions and awards, and alumni of his forest biometry program currently hold or have held faculty appointments at Mississippi State University, the University of Maine, Louisiana State University, the University of Georgia, Rutgers University, Auburn University, the University of North Carolina, and, of course, Virginia Tech, among others. Many more hold research positions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, while others are employed by state agencies and industrial firms.
One of Burkhart’s former graduate students – and now a faculty member and biometrics researcher himself at Virginia Tech – is Assistant Professor Corey Green. "Dr. Burkhart was, first and foremost, a kind and thoughtful man who, even in the rough seas of life, stood as a trusted beacon that many turned to for advice and guidance,” said Green. “During his over 50 years at Virginia Tech, Dr. Burkhart positively impacted so many people’s lives as a mentor for almost 80 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as a teacher for countless students, and as a colleague both at Virginia Tech and beyond. His impacts on the fields of forestry and forest science cannot be overstated, and his contributions will continue to live on for many years."
“Dr. Burkhart was truly a man for all seasons,” said Professor Emeritus David Wm. Smith. “Harold was an icon and legend in the profession of forestry. He was a world-renowned researcher and educator, and impacted the management of forests and the lives of professional foresters for more than five decades. Above all, Harold was a very kind, humble, and gentle person. As a friend and colleague for the past 50 years, I will sorely miss him.”
Burkhart earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from Oklahoma State University and a master’s and Ph.D. in forest biometrics from the University of Georgia.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Katherine West (Kathy) Burkhart. He is survived by his son, Qato Burkhart, of Los Angeles, California.
A memorial wreath in Burkhart’s honor will be placed outside of Virginia Tech’s War Memorial Chapel on Monday, Oct. 24, at 10 a.m. Plans for funeral services are pending, with arrangements by McCoy Funeral Home, Blacksburg.
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