LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — The National Science Foundation has awarded two New Mexico universities and the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute a $5 million grant to establish a comprehensive forestry research center for the Southwest.

The five-year grant will fund the development of a Center of Excellence in Forest Restoration. It will be charged with advancing the understanding of the effects of restoration activities on forested areas through a combination of multidisciplinary research and education.

The center will train students in fire management as well as forest ecology and restoration, offering undergraduate and masters programs at Highlands University. Plans also include developing a collaborative Ph.D. program between the two universities.

The center also will provide possible solutions for land managers, tribes and landowners who face the threat of catastrophic fires due to overgrown forests.

“Fire and droughts are major concerns for this region. It is more important than ever to research and implement effective and efficient forest management and restoration strategies that address these issues,” said Owen Burney, associate professor and superintendent of NMSU’s John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center, which will be part of the collaboration.

Burney's research focuses on restoring charred environment through tree planting. That includes everything from seeds and genetics through nursery production and planting.

He said the center will be vital to New Mexico and the Southwest because of the region’s dependence on resources from forests, including their role as watersheds, collecting and funneling snowmelt and runoff to streams and rivers.

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