USDA site speeds research to the Web

Access to what is probably the largest collection of free online publications relating to forestry research is a click away on the World Wide Web site of the Agriculture Department's Forest Service Southern Research Station.

The station uses its site, located at www.srs.fs.fed.us, as a way to showcase the research work of more than 140 of its scientists, who study forest resources, ecosystems, wildlife and environmental quality in the Southern United States. Given the great interest in the site, the information technology staff has stepped up its efforts to make material available online as soon as possible.

In the past, it would take days for the Southern Research Station to receive and fulfill a customer request for a publication listed in the station's publications catalog. "Now, as soon as the catalog makes it to the printer and we do the final edits, we put it online that day along with every publication listed in that catalog," said Randy McCracken, Webmaster at the Southern Research Station, Asheville, N.C. "We're able to get research out in a timely manner."

Traffic to the site has increased fourfold over the last year thanks to the addition of online publications, McCracken said. "We get some good feedback. We're focused on our audience and try to deliver what those interested in forestry research want," he said. "We like to think we're saving the government money" by making available online what was previously only available on paper, he said. Tens of thousands of publications have been downloaded from the site, he added.

The site primarily is geared toward academics, scientists, researchers and those working in forestry, but even the average outdoors enthusiast might run across something of interest.

For example, the March issue of the publications catalog features a study on how deer hunting indirectly affects the behavior of the Florida panther, which is a deer predator. The authors of the study monitored 14 radio-collared white-tailed deer year-round. They found that the changes in deer behavior during hunting season may actually make it easier for panthers to find and kill deer.

The site has a host of information, including a database containing a list of all 2,300 publications published by the Southern Research Station, Southern Forest Experiment Station, and Southeastern Forest Experiment Station. Readers can search the database by author name, title or year and e-mail the station with a request for a hard copy.

Users can then cross-check another database that lists 750 publications that are available for download. The Web site also offers an online list of scientists along with their pictures and relevant research information and an employee directory. Online videos and past publications catalogs are also accessible on the Web site.

The station has saved a lot of management effort by making the site database-driven, McCracken said. Instead of having to create and maintain 800 Web pages, the station takes advantage of what is known as Active Server technology to automatically generate pages from a database as they are requested. "When working on a growing budget, it's easier for one person to maintain the site. It's trying to make it more efficient with the resources we have," he said.

McCracken said future plans include "building communities" by encouraging online discussions with experts in a particular field. He also plans to add more videos online for visitors to download.

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