The lush rolling hills of West Virginia and the abundant natural resources of the state remind Dr. Min Kook Kim of the country of South Korea in which he grew up, infused even as a child with a fierce determination to conserve and sustain natural resources wherever they exist.
In fact, it was this intense interest in preservation and management that led him into a career in environmental planning and conservation, garnering expertise through an undergraduate degree in Urban and Regional Planning, two master’s degrees, one in Urban and Regional Planning and another in Environmental Education, and finally a Ph.D. in Forest Resources, with a specialization in Park and Protected Area Management.
Today, Kim, who is an assistant professor in the Natural Resources and Recreation Management program, employs the latest technological tools to enhance his work and research while indulging his love of the outdoors with low- tech hiking, biking, kayaking and canoeing.
Growing up in South Korea, he attended schools that were enhanced with natural settings. “That allowed me to be familiar and friendly with natural resources,” he said. “However, after seeing many of the resources disappear in the name of development, I felt there might be a way to help establish a balance between development and conservation. That was my motivation to study urban and regional planning in South Korea.”
After receiving his B.A. from Chung-Aug University, South Korea, Kim completed a M.A. at Seoul National University, and soon after headed for the United States with his destination the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, where he earned a second master’s degree. Later he would complete his doctoral studies at the University of Maine.
Kim said that an important criterion for his choice of universities was the availability of cutting-edge technology in his field. “I had a great desire and enthusiasm to study Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing (RS). These technologies allow us to capture ground cover information accurately, with the capability of spotting significantly impacted areas and tracking major changes. Technology, satellite imagery, image processing, spatial analysis and modeling—these are my academic interests,” he explained. “Both SUNY Buffalo and the University of Maine had great GIS and RS programs and both have a National Center for Geographic Information Analysis. Along with the University of California at Santa Barbara, they are the only three institutions in the U.S. that have this center at the national level.”
While he was in Maine, Kim started a hiking trail monitoring program in Acadia National Park. It was actually a labor of love, because as part of his academic research he was able to observe and participate in a whole range of outdoor activities including hiking, rock climbing, camping and bird watching. The objective was to study the magnitude of impact on the vegetation of a very short trail from the estimated 2.5 million visitors. “Acadia is located in the middle of the Maine Coast and is an enormously popular tourist destination,“ he explained. “It’s a 0.3 mile long trail at the summit of Cadillac Mountain, and there are constant environmental challenges to be dealt with because of that many visitors. Using high resolution RS datasets and spatial analysis, I investigated the efficacy of the site/visitor management techniques employed to minimize the vegetation impact and enhance the vegetation recovery.”
His task as he saw it, using the most available RS dataset, was to determine how the trail and the vicinity had been affected over the past 10 years. His research was encouraging, as he found a good deal of recovery had occurred during those years through the use of effective site/visitor management strategies. As part of his research he was also heavily involved in academic activities of the George Wright Society and the U.S. National Park Service, utilizing a wide range of geospatial datasets.
Kim joined the newly re-named Natural Resources and Recreation Management program, now housed in the Department of Integrated Science and Technology at the College of Science, last year. According to him, when he moved to West Virginia from Maine, he felt comfortable about landscape conditions. “The terrain is pretty much like South Korea, very hilly with small-scale mountains,” he explained. “There wasn’t a culture shock about that. But when I visited some national parks in the western part of the U.S., such as the Grand Canyon, it was quite a shock, realizing the landscape setting was totally different.”
Kim brims with enthusiasm for his department and its goals. “I guess the program has two major responsibilities in terms of providing knowledge to our students, management and technology,” said Kim. “My role is to help our students achieve a well balanced approach to natural resources management using social and biophysical methodologies. Because we provide all sorts of quality recreational opportunities, we also need to be responsible and manage the resources and minimize the impact,” he added. In addition, his position has been a particularly good fit considering his technology background. “Being a part of Integrated Science and Technology allows us to provide more geospatial science background to our students, which makes them very competitive in a job market. I was fortunate to be able to use my background with a natural resources major blended with technology in order to strengthen the curriculum of the program.”
Kim said one of the major concerns today is sustainability. “The U.S. National Park Service has a dual mission-- to provide enjoyment to the public as a form of recreation activities and, at the same time, to preserve natural resources.“
According to Kim, that dual mission is extremely challenging to maintain. “Sometimes we can easily identify a negative outcome and impact. The bottom line is simple. The resources we are currently using don’t just belong to us; they belong to the next generation as well. Our grandchildren have the right to enjoy the natural resources we leave behind. A fundamental objective for preserving our natural resources is to pass them to our next generations. That’s a major component of our program, helping our students to think about sustainability, smart growth, and balanced development,” he explained.
Kim added that his field offers good job opportunities for graduates. “Students are able to get jobs in public land management agencies, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Army Corp of Engineers, and the Fish and Wildlife Services,” he explained. “Also, there are a variety of positions available in state and city governments such as a municipal park and recreation planner and manager. It’s a very versatile field for students. Along with traditional recreation resource management skills, the program also provides students with various skills based on environmental science, GPS/GIS/RS technology, and basic computer programming,” he added.
Kim has great praise for his colleagues. “In particular,” he said, “Richard Abel, who is the coordinator of our program, and Dr. Michael Little, who is the chair of Integrated Science and Technology, have always been ready to take my questions and suggestions for the program. Their doors are always open. Since last year, I have met people in the university community who have been great in providing me with input and support. I have felt right at home.”
It comes as no surprise that Kim himself is an avid outdoorsman. Since coming to West Virginia, he’s headed outdoors at every opportunity, although because of job duties he hasn’t been able to get out as much as he would like. But he’s impressed with the outdoor delights the area has to offer. Hiking, camping, biking, kayaking, canoeing - they’re his favorite pastimes.
“I love the New River Gorge and the other outdoor sites I’ve visited. I’ve discovered Beech Fork State Park and the Monongalia Natural Forest in the state. We have been blessed here with natural resources. I hope to do research on these natural resources later. And it’s vital that these resources be sustained,” he concluded.
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