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Ron Zalesny in poplar stand in Po River Valley, Italy.

Ronald S. Zalesny, Jr.

Team Leader, Research Plant Geneticist
Institute for Applied Ecosystem Studies: Theory and Application of Scaling Science in Forestry

Rhinelander, WI 54501-9128
Phone: 715-362-1132

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Current Research

I study genetic and physiological mechanisms regulating biomass production of short rotation woody crops (i.e., poplars and willows) grown for bioenergy, fiber, and phytotechnologies. I utilize the broad amount of variability in parental species and hybrids from current poplar and willow breeding programs in the United States to increase availability of promising genotypes for these end uses. In addition, I study the impacts of changing climates on patterns of tree adaptation in northern coniferous forest ecosystems. The success of such systems depends upon understanding the linkages among energy, climate, and tree genetics. Likewise, successful deployment requires selection among and within populations of genotypes that grow fast, resist diseases and pests, and possess traits that facilitate reliable and economical commercial production. Within these broad research goals, my current lines of science include:

• Conducting a crop genetic development program to test the growth, yield, and pest resistance of new genotypes of poplar on regional and national scales;

• Applying quantitative genetic analyses to develop guidelines for optimal testing;

• Developing models to predict the effects of genotype × environment interactions on the limits to geographic transfer of clonal selections;

• Acquiring knowledge of National energy issues to provide policy-relevant input on bioenergy opportunities for the    Northern Research Station and U.S. Forest Service;

• Studying existing long-term conifer field experiments to assess growth, yield, and pest resistance.

Research Interests

In general, I plan to conduct detailed quantitative genetic analyses of forest crops with high probability of yielding valuable commercial genotypes for multiple end uses. Regardless of the product or environmental service from the trees, using such analyses to determine the magnitude of genetic and environmental control of important traits, and the magnitude of genetic and environmental correlations between traits, will be an important step in refining testing protocols, designing multiple-trait selection strategies, and identifying commercially-valuable genotypes. More specifically, I am beginning to:

1.Test the below- and above-ground growth and physiology of intensively managed forest crops, with an emphasis on understanding root growth under different applications (i.e., invasive species competition, fiber, bioenergy, phytoremediation, etc.);

2.Strengthen collaborations to determine the economic value of intensive forest crops to ascertain how such crops contribute to rural economic development, with an emphasis on bioenergy;

3.Test the rooting ability and tree establishment potential of poplar and willow genotypes subjected to various pre- and post-planting treatments (e.g., soil temperature) when planted in field settings;

4.Test the ability of poplar and willow genotypes for phytoremediation of inorganic and organic contaminants at local levels (especially near waterways), along with using these data and those from collaborators to estimate the environmental benefit of such remediative efforts at regional and national scales.

Why This Research is Important

Understanding the underlying genetic and physiological mechanisms supports effective deployment of favorable genotypes that helps: 1) reduce impacts from invasive species, 2) provide an energy source that does not contribute to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and global climate change, and 3) improve the rural agricultural environment through remediation and/or restoration. Overall, the knowledge gained from my research helps researchers and growers increase the success of sustainable woody crop production systems, with examples of key benefits including increasing biomass supplies in regions such as the North Central United States and ultimately reducing pressure on native forest ecosystems worldwide. In addition, the general public gets a supply of wood and wood products while having the native forests for aesthetics and recreation.


  • Iowa State University (McNabb Excellence Fellow), Ph.D. Forest Biology (Quantitative Genetics & Tree Improvement), 2003
  • University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, B.S. Natural Resources & Environmental Studies (Forest Resources & Biometrics), 1999

Professional Organizations

  • International Poplar Commission (Fao) Environmental Applications Working Party, International Delegate (2010 - Current)
  • Iufro Working Group 2.08.04 (Physiology And Genetics Of Poplars And Willows), Deputy Coordinator (2010 - Current)
  • International Phytotechnology Society, Board Member (2007 - Current)
  • Poplar Council of the United States, Steering Committee (2003 - Current)
  • Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, Member (2001 - Current)
  • Short Rotation Woody Crops Operations Working Group, Steering Committee (1999 - Current)
  • Xi Sigma Pi, Treasurer (1998 - 2003)
  • Society of American Foresters, Member (1997 - 2003)
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science, Member (2000 - 2001)

Awards & Recognition

  • U.S. Forest Service Certificate of Merit Award, 2007
    For substantial contributions to the broad public interest through research on hybrid poplars and their use in fiber production and bioenergy.
  • U.S. Forest Service Certificate of Merit Award, 2006
    For substantial contributions to the broad public interest through research on hybrid poplars and their use in environmental remediation.
  • U.S. Forest Service Certificate of Merit Award, 1998
    For drafting a Comprehensive Nursery Safety Management Plan that provides all employees with rapid access for training and information on field and farm safety.

Featured Publications & Products

Publications & Products

National Research Highlights

Biomass Potential of Poplar Energy Crops in Minnesota and Wisconsin Assessed (2012)
Scientists develop methods to map sites for poplar tree energy crops to enhance productivity and ecosystem services

Environmental and Economic Benefits of Short-Rotation Poplar Energy Crops (2011)
Woody production systems and conversion technologies help maintain healthy forests and ecosystems, create high-paying manufacturing jobs, and meet local/regional energy demands. Poplars are dedicated energy crops that also conserve soil and water, recycle nutrients, and sequester carbon.

Production Costs of Poplar Energy Crops in the Great Lake States (2014)
Short-rotation woody crops have historically been used as feedstocks for energy and fiber, yet their relevance for environmental remediation technologies is becoming equally prominent. Regardless of their end use, knowing the costs associated with producing these crops is essential for maximizing the suite of ecosystem services the trees provide. Northern Research Station scientists developed the first-ever set of enterprise budgets detailing costs of these crops in the Lake States.

Scholars Program Welcomes Youth into the World of Nature (2012)
Alleviating nature deficit disorder in the youth of Wisconsin's Northwoods

Last updated on : 04/20/2015