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Forecasting the Future

January 2014

In January, we turn the page – in increasing numbers we swipe that page – to a shining New Year. One of the joys of science is that past, present and future figure largely in our everyday lives: we mine historic data to better understand today, and the research we begin now aims to give us insight into a future that is always much closer than it seems.

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said: “The vast possibilities of our great future will become realities only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”  This month, we feature research, a scientist, a product and a partnership that all do as Mr. Pinchot urged and make ourselves responsible for that future.

Environmental Education Link

This Natural Inquirer issue will help you to think about the future of global climate change, the Nation's wildlife, our fresh water, our fish, the trees that grow in our cities and towns, and the conditions that tell us whether our forests and rangelands are healthy.


Climate Change Tree Atlas enables visitors to explore the potential habitat shifts for 134 tree species under various climate change models.


Developing models and predicting future conditions requires an enormous amount of data. Forest Service Research supports long-term and landscape-scale studies, and we also partner through national networks like the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network to constantly improve our understanding of the environment. Visit http://schoolyard.lternet.edu/ to learn about educational efforts on LTER sites near you.

Featured Scientist

Dave Bengston

Dave Bengston’s past is rooted in futuring.

As he was growing up, long family camping trips to national parks and forests across the country left a deep impression on Dave Bengston, a research forester with the Northern Research Station. His father’s interest in futuring – he was an active member of the World Future Society and Minnesota Futurists – and the futures publications that came to the Bengston home were also strong influences in his early years. When he went to college, Bengston created an individually-designed bachelor’s degree in Futures Studies and then went on to graduate school to pursue natural resource economics and social sciences.

Today, Bengston has his dream job as a scientist in the new Strategic Foresight and Rapid Response Group doing research that combines futures and natural resources. His current research includes working with a senior futurist at the Institute for Alternative Futures on “The Future of Wildland Fire Management,” a project on the future of cellulose nanomaterials, and designing a “horizon scanning” system for the Forest Service.

Bengston’s past research has included analyzing the economic impacts of technological change in forestry, developing methods to measure changing stakeholder attitudes, beliefs and values, and investigating the needs and concerns of ethnic minority communities related to public lands. In 2011, he partnered with Hmong natural resource professionals at the University of Minnesota, and the Hmong arts and theater community to create a research-based conservation education DVD for the Hmong community.

Find out more on Dave Bengston's scientist profile

Featured Product

What will outdoor recreation look like in 50 years? Photo is cover image from report featuring silhouette person and a dog looking forward sitting in a rowboat on a calm lake at dawn.Outdoor recreation is not just a major part of the economy, it’s near and dear to the hearts of millions of people in northern states. As part of the Northern Research Station’s Northern Forest Futures Project, we investigated how several outdoor activities might look in the next 50 years.

The study, “Outlook for Outdoor Recreation in the Northern U.S.,” is available online at: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/44345.

Midwest and Northeast residents are likely to retain their interest in outdoor recreation, the study found, although outdoor recreation resources are likely to become less available as more people use them. On privately owned land, increased competition for recreational resources could mean more restricted access or rising access prices. On public lands, increased congestion and possible decreases in the quality of the outdoor recreation experience could present important challenges to management, the study suggests.
The study’s lead author is Michael Bowker, a research social scientist with the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station. Bowker evaluated how population growth along with changing socioeconomic conditions, demographics, land uses, and climate influence the demand for natural resource-based recreation. Bowker and his team developed regional projections of participation and use for 17 natural resource-based outdoor-recreation activities.

More information>>

Featured Research

Image is a word cloud with many words that refer to futuring, foresasting, and prediction.We can’t know the future, but we can examine the present for clues that may help us anticipate it.

The Northern Research Station’s newest research work unit, “Strategic Foresight and Rapid Response,” is a unique combination of social and biological science designed to examine the effects of short-term events and long-term trends on future natural resource conditions and society.

The unit will focus research in three broad areas:

  • Contributing strategic foresight tools to enhance decision-making in natural resources management.
  • Developing new methods to fully integrate multi-scale analysis of past, current, and future trends in forest-associated resources with analysis of what is driving change in these resources and what the implications are for society.
  • Developing methods and tools for rapid ecological analysis and as well as identifying response options following significant disturbance events, such as drought, storms and wildfire.

The third point, rapid ecological analysis and analysis of immediate and long-term effects on ecosystems and society, is a novel function of this multidisciplinary group.

The new group will work closely with the Forest Service Policy Analysis office, the Resources Planning Act Assessment staff, and other federal and non-federal organizations to apply results to key issues of natural resources policy and management.

More information>>

Featured Partnership

Image is am aerial view of SPRUCE research site.

Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Climatic and Environmental Change, or SPRUCE, is an ambitious ecosystem-level experiment that will test the response of high-carbon northern peatland ecosystems to increased temperatures and elevated carbon dioxide. Located at the Northern Research Station’s Marcell Experimental Forest near Grand Rapids, Minn., the experiment is a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Although they cover only 3 percent of Earth’s land surface, peatlands store about 30 percent of the total carbon stored in soil. Because they store so much carbon, peatlands may be one of the most important ecosystems in terms of gaining insight into global climate change. Despite the importance of these ecosystems and the uncertainty about their response to climate change, large scale experimental manipulations to simulate climatic warming and predicted atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have not been conducted until SPRUCE.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory conceived the SPRUCE concept and design and have been developing the technology to produce large-scale whole-ecosystem warming conditions for the target black spruce peatland ecosystem.  Funding for SPRUCE comes from the U.S. Department of Energy through support of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Science and Climate Change Research efforts.  Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, Oak Ridge National Lab and numerous other scientists from across the globe are working in collaboration to understand the water, soil, and plant responses to elevated temperature and carbon dioxide.

The Department of Energy and the Northern Research Station have a long history of working together on climate-related research. Between 1997 and 2009, the NRS, the Department of Energy and partners collaborated on the Aspen FACE Experiment, a large climate change experiment located at the Station’s Harshaw Research Farm near Rhinelander, Wis. A project involving Michigan Technological UniversityBrookhaven National LaboratoryCanadian Forest Service and other organizations, FACE was an important step to understanding large scale tree response of three northern tree species to elevated carbon dioxide (greenhouse gas) and ozone (urban pollution) in anticipation of predicted climate change.

For more information on SPRUCE, visit https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/disturbance/climate_change/spruce/ and the Oak Ridge National Lab’s website: http://mnspruce.ornl.gov/. For more information on the partnership between NRS and DOE, see: https://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/partners/bigscience/.