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Great Lakes Forest Restoration

January 2015

Bordering the United States and Canada, the five Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario – constitute the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet, containing about 18 percent of the world’s surface fresh water by volume and providing an estimated 40 million people with drinking water. In the United States, forests cover nearly half of the Great Lakes basin’s land area. Forests are not only an iconic part of the region’s landscape, they are vital to its environmental and economic health. Forest Service science is delivering tools that land managers can use to make private and public forests – and ultimately the Great Lakes – healthier and more resilient.

This month we feature a scientist, research, a product, and a partnership related to forest restoration in the Great Lakes Region.

Environmental Education Links

Get Involved! Visit the Alliance for the Great Lakes website to volunteer for Adopt A Beach activities or to learn about their Great Lakes in My World Curriculums, 80 indoor and outdoor activities for grades K-8 and 17 indoor and outdoor activities for grades 9-12 that focus on Great Lakes coastal habitats and meet Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State standards.

Featured Scientist

Brian Palik

Brian Palik

For Research Ecologist Brian Palik, the road to the U.S Forest Service’s Northern Research Station was neither long nor winding. After completing research on national forests in Michigan as part of his dissertation, Palik knew that his interest in operational-scale silviculture research with an ecological bent would fit with the U.S. Forest Service’s research mission, and he was specifically interested in the Northern Research Station because the vibrant timber industry in the Lakes States created opportunities to apply his research. “There is nowhere else nationally where I could be doing what I do,” Palik said.

Today, forest restoration and sustainable forest management are the focus of Palik’s research. Palik describes “sustainable management” as actions and approaches that do not compromise the options of future generations to derive the full array of ecosystem services from their forests, ranging from clean water, to wildlife habitat, to timber products.  While “restoration” is often thought of as returning a landscape to conditions of a particular era, for Palik restoration is less about returning to a past condition and more about equipping a forest to maintain options in the face of an uncertain future, particularly uncertainty about climate, forest pests and timber markets.  This often means restoring all the parts of a forest that should be there now, such as species of trees and different age classes, with the premise that some part of this forest will be resilient in the face of future change.

His current research with black ash and red pine forests is aimed at positioning those forests to remain viable forests, not perfectly preserved forests.  “In the future, they may not look like they did 150 years ago or even as they look now, but our hope is that they are still functioning forests,” he said.

Working with a variety of partners, Palik’s silvicultural research projects often incorporate 500 to 600 acres in a single experiment, and many build on much smaller scale research that is half a century old. “Long-term research is of course a valuable source of information for its original purpose, but it’s also being used to explore contemporary questions that no one had imagined in the 1960s,” Palik said.   

Palik’s interest in forests is rooted in his experience growing up in a rural area of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, where he was surrounded by forest. “I loved walking through the woods, and I liked the trees more than anything else out there,” he said.

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Featured Product

Hazardous Fuels Management in Mixed Red Pine and Eastern White Pine Forest in the Northern Lake States: A Synthesis of Knowledge

Photo of pine forest in the Northern Lake States. Photo credit: David M. Hix, The Ohio State University.

Great Lakes states are rich in both people and forests; in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, nearly all forests are located within 25 km of a densely populated community. Ownership of these forests is a complicated mix of public, tribal, private and non-governmental owners, all of which have diverse needs, resources and approaches to hazardous fuels management. As a result, although wildfires in Great Lakes states do not receive as much attention as they do in the West, they can still have significant impacts on social values in addition to their biological and physical impacts.  Between January 2002 and March 2011, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin experienced a combined 35,773 wildfires that burned 669,167 acres in the three states. In Wisconsin, at least two fires have resulted in the loss of houses.

A publication by NRS Research Social Scientist Sarah McCaffrey and a team that included scientists from The Ohio State University, Virginia Tech University and Charles Sturt University is delivering Great Lakes-specific information about fuels management for the region’s forest managers.    
Hazardous Fuels Management in Mixed Red Pine and Eastern White Pine Forest in the Northern Lake States: A Synthesis of Knowledge” incorporates the knowledge and experience of scientists specializing in silviculture, ecology, wildlife biology, behavioral science, and decision-making with that of resource managers and fire practitioners who work in the northern Lake States. The report is part of a larger effort that, with the support of the Joint Fire Science Program, seeks to strengthen relationships between scientists and practitioners within the region to address current forest and fire management challenges.

“Working to manage wildfire in a way that minimizes the risk while also allowing fire to play its natural role in such a complex landscape is not a simple process even without having to take into account other land management goals such as promoting wildlife habitat and diversity, and production of forest products,” McCaffrey said. “This guide brings existing information together and addresses fire in the context of considerations facing forest managers.”

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Featured Research

Exotic Earthworms

Earthorm hole. Photo by Erik Lilleskov, USFSThey are among the nation’s most familiar and perhaps most accepted non-native invasive species, and yet European earthworms are transforming entire ecosystems. Earthworms have such far reaching effects on the landscape that scientists describe the species as an ‘ecosystem engineer.’

European earthworms such as nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) devour leaf litter on the forest floor in large quantities, resulting in a decrease in the thickness of the forest floor and cascading effects including increased soil compaction, loss of soil carbon, erosion, and nutrient leaching. “They are changing the fundamental drivers of the whole ecosystem function,” said Research Ecologist Erik Lilleskov, a scientist in the Northern Research Station’s lab in Houghton, Mich.

Lilleskov and his colleagues set out to identify the factors that help or hinder earthworm invasion in the northern Great Lakes and to use that information to predict the potential extent and impact of earthworms across the region. In a study of the Huron Mountains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they found that signs of earthworms’ presence, including their middens, or burrows, and castings, or waste, are associated with less acidic soils, north facing aspects, and high basal area of earthworms’ preferred overstory species – basswood, maple, ash and balsam fir. Their current distribution was also strongly related to road corridors; an important mechanism for the spread of earthworms into relatively undisturbed forested ecosystems is for earthworm cocoons, or egg capsules, to be carried on vehicles and deposited along roads.

Information on factors that benefit earthworms was incorporated into a geographic information system (GIS) model to map nightcrawlers’ expected distribution, both current and potential, across the study area. Although the current distribution is strongly predicted by road networks, the potential distribution of exotic earthworms, in general, will cover much of the Huron Mountains, the study suggested, and the invasion of nightcrawlers is still in the early stages. The model developed in this research will help managers identify current populations of earthworms and the potential for invasion into areas that are currently free of earthworms.  

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Featured Partnership

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

NASA image shows sediment and phytoplankton blooms in lower Lake Michigan in October 2011.

Launched in 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades. The U.S. Forest Service is among 17 agencies that have joined forces to clean up toxins, combat invasive species, protect watersheds from pollution, and restore wetlands associated with Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

As partners in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, scientists with the Northern Research Station worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a novel approach to identifying priority restoration needs. After demonstrating that sediment and phosphorus delivery to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan is influenced by land use and land cover and their change over time, scientists with the Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program developed models to predict likely water quality problems in streams that are not monitored. This will allow land managers to prioritize restoration investments and management activities across the entire basin, monitored and not monitored. In 2015, work will begin on modeling for Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

“It’s a great example of research facilitating management,” said Charles (Hobie) Perry, a research soil scientist and project lead for research associated with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. “Scientists in Research and Development are producing the kind of science that helps managers make good decisions.”

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