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Value of Open Space

April 2015

“Open space” includes a lot of landscapes, from working forests to wilderness to community parks to islands. The value of open space is equally diverse; it provides us with hardwood floors and furniture, it gives us a place to just be still, it is essential to ecological health. This month, we feature a scientist, research, a product and a partnership that illustrate different aspects of the value of open space.

Environmental Education Links

Learn more about Forest Service scientists working in Hawai’i with the Natural Inquirer’s Hawai’i Pacific Islands edition

Featured Scientist

John Kabrick

John Kabrick has loved forests since he was 5 years old. By the time he was 5 years old, John Kabrick knew that he wanted to work for the U.S. Forest Service, and it wasn’t just because the agency sent him a Smokey Bear medal when he requested information about being a forester. “I have always loved everything about forests,” said Kabrick, a native of Columbia, Mo.

Today, Kabrick is a research forester stationed at the Northern Research Station’s lab in Columbia, where his research focuses on silviculture and forest soils. His current research includes exploring the elusive nature of “woodlands,” a forest that is more open than a true forest but more wooded than a savanna. In addition to trying to precisely define it and develop guidelines for woodlands management, Kabrick is also modeling woodlands’ capacity for storing carbon and producing timber.

In a recent study, Kabrick and partners reconstructed historical (1815 to 1850) forest densities, basal area, percent stocking or growing space, and canopy cover as part of an effort to identify vegetation ranging from prairie to forest across the Missouri Ozarks landscape. Their research suggests that historical forests may have been primarily (about 65 percent) woodlands with nearly closed canopies, unlike the open canopies presumed during settlement in the Missouri Ozarks.

Over the years, Kabrick has found that trees inspire passion, both for the foresters who work in them and city dwellers who may not see them every day, but like knowing they are there. “People really like forests, they feel connected to trees,” Kabrick said. “Forests give us wood, water, and a variety of other benefits. While my research is about trees, I feel like it’s all about people.”

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Featured Product

Islands on the Edge

Islands face unique pressures. Photo by Keith Binns, The natural and working landscapes that we call “open spaces” face a variety of pressures. In an effort to support the conservation of these lands and the benefits that they provide to the public, the U.S. Forest Service created a publication series called “Forests on the Edge.” The reports examine the specific pressures facing open spaces, with a particular focus on forest land that is privately-owned.

The most recent of those reports, “Islands on the Edge,” highlights the challenges confronting open spaces on a number of U.S.-affiliated islands and territories, including: Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The report suggests that when it comes to conserving forest land, these islands are facing a number of difficult challenges.

For each island, the report presents an overview of forest geography and human population trends; selected forest issues and priorities as identified in recent assessments; and maps and projections of housing density in coming decades. Case studies highlight specific places and situations that illustrate the trends or issues relevant for the area under consideration. The report is based on the best available land cover maps, derived from satellites, combined with detailed, long-term projections.

Increasing housing density is one of the challenges facing islands, and housing development often occurs at the expense of private forest land. In the Pacific and Caribbean islands described in the report, the percentage of forest land that is privately owned varies but is as great as 87 percent. “Islands on the Edge” maps and projections suggest that in localized areas, from 3 to 25 percent of private forest land is likely to experience a substantial increase in housing density between years 2000 and 2030.

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Featured Research

Forest Interior Birds and Open Space

Forest interior birds need more than forest interior. Photo by Nathan WeyandtDeclining populations of forest interior birds have prompted a plethora of research, much of it focused on breeding and nesting habitat. Scott Stoleson, a research wildlife biologist with the Northern Research Station’s lab in Irvine, PA, explored to what degree open space is an important part of forest interior birds’ habitat and when it becomes important.
Stoleson’s work assessed two questions: whether most bird species of mature forests show habitat shifts after breeding but before migration; and whether using more open early-successional habitat resulted in any benefits or penalties for birds compared with those that remained in mature forests.

Between 2005 and 2008, Stoleson used mist netting to catch 3,845 birds of 46 species at four sites in mature Allegheny hardwood forests in northwestern Pennsylvania during the post-breeding season. Each of the four sites included a regenerating clearcut with scattered residual trees and an adjacent block of mature, closed-canopy forest with relatively dense understory. Stoleson found a disproportionate number of birds in the regenerating clearcuts, and an assessment of their physical condition showed that the majority were in better shape than those netted in forest interior.

“My research confirms previous research and demonstrates that forest-interior birds move to early successional forest following the breeding season,” Stoleson said. “The next step is to investigate to what degree regenerating clearcuts, forested wetlands, riparian areas, and dense understories within a mature forest benefit birds so we can understand how much early-successional habitat we might want to create or retain in a forested landscape.”

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Featured Partnership

Natural Areas Conservancy

New York City has forests and wetlands, and Natural Areas Conservancy works to conserve them. Photo courtesy of NAC

Who uses the parks, natural areas, and waterfronts of New York City, how do they use them, and why? To answer these questions, the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Areas Conservancy, and New York City Parks and Recreation teamed up to complete a social assessment of city parks that involved interviewing more than 1,600 people.   
During summer months in 2013 and 2014, 18 field researchers working in teams of two visited 39 parks and made observations at forests, playgrounds, beaches, and fields.  This effort was a companion study to a citywide ecological assessment conducted by the Natural Areas Conservancy.

Understanding and protecting NYC’s forests and wetlands is the focus of the Natural Areas Conservancy, a non-profit organization that works in partnership with New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  Through advancing data-driven best practices for management, creating green jobs, and expanding community engagement, the NAC works to conserve NYC’s forests and wetlands in all five boroughs, and promote their tremendous environmental and social benefits. 

Even for social scientists steeped in the value of urban greenspace, the social assessment was a voyage of discovery, according to Lindsay Campbell, a Northern Research Station research social scientist at the Forest Service’s New York City Urban Field Station. “Our experience doing the social assessment left researchers with a greater appreciation for sites that used to be just green blobs on the map,” Campbell said.

Natural Areas Conservancy Executive Director Sarah Charlop-Powers agreed.“It was a terrific experience to work with the US Forest Service on the social assessment,” Charlop-Powers said. “The USFS social scientists’ work provided a necessary human dimension to the Natural Areas Conservancy’s first ever-ecological assessment of NYC’s 10,000 acres of natural areas. We now have the largest dataset on urban ecology in the U.S. and can use this valuable information to improve management of NYC Parks natural areas. We now know the environmental condition of these forests and wetlands and, with groundbreaking insight into how New Yorkers are using parks, can customize stewardship programs to their interests.”

The research team has completed field work and is now focusing on on data analysis, product development, and sharing findings via maps, park profiles, white papers, presentations, and peer-reviewed articles.

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