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Ecosystem Services

May 2015

“The tangible benefits derived from natural systems” is one of many ways to describe ecosystem services.   A variety of these services are evident –lakes and rivers provide drinking water, timber is vital to building and decorating our homes, we rely on medicines derived from plants.  Other ecosystem services are less obvious, such as pollination, erosion control, well-being derived from connecting with the natural world.  Some are just as vital but less visible and comprehensible, such as nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration. This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership related to ecosystem services. 

Environmental Education Links

Here’s an easy way to quantify all the ecosystem services your trees provide:

Visit, enter the species and diameter of your tree at 4.5 feet above the ground, and you can learn the value of your tree for storm water capture, property value, energy savings, air quality improvement, and CO2 reduction. Add up the benefits for all of the trees in your yard or on your school grounds, and learn more about the wonderful benefits trees provide.

This 2-minute video shows how to measure tree diameter. Don’t have a diameter tape to measure your trees? Use any measuring tape to find the circumference of the tree at 4.5 feet above the ground, and divide that number by 3.14.

Featured Scientist

Stephanie Snyder

Stephanie Snyder helps decisionmakers optimize their resources.In high school algebra class, Stephanie Snyder thought doing word problems was fun.  Today, in her chosen field of Operations Research, a branch of applied mathematics developed by the U.S. military to support operations during World War II, her goal is to help land managers, planners and land owners make efficient, effective and equitable natural resource management and planning decisions.  Today, instead of word problems Snyder dissects a wide array of complex natural resource management issues and develops tools and information to support the land managers and planners who confront those issues.
Rather than modeling the biophysical way a tree grows, she develops models of the types of decisions a land manager might make about trees to achieve specific land management goals, for example when to harvest or whether to thin a stand to meet economic, biophysical and aesthetic goals they have for their land.  “Once one is able to specify the general way in which a system works (such as key players, interactions between players, constraints, etc.), then, through analysis and experimentation, knowledge can be gained about that system that can help in figuring out ways to optimize different attributes of or goals for the system” she explains. 

Snyder’s modeling work has tackled problems within a variety of decision making contexts such as open space land acquisition in urban areas, timber harvesting schedules, All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) trail location, and helicopter contracting for wildfire suppression. 

In support of efforts to protect biodiversity, Snyder, in conjunction with team members, developed several novel optimization decision models to address important issues associated with habitat reserve selection and design.  In addition to consideration of the presence of key species and ecological features, Snyder’s models included ways to address trade-offs between multiple conservation objectives, uncertainty about species’ location, multi-year planning horizons, and uncertainty about future availability of potential reserve sites.  Including these additional factors made the models more robust as decision support tools. 

For Snyder, Operations Research offers an analytical way to pick apart and concisely represent different elements of complex decision problems associated with protecting, managing, using, and restoring natural resource systems.   “That feels satisfying to me,” she says.

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Featured Product

A Tool for Helping Woodland Adapt to Climate Change

Managers use a new tool to prepare forests for climate change.Woodlands provide a multitude of ecosystem services such as providing wildlife habitat and wood products; cleaning the air and water; storing carbon; and providing places for people to both recreate and recharge. 

One of the most significant threats to woodlands today is climate change.  Increases in temperature, changes in amount and distribution of rainfall, drought, extreme weather events, and wildfire activity associated with climate change can wreak havoc on woodlands and their ability to provide these services.  For woodland owners and land managers, a key question is what can be done about climate change.

 “It can be very difficult for natural resource professionals to stay on top of the latest science and then figure out how to integrate that information into their work,” said Maria Janowiak, a Northern Research Station scientist working on climate change adaptation and carbon management at the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS). Scientists with NIACS deliver a variety of science tools related to climate change and carbon management through the Climate Change Response Framework, including the “Adaptation Workbook.”

“The Adaptation Workbook outlines a process that helps break climate change, which can seem overwhelming, into smaller and more manageable pieces for land managers to consider,” Janowiak said.  Notably, the Workbook draws upon numerous climate change vulnerability assessments developed in the region, making it easier to use high-quality scientific information.

The Adaptation Workbook is available online free of charge both as a published document and as an online interactive tool.  In addition, a set of training sessions called “Forest Adaptation Planning and Practices” was recently developed to help train people to use the Adaptation Workbook using participants’ real-world projects.

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Featured Research

Urban Foraging

20 percent of urban residents in the U.S. say they have foraged for wild plants. Photo by Colleen Sync.As long as there have been cities, there have been city residents foraging for wild plants for both nutritional and medicinal purposes.  In the United States, historical reference to foraging in cities goes back to the early 20th century, when groups of women and children were observed going from lawn to lawn digging dandelion greens in early spring. Today, dandelions are still foraged in urban and rural areas throughout the country along with other common edibles such as mushrooms and fiddleheads. 

Foragers seek out their botanical and fungal quarry any place a plant or mushroom can grow.  In cities this includes parks, cemeteries, campuses, yards, and those unclaimed green interstitial spaces – cracks in the sidewalk, along chain link fences, or on median strips.  Foraging is a solo activity for some but often occurs in small groups of family and friends.  According to surveys, about 20 percent of urban residents in the United States say that they have foraged at some point in their lifetime.  Foraging is an activity available to anyone with the physical capacity to be active in the outdoors.   All a person needs is a grocery bag, time, and the knowledge of when, where, and what to forage. 

The foraging experience means different things to different people.  For some immigrant families it is a time to be out in nature and share cultural traditions and stories about their homeland and history.  For people living in urban food deserts, foraging can be a way to supplement the family diet with fresh produce.   Foodies, people interested in primitive skills, and survivalists are often drawn to foraging. 

Marla Emery, a research geographer with the Northern Research Station is involved in several studies looking at foraging from different perspectives.  She is currently examining the potential health risks and benefits from foraging in cities in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future.  Other urban foraging research she is pursuing includes the foraging practices of immigrant communities and mapping the distribution of street trees valued for their potential to provide food, medicine, and other uses.  Information from this research may help park managers manage for sustainable, abundant urban green spaces.   

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Featured Partnership

Springfield Renaissance Expeditionary Learning School: Urban Forestry Educational Initiatives

Ian Weishar receives an award for his work with iTree.  A tool used with the Springfield Renaissance students.

In Springfield, Mass., the Northern Research Station has partnered with the Springfield Renaissance Expeditionary Learning School to create an alternative learning experience for students in grades 6-12.

Springfield is not an easy place to be a child. The city is one of the poorest and most densely populated cities in the state, it has a high unemployment rate, and its crime rate is the highest of any city in the country. In 2011, the city was devastated by an EF-3 tornado, which diminished the already scant opportunities to enjoy open space and connect with the natural world. 

The Springfield Renaissance School has a diverse student body that achieves a 94 percent graduation rate, compared to a 52 percent graduation rate among the rest of Springfield’s high schools.  The school’s curriculum focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and annual “expeditions” create a foundation for the year’s coursework. This year, the expedition has focused on climate change.

Over the past 2 years, scientists from the Northern Research Station and other partners have worked with the 9th grade class to discover the components of urban forests, greenspace, conservation lands, and watersheds.  Hands-on learning and demonstrations have involved students in assessing the benefits of urban trees using the Forest Service’s i-Tree software and doing water sampling in local streams.  In cooperation with the City of Springfield, the Forest Service has placed a weather monitoring station on the roof of the school and the students use the station in their studies. 

“More than 25 percent of Springfield’s population is under the age of 18 and represents the future of the city,” said Dave Bloniarz, a biological scientist with the Northern Research Station. “The work of the Northern Research Station and partners at the Springfield Renaissance School is a truly valuable and important investment in our future.” 

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