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Our Roots

February 2016

From the unfurling of leaves in the spring through the grand green canopy of summer to the blaze of autumn, we appreciate trees without pausing to consider the massive roots feeding all that beauty. Roots, whether they are tree roots or origins, just do not get enough glory. This month, we try to give roots their due in stories about a scientist, research, a product and a partnership.  

Environmental Education Link

Natural Inquirer FaceLook - Explore the relationship between carbon, photosynthesis and the roots of trees with FACELook, a middle school activity from the Natural Inquirer.

Featured Scientist

Scott Bailey

Scott Bailey

A childhood spent catching frogs, climbing trees, and digging underground forts in the floodplain forests of the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts inspired Scott Bailey to pursue a career in forestry, but he changed his mind based on advice at a high school job fair. “It was bad advice,” said Bailey, now a geologist based at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Instead, Bailey pursued his secondary interest, geology, first at the University of Massachusetts and then in a graduate program at the University of New Hampshire, where he confessed his continued interest in forestry in a meeting with his advisor. This led to an introduction to NRS researcher Dr. James Hornbeck, who suggested that Bailey could combine his training in geology and passion for forests by developing a specialty in how rocks, soil, and water interact, processes central to forest ecosystems. “This was a brilliant piece of advice and it has guided my career ever since,” Bailey said.

Following graduation, Bailey was working as a private consultant when he realized that he missed the research process and the opportunity to explore scientific questions longer term. He enrolled in the PhD program at Syracuse University, where his studies focused on how calcium and aluminum move through a watershed on the White Mountain National Forest; these water-rock interactions are central to Bailey’s research today. Calcium, an essential nutrient, and aluminum, which can be toxic in certain forms, are both released from rocks as they break down to form soil.  

The Northern Research Station entered Bailey’s life a second time, this time as his employer. He has worked on projects across the region and globe, and for the past two decades has been based at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire where his research has included investigating site requirements for optimal health and growth of sugar maple (turns out, sugar maple does best in places where soil calcium is plentiful but is sensitive to aluminum). Bailey was invited to analyze historic soil samples, some over a century old, archived at the Dokuchaev Museum of Soil Science in Russia, which demonstrated a link between global calcium and carbon cycles.

Today, Bailey’s work includes collaborating with a botanist to understand how variations in plant genetic composition and habitat choice allow plants to respond to changing climate. “Collaborative projects where partners of differing scientific backgrounds learn from each other, and everyone’s input is essential to gaining new knowledge, are a favorite part of my work,” says Bailey. “And it is rewarding to share our insights with land managers to help them maintain the health and diversity of forests. In hindsight, the transition from digging underground forts as a child to sampling soil pits as a researcher seems to have been a path I was destined to follow.”

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Featured Product

Sampling and measurement protocols for long-term silvicultural studies on the Penobscot Experimental Forest

Scientists collect data on Penobscot EF. Photo circa 1950s.

Science is rooted in data, but data and data collection are not the most glamorous side of science. Laura Kenefic, a research forester and Team Leader at the Penobscot Experimental Forest near Bangor, Maine, has no illusions:  “As soon as you start talking data, people’s eyes glaze over,” she said.

A co-author of “Sampling and measurement protocols for long-term silvicultural studies on the Penobscot Experimental Forest,” published by the Northern Research Station as General Technical Report 147, Kenefic exudes evangelistic enthusiasm not only for the data collected at the Penobscot Experimental Forest over the past six decades, but the effort to make that data public.

With technical and funding help from the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and Research Data Archive, Kenefic and Penobscot Experimental Forest researchers have made Penobscot Experimental Forest data available on-line. The new general technical report makes that data more useful to scientists and the public by describing data collection protocols used on the experimental forest. The report will also serve as a primer for researchers on exactly how data will be collected in the future, reducing inconsistencies that might compromise research results.

“Lots of people do research, but not many make the data behind their work publically available,” Kenefic said.

Data has a lifespan far beyond the research for which it is originally collected. Scientists can use historical forest data to answer questions that had not been anticipated when the original study began, and build on past research by tracking change over time.

Since 1950, the Penobscot Experimental Forest has been the site of Forest Service research on silviculture of northern conifer, formerly called spruce-fir forests. On permanent research plots within the almost 4,000-acre experimental forest, data on forest management research has been collected at 5- and 10-year intervals for more than half a century, creating an almost unparalleled trove of forest data in the northeast.

Between the 1950s and the 1990s, data collection at the Penobscot focused on traditional, timber-oriented measurements, such as trees’ size and quality. Since the ‘90s, data collection has expanded to include ecological data, such as dead trees and down-woody-material. More than a million observations are included in the Penobscot Experimental Forest database.

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Featured Research

Witness Trees 

Old deeds, witness trees help decode the pastA tree serves many functions—as a home to wildlife, a provider of shade on a hot day, a thing to climb for a better view—but one of the more unique is as a witness.  A tree may serve as a witness to an historic event such as a famous battle or more commonly as a witness to the corner of a land surveyor’s parcel.  The information that early land surveyors noted about witness trees on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia from 1752-1899 was recently used by research forester Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy and collaborators to create a picture of the composition of pre-European settlement forests in central West Virginia. 

Thomas-Van Gundy used maps created in the 1930s by Monongahela National Forest staff that interpreted early surveyors’ data and noted locations of witness trees on the forest.  She then used an interpolation technique called “indicator kriging” to expand the individual tree’s geographic extent based on nearness to trees of the same species.  Other, point-based analysis uncovered relationships between tree species and soil, slope, elevation, and other site characteristics.  The results of the analysis created a picture of pre-settlement forests on the Monongahela National Forest that were largely unknown previously due to the almost complete clearcutting that took place in the late 1800s. 

In and of themselves these maps serve as a valuable historic record.  However their value goes beyond the past.  The maps can be used to show forest managers where different species thrived, which in turn can be used to guide forest restoration efforts.  For example, oak species commonly require wildfire to aid in regeneration by reducing the tree canopy, removing competing understory vegetation, and producing oak seedling-sprouts with well-developed root systems.  Knowing where oaks once thrived can pinpoint locations for application of prescribed burning treatments. 

Early land surveyors would probably be surprised that the information they meticulously gathered over 200 years ago is being used to manage forests in the 21st century, which serves as an example of how the roots of the past can benefit the canopies of the future.

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Featured Partnership

Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest

At the Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest, Wayne National Forest staff are provided a field tour of a prescribed fire research site, led by NRS scientists.

Seventy-five miles southeast of Columbus, Ohio, the Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest stands as an excellent example of the significant benefits of long standing partnerships. 

Named for the iron furnace that operated there from 1854-1883, the Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest was established in 1952 when the Baker Wood Preserving Company set aside 1,200 acres within a larger forested tract for use by the USDA Forest Service’s research unit in central Ohio.  When the Mead Paper Company later purchased the land, the firm agreed to maintain the relationship with the Forest Service, ensuring the continued existence of the experimental forest.  Early research focused on silvicultural practices, regeneration, and growth and yield of hardwood species.   

In 2010, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) purchased the 15,849-acre property, creating the 12,089-acre Vinton Furnace State Forest and the contiguous 3,760-acre Vinton Furnace State Wildlife Area.  Along with the purchase, the Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest was expanded to nearly 3,000 acres as a zone dedicated to research and co-managed by the Ohio Division of Forestry and NRS scientists stationed in Delaware, Ohio, and Irvine Penn.

The Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest, with a legacy of over 60 years of forestry and ecological research, continues to thrive in large part because of valued partnerships established over the years.  In addition to the partnership with the ODNR Divisions of Forestry and Wildlife, other partners collaborating with the Forest Service to guide research, demonstration, and education on the experimental forest include Ohio State University (Extension and School of Natural Resources), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Glatfelter, Hocking College, Wayne National Forest, ODNR Division of Water Resources, National Wild Turkey Federation, Ohio University, and the Nature Conservancy.  

Current research is focused on the restoration of mixed oak ecosystems with management practices that include prescribed fire and partial harvesting.  Wildlife research is examining how forest management influences a variety of species, especially those of high conservation value, including the cerulean warbler, bobcat, and timber rattlesnake. 

The Vinton Furnace Experimental Forest also provides education and demonstration opportunities.  Since 2012, more than 1,000 woodland owners and enthusiasts have attended 30 educational programs at the forest through the “Day in the Woods” series, led by Ohio State University Extension and other partners.   In addition, Forest Service scientists deliver comprehensive knowledge about mixed-oak forests to professional foresters through SILVAH: Oak training, an intensive week long workshop held on the experimental forest.

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