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The Future of Northern Forests

March 2016

From Maine to Minnesota and from Missouri to Maryland, Northern forests cover 174 million acres of hard-working public and private forests. How these forests might change matters to all of us, whether we care about jobs, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, recreation, or just their sheer beauty. In the Northern Forest Futures Project, Northern Research Station scientists and partners explored the ramifications of different future scenarios and how the landscape may change over the next 50 years. This month, we feature a scientist, a product, research and a partnership that are part of the story of the future of Northern forests.

Environmental Education Link

Natural Inquirer Facts to the Future edition. - The articles in this journal 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.

Featured Scientist

Steve Shifley

Steve Shifley

Research Forester Steve Shifley developed his great affinity for the outdoors while roaming the colorful, forested hills of southern Indiana during autumn camping trips with the Boy Scouts. He did not start out with a firm plan to become a scientist but his boyhood experiences led him to later enroll in the forestry program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The forestry faculty at Purdue were at the forefront of quantitative methods applied to forestry. Shifley was impressed with this work, so after earning his bachelor’s degree he enrolled in a master’s program at Purdue with a focus on forest biometrics. He was also fortunate enough to get a paid graduate research assistantship funded by what was then the North Central Forest Experiment Station (now a part of the Northern Research Station). As he continued to pursue his education, he realized that he really enjoyed scientific investigation and ultimately earned a doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota and landed a permanent job with the Forest Service Research.

Shifley’s work on the Northern Forest Futures Project came about fortuitously. The Northern Research Station had decided to pursue a Northern Forest Futures research initiative and he was asked to join the research team by the Project’s Leader, Dennis May. Shifley’s quantitative skills, ability to get along with people, knowledge of Forest Inventory and Analysis data, and experience with sustainability assessments among other things, made him the ideal candidate to take on the role of organizer, synthesizer, motivator, and problem solver on certain aspects of the project related to current and future forest conditions.

What makes the Northern Forest Futures Project particularly interesting to Shifley is its breadth. “Working on publications as part of a group of 30 collaborating authors we had to examine past, present and anticipated forest biodiversity, productivity, health, soil and water, carbon, biomass, energy, commodities, employment, recreation and other factors. For me it was exciting and educational to work with experts from so many disciplines all related to forests and to the well-being of people who depend on forests,” he said.

One of the things Shifley likes best about his work as a scientist is knowing that if done properly it can have long-term positive impacts. “The publications we prepare become part of the permanent scientific record for future generations to build upon,” said Shifley. “More importantly, on-the-ground management actions that might be inspired by our scientific investigations can have tangible, positive impacts that improve the quality of life for future generations of people living in rural and urban environments.”   

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Featured Product

Northern Forest Futures Project Dashboard

Screenshot of Northern Forest Futures Project data dashboard with map showing projected removals of growing-stock on timberland in Northern U.S.

Who needs a crystal ball when you can use the newly updated Northern Forest Futures Project dashboard to look into the future?  The “dashboard” is a web-based tool supporting the “Future Forests of the Northern United States” publication that allows people to explore future forest attributes across 20 states in the northern United States up to the year 2060. The previous dashboard reflected the information in an earlier Northern Forest Futures report, documenting the current condition of Northern forests.  

The dashboard enables land managers and those interested in the condition of forests, including students and teachers, to explore various scenarios and storylines.  How will our forests be affected by changing climate, population increases or new development?  How might the effects of climate change vary state to state?  How will economic factors, such as increased use of wood as a biofuel, impact future forests?

Dashboard visitors can view charts and graphs of forest attributes such as number of trees or amount of carbon stored.  Users can also delve into the data behind the charts and graphs to get more detail; for example, where specifically carbon is being sequestered? (In the live trees and their roots, in dead trees, and in litter and soil.)  

The original dashboard was developed by Jim Lootens-White, a Northern Research Station Information Technology Specialist along with other Forest Service staff. For the new dashboard, developers got input from state and local partners across the 20 state area extending from Maine to Minnesota and Missouri to Maryland.  Although most of the data from the Northern Forest Futures database is already available on the dashboard, the team will continue to add visualizations and tools.

“Making data visual helps us to see trends and grasp relationships” said Lootens-White. “Providing a tool for exploration gives visitors an opportunity to pose their own questions and explore the data themselves.” 

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Featured Research

The Northern Forest Futures Project

Photo of landscape with inset of historic photo of same area.Climate change will most certainly be a factor in changing Northern forests over the next 50 years, but it is not the only factor. The future of Northern forests is rooted in how forests are managed today, according to scientists leading the Northern Forest Futures Project.  
Begun in 2009, the Northern Forest Futures Project examines 174 million acres of public and private forests in the 20-state region extending from Maine to Minnesota and from Missouri to Maryland. Northern Forest Futures research gives forest owners, managers, and other decision-makers in the most heavily forested and most densely populated corner of the Nation information to guide sustainable forest management.

The research identifies five short- and long-term factors that will influence the future of Northern forests regardless of the nature and magnitude of the effects of climate change:

  • Northern forests lack age-class diversity and will uniformly grow old without management interventions or natural disturbances. Nearly 60 percent of northern forest land is clustered in age classes spanning 40 to 80 years; young forests (age 20 years or less) are only 8 percent of all forests in the region; and forests older than 100 years are 5 percent of forests.
  • The area of forest land in the North will decrease as a consequence of expanding urban areas. Cities in the 20-state region are expected to gain another 27 million people in the next 40 years and subsume about 5 million hectares of forest land.
  • Invasive species will alter forest density, diversity, and function. Invasive species reduce forest health, diversity, and value.   
  • Management intensity for timber is low in Northern forests and likely to remain so. A low propensity or low capacity for forest management reduces options for addressing perceived problems such as low forest diversity, invasive species, and other insects or disease problems. 
  • Management for non-timber objectives will gain relevance but will be challenging to implement. An unintended consequence of reduced timber harvesting may be reduced capacity to subsidize other restoration activities.

“Northern Forests today bear the clear imprint of a century of prior human actions: some wise, some not, some with desirable outcomes, and some with some unintended consequences. For good or for ill, the forest resource management actions or inactions we invoke today will have an equally indelible impact on future Northern forests.” said Stephen Shifley, one of 30 scientists collaborating on the Northern Forest Futures Project. “The Northern Forest Futures Project takes a long look ahead at the future forests we are creating with our actions and inactions; identifies potential problems; and helps landowners, resource managers, and policy makers identify actions that will sustain the future health, productivity, diversity, and resilience of these forests, which provide for the well-being of the 124 million people who currently live in North and the roughly 32 million additional people expected by 2060.”

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Featured Partnership

State Foresters

Pat Nelson (cooperator) and Brad Totten (FIA) conducting Urban inventory in Madison, WI.  Photo by Sjana Schanning, US Forest Service Northern Research Station.

For nearly 90 years, the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program has been a key partner to the people who manage nearly two-thirds of the nation’s forests: state foresters.

“The Forest Inventory & Analysis program is serving states, and ultimately the nation, by providing scientifically credible inventories that improve the understanding and stewardship of the forests in our 24-state region,” said Dennis May, Project Leader for the Northern Research Station’s Forest Inventory & Analysis program.

As the nation’s forest census, Forest Inventory & Analysis collects, analyzes, reports, and distributes data about the Nation’s forests: how much forest exists, who owns it, what condition it's in, where it’s located, and how it has changed. Forest Inventory and Analysis field crews collect data from approximately 7,500 randomly selected research sites across the Northern Region every year. This inventory allows FIA to monitor the productivity and health of forests, detect changes in many attributes of the forest resource, and recognize trends in forest conditions. For states, the depth and consistency of the data is irreplaceable.
“We find FIA data so important in helping us sustainably manage Wisconsin’s forests that we have partnered with the Forest Service to double the number of plots measured annually in Wisconsin,” said Andy Stoltman, Rural and Urban Forest Inventory Analyst with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “One of the things we appreciate most about the FIA program is its evolution over time. While still sticking with core measurements, FIA metrics have grown into areas that are increasingly important.  A key example of this growth is our partnership with FIA to initiate plot measurements in urban areas of the state. This will get data that hasn’t existed before into the hands of urban forest managers to make more informed decisions about managing the urban forests of our state.”

The National Association of State Foresters (NASF) values Forest Inventory & Analysis data enough to help fund and gather it, which has contributed to shortening the measurement intervals for collecting data on forest plots as well as allowing the Forest Service to expand the inventory to include invasive plant monitoring, carbon accounting, and urban forest inventories. States have also helped reduce the costs of inventories by contributing field crews and other expertise to inventory state and federal forest land.   

“We think of FIA as being the foundation for much of what we do,” said Ian McFarlane, Executive Director of the Northeastern Area Association of State Foresters.

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