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Keep it Green

April 2016

From forests to city parks, nature is doing so much more than giving us a beautiful view. For starters, forests and open space also give us clean water, clean air, and forest products that improve the function and feel of our homes. This month, we feature a scientist, a product, research and a partnership that illustrate ways in which Forest Service science is advancing conservation of open space.

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Featured Scientist

Joanne Rebbeck

Joanne Rebbeck, Plant Physiologist

The course of Joanne Rebbeck’s career has been a winding road through forest science, not a straight line through a particular discipline, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. A plant physiologist with the Northern Research Station in Delaware, Ohio, Rebbeck began studying the effects of air pollution on crops, and from there moved to the effects of air pollution on trees. Rebbeck then transitioned to something completely new, research aimed at sustaining oak forests. “I embraced the challenge,” Rebbeck said. “I love to learn new things.”

Her path continues to be serendipitous. Studying oak regeneration piqued her interest in the invasive plants that out-compete oak seedlings for sunlight, and eventually led her to Ailanthus, or tree-of-heaven, an aggressive invasive tree that has moved from urban environments to forests. Last summer, Rebbeck led a research effort to investigate whether a native fungus can be used to knock back Ailanthus in southeastern Ohio forests.  Results so far suggest that the fungus may be more effective than traditional (and expensive) chemical treatment of Ailanthus trees with no off-target effects.

Her research focus has shifted, but Rebbeck’s passion for engaging children in nature and science has been constant throughout her career. Rebbeck was the first recipient of the Station’s Felix Ponder Award for Excellence, which honors commitment to service to people. For more than 25 years, she has served as a mentor, hands-on presenter and a judge at local and district science fairs. More recently, she began working with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Ohio to bring urban youth to the forest to develop meaningful connections with the outdoors. “They energize me,” Rebbeck said. “I really like to help people and to nurture curiosity and eagerness to learn.”

How does a city kid from New Jersey wind up in an Ohio forest trying to stop the spread of an invasive tree? For Rebbeck, the path led through her grandmother’s garden and the neighborhood park she roamed with friends as a child. “We just lived outdoors,” Rebbeck said. ‘I think the discoveries I made turning over rocks and learning about plants from my grandmother gave me my love of the outdoors.”   

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Featured Product

The National Woodland Owners Survey

Map showing ownership of woodlands across conterminous United States.

Who owns America’s forests and woodlands? The answer may surprise you: a plurality of the approximately 819 million acres of forest and woodland in the United States is owned by families, individuals, trusts, estates, and family forest partnerships, collectively referred to as family forest ownerships. Understanding what motivates people to own this land, how they manage it, their goals for management, and what they plan to do with it in the future is critical to understanding the future of the forests in the United States.

Developed by a team lead by Dr. Brett Butler with the Station’s Forest Service’s Forest Inventory & Analysis program, the National Woodland Owner Survey is the primary tool Forest Service scientists use to learn about family forest owners. The survey was most recently conducted in 2013 by the Family Forest Research Center, a joint venture between the Station and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Results are being released in the form of national, regional, and state summaries, peer-reviewed journal articles, landowner magazines, and customizable output from the National Woodland Owner Survey table maker program.
The 2013 survey found that:

  • An estimated 286 million acres of forestland in the U.S. are owned by an estimated 10 million family forest ownerships.
  • The average family forest ownership has 27 acres of forestland. Sixty-two percent of the ownerships have relatively small holdings between 1-9 acres, but 56 percent of the family forest area is owned by ownerships with 100 acres or more.
  • The most commonly cited reasons for owning family forests are related to the beauty and privacy the forests provide along with wildlife and nature protection.
  • The average age of family forest owners is 63 years with 48 percent of the family forestland owned by people who are at least 65 years of age.

“Understanding the characteristics of family forest ownerships is critical for developing and delivering effective programs, policies, and services designed to support forest management,” said Brett Butler, a research forester with the Station’s Forest Inventory & Analysis program. “Engaging family forest owners is increasingly important as more conservation efforts require working across all ownerships to address landscape-level issues, be it wildfire mitigation, wildlife management, water supply, invasive species, or carbon storage.”

Newly released publications:

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Featured Research

The Challenge of Oak Regeneration

Photo of prescribed fire in understory.A casual observer might view the fern or laurel-covered understory as lush and pretty but both make it so dark on the forest floor that oak seedlings cannot establish, survive, or grow, proving not all green is created equal.

Oak regeneration via seedlings has proven a challenge to land managers and foresters who want to maintain oak forests for many decades.  The problem stems from a variety of factors including exclusion of fires that would clear the understory and provide a nutrient rich soil for seedlings to flourish, overpopulation of deer who feast on the young seedlings, timber harvesting contributing to changes in species dominance, and competition with other understory plants including several species of fern and mountain laurel. 

Scientists at the Northern Research Station’s laboratory in Irvine, Penn., Morgantown, W.Va., Delaware, Ohio, and Columbia, Mo., are trying to dissect and solve the problem of oak regeneration through a variety of silvicultural experiments.  Setting aside plots to receive different treatments including prescribed fire, application of herbicides, variations in removals of tree species, and erecting deer exclosures (fences preventing deer from entering a plot) helps scientists to ferret out which treatments are most conducive to the success of oak seedlings in growing into mature trees.

Through these efforts, scientists are developing prescriptions or mechanisms for foresters to use to achieve their desired objectives for oak stands.  The research group in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia has been delivering this information through SILVAH:Oak  training and computer based “expert systems” that recommend appropriate treatments based on user objectives, understory characteristics, overstory characteristics and other site data provided by the user.  According to Research Forester Pat Brose, whose current research is focused on oak regeneration, the problem of sustaining healthy oak forests is not one that is easily solved.  “Given the intractable nature of the oak regeneration problem, I’ll likely be engaged in oak research for quite some time,” he said.   

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Featured Partnership

Baltimore Green Street Academy

Green Street Academy students construct a greenhouse as preface to learning about plant cultivation.

In 2014, the Baltimore Field Station, part of the Northern Research Station’s network of urban field stations, established a partnership with the Green Street Academy in Baltimore, Maryland.  Green Street Academy is the first public middle/high school in Baltimore to embrace the green movement by preparing students for new career paths in a variety of areas including conservation.  Partnerships serve as the foundation for students to get hands on training and mentoring, leading to apprenticeships and entry level jobs. 

As a partner with Green Street Academy, Forest Service scientists and technicians provide technical expertise and assistance to students through interactions in formal and informal settings.  Learning opportunities have been facilitated by two weather stations and numerous greenhouses installed by the Forest Service on the Green Street Academy campus.  The weather stations provide students a focal point for learning about meteorology and climate change.  The greenhouses encourage students to literally get in the trenches with their hands and to feel the soil, while learning about plant cultivation. 

“The partnership between the USDA Forest Service and Green Street Academy has allowed our school and our students to expand their horizons in ways they could not have imagined,” said Dr. Daniel Schochor, Executive Director for Green Street Academy.  “The expertise and support provided to Green Street through the hard work and dedication of the USDA Forest Service Baltimore Field Office means that we can do things on our campus and in our urban agriculture program that no other schools can do.  Our mission is to develop students who are college and career ready upon graduation, and the Forest Service is an integral part to making that mission a reality.”  

The Baltimore Field Station has had a strong commitment to working with local colleges and universities, city and state agencies and non-profits in Baltimore City to engage residents in learning about the nature in their own backyards and improving the natural environment in their neighborhoods.  The partnership with Green Street Academy is a shining example of this effort.

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