Sustain Our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands
What do American elm, wild turkeys, and eastern forest understories have in common? They have all been significantly impacted by disturbances and they are all dependent on science based management to restore and sustain them. This month we feature a scientist, a product, research and a partnership all representing efforts to sustain our Nation’s forests and grasslands.
Environmental Education Link
Project Learning Tree’s Nature Activities for Families includes more than 30 activities for youth ages 3-15. Download these activities, and learn about sustainable forestry through the American Forest Foundation website.
After a decade of teaching school, Susan Stout returned to college to get a degree in silviculture so she could help people use forestry to improve living conditions in Africa. When she completed her degree, Stout’s advisor suggested that instead of going to Africa, she go to the Northern Research Station’s lab in Warren, Penn. Her advisor’s plan won out, but Stout was less than enthusiastic. “I came down here kicking and screaming, but I quickly changed my mind,” she said.
Over the course of more than three decades in Pennsylvania, Stout has found that forestry has the power to improve people’s lives in the United States, and her research has developed knowledge as well as tools that help foresters use that knowledge. Today, she can actually see where her work and the work of scientists in the research work unit she leads has made a difference. “I feel that our unit lives out the Forest Service motto – caring for the land and serving people – in a way you can see on the ground,” Stout said.
Stout’s father was a forestry professor who had hoped that one of his children would follow him into forestry, but he had not expected that child to be his daughter. “My family spent a lot of time together in the woods and I learned to be comfortable there, but not a lot more,” Stout said. “At that time forestry wasn’t a career my father would have anticipated for me.”
Thirty-five years ago, women were not often found in any research organization, including forest research. Stout has witnessed the growth of the Forest Service from an agency legally directed to employ women in nontraditional jobs to an agency where women scientists and women in leadership are much more common, although challenges remain. She remains a passionate supporter of diversity.
“I care tremendously about the future of forestry,” Stout said. “For forestry to have a future, we need to include the full diversity of the nation in this wonderful work that we are all doing in the Forest Service and more generally, in forestry.”
White tailed deer density and composition of forest understories
The understories of forests in the northern United States are typically verdant carpets of tree seedlings, herbs, forbs, and shrubs as well as introduced and non-native species. The mix of species in the understory depends on soil and light and moisture and, perhaps surprisingly, white-tail deer. Results of a recent study examined the impacts of increasing deer populations on northern forests across the region and the potential long-term impacts of this disturbance.
“White-tail deer browsing in the understory can significantly influence species diversity and structure,” said Project Leader Chris Woodall. “Ultimately selective deer browsing, such as preference for native species over non-native species, can lead to plant species shifts and an ecological domino effect impacting a variety of ecosystem services such as timber yield or even resiliency of forests to disturbance.”
This large scale look at the impacts of deer browsing on understory composition across northern forests was made possible with data collected by the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program. Measurements of forest understory vegetation are part of FIA’s third phase inventory (known as P3) and include forest understory vegetation diversity and structure, downed woody material and forest floor characteristics. With such a rich and geographically extensive data set, researchers can answer many questions that more localized studies cannot.
“We eagerly anticipate new seedling survey information in the near future to further refine our study, but in the interim it appears that deer may be affecting trajectories of forest development more than foresters,” said Woodall.
The beginning of the end for the reign of the American elm (Ulmus Americana), once a dominant species across the North American landscape, occurred in 1930 in Cleveland, Ohio with the unintentional introduction of Dutch elm disease (DED). The disease subsequently spread across the east nearly decimating the species. To date, no American elm that is completely DED-resistant has been found. However, the American elm is starting to make a comeback with the help of a committed group of scientists and partners and new methods for increasing elm tolerance to DED.
A key to developing DED-tolerant elms involves finding large “survivor elms,” trees that have been exposed to DED but have not succumbed. From these survivor elms, clones are developed that are then cross bred in the hopes that their progeny will have some level of DED tolerance. The progeny are planted in an orchard setting and after 5-7 years are inoculated with the DED fungus. Trees that exhibit minimal symptoms are used as parents for the next set of crosses. The process continues until many DED-tolerant and regionally adapted American elms have been generated, at which point scientists can provide seed for reintroduction efforts.
One of plantations where American elm research is being conducted is near the Northern Research Station’s lab in Delaware, Ohio. “Our research is built on the work of many scientists who studied various aspects of American elm restoration at the Delaware, Ohio lab since the early 1960s,” said research ecologist Leila Pinchot, one of the Forest Service scientists studying elm tolerance to DED. Partnerships are also vital to the research effort and include work with the National Forest System, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, the Nature Conservancy and a farmer in Michigan who has been sending the research team survivor elm clones for over 10 years.
Other research in support of elm restoration is being conducted by Northern Research Station scientists who are studying the mechanisms for DED transmission through root grafting, the genetic basis of DED tolerance, cold hardiness of elms and tolerance to “elm yellows” another pathogen affecting elms.
“These efforts will ensure the retention of the American elm in forested landscapes and will provide future trees that are tolerant to new forms of DED for use in urban settings,” said Project Leader Jim Slavicek, lead scientist for the elm restoration project. “It is fitting that researchers in Ohio are leading this effort since the disease started in Ohio.”
National Wild Turkey Federation
When the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) decided to locate National Forestry Programs Manager Rebecca Barnard in the Northern Research Station’s St. Paul office last year, Mark Nelson was one of the first people to welcome her. “I see a lot of common ground in the Forest Service’s mission to ‘care for the land and serve people,’ and the National Wild Turkey Federation’s 10-year initiative, ‘Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt.’” said Nelson, a research forester with the Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program and an avid turkey hunter. “Having Rebecca in our building opens up great opportunities for education and collaboration, and more visibility for NRS as a conservation leader.”
In collaboration with Barnard and Rick Horton, NWTF’s district biologist based in Grand Rapids, Minn., Nelson is using FIA data and other forest datasets to assess trends in forests within the NWTF’s focal landscapes. “Our inventory and analysis work gives the NWTF context for identifying priority habitat,” he said. “We can report not only the amount of forest area by composition and structure, like mature oak in a region, but also relate that to how oak has fared over the course of past decades.”
“Preserving our hunting heritage requires that we actively conserve and enhance habitat,” Barnard said. “Forest Service science informs and supports the work we do – and the work of many of our partners – to ensure healthy and sustainable wild turkey populations by ensuring healthy and sustainable forests for current and future generations.”
Even where the Station and the NWTF do not share a roof, shared habitat concerns have strengthened the partnership. In Ohio, Northern Research Station Plant Physiologist Joanne Rebbeck serves as an informal advisor to NWTF District Biologist Lee Crocker as he works with the Wayne National Forest to battle ailanthus, an aggressive invasive tree. While the partnership is informal, Rebbeck sees her work with the NWTF advancing other research she is doing on habitat restoration on the Wayne National Forest.
“It’s integrated across the work that I do, and it has been strengthening interagency efforts,” Rebbeck said.