Conserve Open Space
We all know the old rhyme: April showers bring May flowers. In a season of renewal and regeneration, Forest Service scientists are developing research that demonstrates the value of open space from deep in the woods to the heart of a city.
This month, we feature a scientist, research, a product, and a partnership that speak to the value of open space, from urban trees lowering energy costs to data helping forest managers encourage trees and discourage ferns to better understanding exotic plants.
Cindy Huebner is very clear about her mission: her research aims to solve the problem of invasive plants in the forests of the Northeast and Midwest. For Huebner, a research botanist with the Northern Research Station in Morgantown, West Virginia, it is a problem that is more complex than just trying to eradicate nonnative invasive plants.
“It is not realistic to think that we will ever be able to completely eradicate nonnative invasive plants,” Huebner said. “We also need to understand why native forest systems were so easily invaded and work to make these forests healthier and more resilient.”
Huebner is particularly interested in understory plants, the less glamorous forest flora that are often reliable indicators of forest health. Her research explores many aspects of invasive plants, such as:
- Why do some areas become vulnerable to invasion by nonnative species?
- What is the role of management in suppressing or, sometimes, inadvertently encouraging non-native invasive plants?
- Which native plant species are capable of out-competing nonnative plants, and how do they do it?
Forest disturbances include events that create gaps in vegetation, such as fire, trees being blown over by windstorms, and even trees being killed by invasive insects. For many tree and understory species, including oak trees, disturbance is a necessary part of regeneration. At the same time, gaps in vegetation create conditions that give invasive plants an opportunity to establish and spread. Huebner’s current work investigates how to promote conditions that favor forest regeneration without also encouraging the establishment of non-native invasive plants.
In an era when it was assumed that typing class would be more helpful to girls than advanced mathematics, Huebner did not expect to be a scientist. She credits support from high school teachers, college instructors, the experience of witnessing her father attend and graduate from college, and her own liking for math, taxonomy, and ecology with setting her on the path that eventually led to a career in Forest Service science. Today, mentoring young men and women and fostering an interest in science and confidence in their abilities is important to Huebner.
While her work is about developing knowledge that can help native plants out-compete non-native plants, Huebner avoids words using words like “war” and “battle” to describe it.
“I don’t hate these plants,” she said. “Many were deliberately introduced as garden plants. About 1 percent of all exotic plants are believed to be invasive, but that 1 percent has done significant damage, in part, due to our lack of understanding of their biology and what makes ecosystems vulnerable to invasion. I’m drawn to scientific approach to problem solving, because it requires that we seek the truth without bias.”
Chicago Wilderness Region
Planting urban trees has become a go-to strategy for alleviating the impacts of climate change on cities. Urban forests deliver a number of benefits to people, including easing the urban heat island effect, controlling storm water, increasing property values, and offering shade and aesthetics. “It’s something that people really care about, it’s something that provides a clear ecosystem service, and it’s something that we want to continue to provide in the future,” said Leslie Brandt, a climate change specialist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, a collaboration of the Forest Service, universities, and non-governmental organizations that bridges the gap between research and land managers. Nonetheless, urban forests, too, are susceptible to the shifts in habitat suitability, variations in pests and diseases, and fluctuations in extreme weather events that accompany climate change.
For these reasons, the Institute further collaborated with researchers from the Morton Arboretum and greater Chicago to relate their menu of climate change adaptation strategies, stemming from studies they had done in rural forests, to urban centers—where the majority of the population resides. The resulting three-step framework for urban forest vulnerability assessment and adaptation scales from regional assessments – determining which tree species might be more or less resilient to climate change, and adjusting encouragement of their planting and growth accordingly – to local on-the-ground action amongst municipal foresters, park managers and the like.
“A lot of the impacts of climate change are regional, but how vulnerable different communities are really depends on their capacity to adapt,” Brandt said. “So if they have a lot of resources at their disposal, they’re going to be less vulnerable.”
The Chicago pilot area serves as a case study for others to follow: the researchers have now worked with collaborators in Boston, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New York City. As they continue to expand their scope, they adjust their approach to meet the needs and goals of each city.
“We’re not trying to come in and say we have all the answers,” Brandt said, “but rather just help provide a conduit between science and management on this issue of understanding climate change vulnerability and adaptation options.”
Pennsylvania Regeneration Study
Concern about deer pressure and diminished forest regeneration inspired initiation of the Pennsylvania Regeneration Study in 1989. Deer are a powerful force in forests. In the winter months, they browse on trees when other forms of food diminish. Deer have a taste for several species, but especially like oak seedlings. In oak/hickory forests under pressure, deer can effectively change forest composition by eliminating all of the oak seedlings. The loss of oak seedlings creates openings in the forest floor that are quickly filled by species that deer do not eat, including striped maple trees and understory plants such as fern that can create enough shade to eliminate other plants.
The Pennsylvania Regeneration Study addressed the need for landscape-level information about regeneration quality and abundance and led to the development of a suite of regeneration indicator measurements installed on selected Forest Inventory and Monitoring (FIA) monitoring plots. The Northern Research Station’s FIA (NRS-FIA) program maintains a comprehensive forest inventory for 24 states in a region stretching from Maine to North Dakota and from Kansas to Maryland.
Will McWilliams, a research forester with FIA in the Station’s headquarters in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, contributed to developing new measurements for the Pennsylvania Regeneration Study. “Regenerating oaks and associate species is complicated by competing vegetation, available light, and deer,” McWilliams said. “It is a big issue throughout the oak/hickory range.”
A pilot study was conducted to adapt the regeneration measurements from the periodic inventory to the new national inventory plot design. In 2001, the new plot design was adopted as a standard feature of the inventory. Lessons learned from the Pennsylvania Regeneration Study eventually led to the implementation of these regeneration indicator measurements across all 24 states served by the NRS-FIA beginning in 2012 as regeneration had become a regional concern.
“Including regeneration status in FIA reports fills a critical gap in understanding the formation and development of young forests under stress from multiple interacting stressors,” McWilliams said.
Sustainable Operations Team
In an office shared by the Northern Research Station and Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry in St. Paul, Minnesota, disposable plates have become a rarity. At the two units’ shared office in Durham, New Hampshire, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 34 percent since 2006, resulting in a savings of $37,000 per year. Dedicated employees are working to make their offices as green as the Forest Service logo, and the Sustainable Operations partnership is right behind them with information, encouragement, and sometimes a little help with funding.
Two Forest Service units – Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry and the Northern Research Station – have been partners in Sustainable Operations since 2007. The Forest Products Laboratory joined the partnership last year.
The Northern Research Station and Northeastern Area share offices in four locations, and at all four the partners have close working relationships. The Sustainability Operations team also engages employees across all 23 Station locations and the Forest Products Laboratory. “Through the Northeastern Area & Northern Research Station Sustainable Operations Team, we are able to offer information and a lot of encouragement, but ultimately the success of Sustainable Operations depends on highly motivated people in offices throughout our region,” said Michael Nichols, an IT specialist with the Northern Research Station and vice chair of the Sustainable Operations Team.
The goal is to reduce the Forest Service’s environmental footprint by integrating sustainable operations into business practices at offices and labs across the Northeast and Midwest. Accomplishments include:
- Reduced energy use and greenhouse gas emissions: installed motion-sensor and energy-efficient lighting, replaced windows, and increased insulation. To increase use of renewable energy, solar power systems were installed at two locations.
- Reduced water use: installed low-flow toilets, faucets, irrigation, and rain barrels.
- Sustainable acquisition: switched to environmentally-friendly products, e.g., bio-based cleaners, 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, and installed water-bottle filling stations.
- Reduced waste: encouraged use of reusable items instead of disposable items, increased recycling, and established composting programs.
- Sustainable landscaping: provides habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife, reduces mowing (and related emissions), often reduces outdoor water use, and provides beautiful spaces for people.
Support from Northeastern Area and Northern Research Station leadership and micro grant funding, along with some national and local funding, has helped increase implementation of local sustainability projects, which also often reduce business costs.
“We achieve more by approaching sustainable operations collaboratively – reducing the environmental footprint, and often also reducing the costs, of our day-to-day operations,” said Sherri Wormstead, the sustainability and planning coordinator for Northeastern Area and current chair of the Sustainable Operations Team.