Strengthen Ties to the Community
Forest Service research is rooted in community. From connecting northwoods youth in Wisconsin to nature and science to inventorying urban trees to being an active partner in restoration of watersheds in West Virginia, our research serves people and the diverse environments in which they live. Increasingly, scientists are sharing their research in story maps that can tie the research to specific points on a map. This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership related to strengthening community ties.
The Forest Service supports the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC), which provides more than 25,000 returning veterans and young people with natural resource-based employment each year, strengthening connections to communities across the country. Learn more about this public-private partnership, and meet some of our 21CSC champions.
The roots of Ron Zalesny, Jr.’s career in USDA Forest Service science go all the way back to his sophomore year in high school, when Zalesny toured a Forest Service laboratory during a career day event. Presentations on the history of the Forest Service and the Lake States Forest Experiment Station were intriguing, but the hook was set in tours of analytical laboratories, greenhouses, and Hugo Sauer Nursery where Zalesny saw projects related to long-term forest genetics (conifers) and short rotation woody crops (hardwoods).
Twenty-three years later, Zalesny is a research plant geneticist and team leader with the Station’s lab in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. In graduate school, Zalesny began working with short rotation woody crops, a term that describes growing trees for purposes ranging from bioenergy to cleaning up contaminated soils, sludge, sediments and water, or “phytoremediation.” His research focus has included mapping lands suitable for establishing and growing poplar biomass for bioenergy crops across Minnesota and Wisconsin, assessing the costs of producing short rotation woody crops in the Lake states, and matching species of poplars to specific locations to maximize their capacity in phytoremediation.
Along with other partners in the Great Lakes basin, Zalesny is currently working with the city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to test the ability of phytoremediation buffer systems to reduce untreated run-off and mitigate nonpoint source pollution on nearshore health. “The primary focus of my current research is the development of trees that can be used for multiple ecosystem services,” Zalesny said. The goal is to be strategic with tree planting to clean up pollution or get trees on the landscapes that help restore ecosystems.
A career day changed the course of Zalesny’s career, and for nearly a decade he has worked to create opportunities for high school students to have a similar epiphany. Zalesny works with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the University of Wisconsin, and Rhinelander High School on the Northwoods Environmental Scholars program, which fosters awareness of science and natural resources in the youth of Wisconsin's Oneida County. Through supervised field projects, field trips, and classroom exercises, high school students learn about environmental conservation disciplines such as water quality and wildlife biology.
In an era when children are increasingly absorbed by sedentary, indoor activities (a trend referred to as “Nature Deficit Disorder“), Zalesny hopes to inspire students to go outdoors. “The whole purpose is to expose students to natural resources and science and get them all jazzed up and alleviate Nature Deficit Disorder,” Zalesny said.
Scientific information has traditionally been reported in technical, some would say dry, scientific outlets targeting other scientists. However, technology is allowing us to communicate big data in new ways and is enabling scientists to reach broader audiences with their research findings by capitalizing on the power of storytelling and more specifically, story maps.
Story maps are an interactive, web-based product that enables people to quickly produce compelling, visual stories that can combine interactive maps, photos, videos and text. The U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station recently created a story map about survivor trees – trees that have endured tragedies and yet persisted. One tree in particular is featured, a Cleveland Callery pear that lived through the September 11, 2001 attack and grows near Ground Zero in New York City, as well as the survivor tree’s progeny that have been grown from seeds planted all over the world.
“Those trees, and other Living Memorials documented by the Living Memorials Project, are tied to places, and maps tell the story of place,” said Jim Lootens-White, a natural resource specialist with the Northern Research Station. “Not everyone will read a journal article or Forest Service publication, but many people are visual and enjoy the immersion in the story.”
Story maps can communicate science in new ways to new audiences, for example, the recently released Survivor Tree story map has renewed interest in the Living Memorials Project, and some of the original creators of memorials have reached out to provide updates to the research team.
Urban Forest Inventory and Analysis
Rural forests play a critical role in providing clean water, reducing erosion and runoff, providing habitat for wildlife, supplying timber, and providing stunning views. Recognizing that trees growing in urban areas, a.k.a. the urban forest, supply many of these same benefits, the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program recently added urban forests to its national “Forest Census”.
The Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program has served as the Nation’s “Forest Census” for more than 80 years. Beginning in 2014, FIA extended its annual forest data collection, analysis and reporting to urban areas, where over 80 percent of the U.S. population lives. The move into urban areas was spurred partly by the development of i-Tree software, which enables quantification of the structure of community trees and the environmental services the trees provide. It was also prompted by the acknowledgement that urban trees provide benefits to cities far greater than their numbers would suggest.
Forest Inventory and Analysis randomly selects about 200 plots, each measuring 98 feet across, in each city being assessed. Staff contact land owners to get permission to go onto the property. (Participation in a Forest Inventory and Analysis is completely voluntary.) Once permission has been granted, two-person crews will enter the property and take measurements including tree species, numbers, size, and health. Data is also collected on ground cover, presence of invasive species, and surface cover, including impermeable areas such as asphalt and cement.
To date FIA has taken trees measurements in more than 25 cities. The ultimate goal is to sample 100 cities with at least one city located in each of the 50 states. Over time, the measurements taken in urban forests will help answer questions such as: What do the forests look like? How are the forests managed? How do they change over time? “The more we know about trees in our cities, the better we can nurture them and sustain their benefits,” said Mark Majewsky, a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station and leader of the urban FIA effort.
Appalachian Ecosystem Restoration Initiative – A USDA Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Project
A watershed is defined as an area of land in which all incoming precipitation drains toward the same body of water or topographical low spot. The Appalachian Ecosystem Restoration Initiative (AERI) is a USDA Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Project partnership that works along the same lines, with efforts by the Monongahela National Forest, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the West Virginia Division of Forestry, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, the Northern Research Station, and a host of partners all flowing toward the goals of healthy watersheds, clean water, and improved habitats.
The USDA Forest Service and NRCS have worked together for decades to collect scientific data and develop assessment tools in West Virginia. This relationship and ability to share resources served as a springboard for implementing high priority restoration in the Greenbrier, Cheat, Potomac, and adjacent watersheds through the AERI partnership.
“Working with each other and partners has created opportunities for us to explore methods of addressing water quality and aquatic health that are particularly applicable to the region,” said Pam Edwards, acting project leader and research hydrologist for the Northern Research Station’s research work unit in Parsons, West Virginia. “Our hope is that over time, our research will show that we can achieve significant restoration of streams and channels, including some techniques that landowners can implement easily and inexpensively.”
By working together, the NRCS and Forest Service are developing strategies to identify projects in landscapes that are high priority for restoration resulting in measurable improvements to water quality and wildlife habitat. Edwards is exploring ways to reduce sedimentation in streams and channels while her colleague, Research Forester Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, is focusing on regeneration strategies to help red spruce expand in the region. Red spruce is required habitat for the northern flying squirrel, which has been delisted from the endangered species list, and the Cheat Mountain salamander, which remains on the endangered list.
“By working with multiple agencies and organizations, including the West Virginia Division of Forestry, the Northern Research Station, and NRCS, the Monongahela National Forest has been able to work across federal, state, and private boundaries to accomplish work in priority watersheds,” said Stephanie Connolly, a forest soil scientist with the Monongahela National Forest. “This partnership has accelerated ecosystem improvement through strengthened interagency planning and project implementation while looking to our partners to expand capacity and act as a link to private landscapes. We would not be successful in this endeavor if it was not for our partners and the collective desire to act together to achieve a bigger vision.”