Foster Resilient, Adaptive Ecosystems
The factors that can impair the health of forest ecosystems are daunting: drought, wildfire, human uses, invasive species, extreme weather events, and changing climatic conditions, to name a few. The USDA Forest Service uses the best available science to understand and improve the ability of forests and grasslands to remain healthy and resilient, despite these stresses and disturbances. This month, we feature a scientist, a product, research and a partnership all related to fostering resilient, adaptive ecosystems.
The Natural Inquirer’s new Time Warp monograph series pairs current and historical research projects to demonstrate the value of long-term research.
Resilient ecosystems begin with fungi, and for more than 32 years Research Plant Pathologist Jessie Glaeser has pursued both the beneficial and the lethal fungi that quietly shape eastern forests.
Based in Madison, Wis., Glaeser’s most recent work has focused on ensuring that people do not inadvertently carry the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), which causes white-nose syndrome of bats, out of caves on their shoes, clothing or equipment. She has tested the efficacy of everything from warm water to bleach and commercial cleaning products to discover the best tools and procedures for killing Pd that people may unknowingly pick up while visiting an infected cave.
“White-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations across the East, and researchers and cavers and everyone who routinely visits caves are very committed to ensuring that they are not the vectors spreading it to new caves,” Glaeser said. “My work is producing very practical information on effective procedures for cleaning shoes, equipment and clothing.”
Her career began by working on another infamous fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, which resulted in the loss of American chestnut trees throughout the tree’s entire range; Glaeser was part of an effort to establish which fungal group the pathogen belonged to. As part of the Center for Forest Mycology Research, Glaeser is able to explore the more beneficial wood decay fungi that enrich soil, foster seedlings, and feed trees by breaking dead trees down into nutrients and organic material.
Fungi are elusive – only about 10 percent of the fungal kingdom is known – but over the course of three decades, Glaeser has seen dramatic advances in the tools available to scientists for understanding how fungi work and how they are related to each other. The ability to perform DNA analyses quickly and relatively inexpensively has been particularly significant. “It’s almost to the point of Star Trek stuff, we have made incredible strides in documenting the Fungal Tree of Life,” Glaeser said.
Glaeser’s love of nature evolved during a childhood spent exploring streams and fields near her home. A high school biology teacher’s encouragement put her on the path to a career in science. At the beginning of her career, Glaeser was one of just a few women plant pathologists in the Forest Service. Today, meetings of plant pathologists sometimes have more women around the table than men. “For us it is more of a glass forest canopy than a glass ceiling, and it is good to see that it has been broken,” Glaeser said.
Helping countries develop forest monitoring programs is a key step in assisting them to ensure wise stewardship of their natural resources and the ecosystem services they provide (cleaner air and water as well as storing carbon). National forest monitoring systems provide baseline information on forest change that is a critical first step in sustainable forest management. With lush tropical forests experiencing higher rates of deforestation and degradation, a program called “SilvaCarbon” is delivering scientific information and tools that assist countries in monitoring forests and the benefits of forests.
SilvaCarbon is a collaboration among the Forest Service and other U.S. federal agencies in partnership with universities, non-governmental organizations and developing countries. At the Northern Research Station, scientists working in the National Inventory and Monitoring Applications Center and other research units participate in research partnerships and conduct technology transfer activities as part of SilvaCarbon, including training in and demonstrations of forest inventory design and data processing, remote sensing assistance, and project design consultation. With funding provided by the U.S. Forest Service International Programs division, scientists have worked closely with partners in several countries in Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa.
“The challenge of helping developing countries develop forest monitoring systems is multifaceted, and the contributions of many partners are allowing us to develop tools and training that are helping achieve sustainable land management practices,” said Andy Lister, a research forester with the Northern Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. “SilvaCarbon is a great demonstration of the power of partnership.”
Forest management, climate change and birds
What impact might climate change have on wildlife species? The answer is complicated by the fact that climate change impacts do not occur in a vacuum, rather they occur in the context of forest landscape conditions and land management activities. A Northern Research Station scientist and partners used a new comprehensive modeling approach to get a clearer picture of what future forests will look like under different climate scenarios and more accurately predict species response to these conditions.
A Station scientist and partners employed this new comprehensive approach to predict the responses to climate change of two species of songbirds of the central hardwood region of the U.S. The populations of wood thrush and prairie warbler are already in decline. Scientists sought to determine how the current climate as well as two possible climate change scenarios projected to the year 2100 would further impact the populations of these species.
Results of modeling efforts indicated that climate change, natural forest succession and forest management activities interact to change forest structure over time. The response of the two bird species to these changes varied. The wood thrush was more impacted by forest fragmentation than by climate-related changes in habitat. In contrast, the prairie warbler continued to decline due to natural forest succession until 2050 when climate–related changes, resulting in transition from a more closed forest canopy to a more open woodland canopy, provided enough habitat to reverse population declines.
“As these comprehensive modeling approaches continue to be improved, we can generate more realistic predictions of populations of wildlife species under climate change,” said Frank Thompson, research wildlife biologist with the Northern Research Station in Columbia, Missouri. “In turn the information we gather can help land managers adapt their forest management practices to optimize forest structures to sustain wildlife populations over time and with climate change.”
Northern Forest DroughtNet
Typically one does not associate the lush green northern forests of the United States with drought. However, climate change is causing changes in the water cycle, such as shifts in when rainfall occurs, its intensity and the duration between rainfall events, that could result in drier soils in this water loving region. Scientists in the Northeast have joined forces to understand the impacts of short and long term droughts on these iconic forests through the Northern Forest DroughtNet partnership.
Northern Forest DroughtNet, initiated in 2014, is composed of scientists from a host of academic institutions in the Northeast and led by researchers from the University of New Hampshire, Boston University, and the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. Drought experiments are being conducted on the Northern Research Station’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest and Thompson Farm Forest in New Hampshire.
The drought studies being conducted by Northern Forest DroughtNet have been registered as part of the International Drought Experiment, a National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network that includes sites from all over the world. Northern Forest DroughtNet is unique in that most of the other sites being studied are primarily grassland and shrubland sites. This makes the contributions of the two northern forest sites particularly useful to the network.
Scientists comprising the Northern Forest DroughtNet group are all colleagues who have been interested in forest drought effects for a long time. “I have worked my entire professional career as a member of interdisciplinary teams,” said Lindsey Rustad, research ecologist with the Northern Research Station and co-principal investigator on the study. “Working closely with other scientists allows us to leverage our own expertise, while pooling our knowledge, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of pattern and process in forested ecosystems.”