Strengthen Ties to Communities
USDA Forest Service science serves people and the communities in which they live. In February, we feature a scientist, research, a product and a partnership that demonstrate how community weaves through our work from New York City to the Central Hardwoods Region, including helping cities cope with an invasive insect and developing tools communities use to quantify some of the many benefits of trees.
Explore your local community environment with the Leopold Education Project curriculum, available from the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
An affinity for birds led Michelle Johnson first to an undergraduate degree in biology, and then to work with the Peace Corps in El Salvador, a master’s degree in natural resource planning, jobs in natural resource planning and, to her surprise, a doctorate in ecology and environmental sciences.
Today, Johnson is a research ecologist stationed at the New York City Urban Field Station, a partnership between the USDA Forest Service and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Johnson’s research focuses on urban natural resources and how people think about and interact with natural areas. “I started off my career focused on protecting habitat and learned that the human aspect of natural resource conservation is complex and ultimately integral to ecology,” Johnson said.
Connections between nature and society weave through much of Johnson’s research. She is part of a team that is updating STEW-MAP, an effort to map New York City stewardship efforts (citizen efforts to take care of the local environment) and establish where stewardship happens, where it is not happening, and to document the effect stewardship activities have on neighborhoods and stewards alike. Johnson has assisted cities throughout the United States and internationally that have launched their own STEW-MAP projects.
Johnson also has been working with a longtime New York City Urban Field Station partner, the Natural Areas Conservancy, on a social assessment of city parks. “How people experience natural areas and the meaning these areas hold for people makes a difference for land managers,” Johnson said.
Connecting people and nature in the 21st century often involves technology, and Johnson is working on that front, too. In a collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, she is part of a team that has developed an app that will make it easy for citizen scientists to monitor the health of urban trees and generate consistent data for researchers.
One of Johnson’s favorite parts of her job is doing science that solves problems, and one of the problems she is currently addressing is rooted in science itself. As more people use Twitter and Facebook to share experiences, social scientists are finding a trove of information, however establishing a method of integrating that data into research has yet to be resolved. Scientific methods needs to catch up to this relatively new source of data,” Johnson said
“Craigslist for wood” – that’s Senior Scientist Dave Nowak’s pithy name for one of the newest updates to i-Tree. More officially known as a wood database, the new feature would serve as an online space to let people know if you just harvested some trees and are looking to sell them. The goal is to cut down on wasted wood by linking the supply to the demand. The wood database isn’t ready yet, but i-Tree is a progressive product, with new features being released on a rolling basis. i-Tree is a state-of-the-art, peer-reviewed software suite developed by the USDA Forest Service and partners that provides urban and community forestry analysis and benefits assessment tools.
i-Tree 2018 has some exciting features for users. The team has integrated more than 150 new maps into i-Tree Landscape, a web application that uses geospatial data to aid managers in prioritizing which areas may be appropriate for tree planting or where trees need to be protected to maximize the benefits of urban forests, such as clean air and reduced temperatures. These new maps help the user prioritize landscapes based on what issues they want to manage for, such as carbon sequestration or reducing the heat island effect.
“The goal of Landscape is to put all of the spatial data in one spot,” Nowak said. “The idea is that if a person can only plant one tree in an area, this program will suggest where to plant it.”
i-Tree’s recommendations on where and what to plant are based on several factors like the environmental conditions, forest health risks in the area, and what benefits the land manager or homeowner wants to maximize. For example, a person may want to know where to plant trees to best mitigate storm water runoff. Or, maybe they want to plant trees in a place that will decrease air pollution.
Other new features include i-Tree Database, which allows international users to use the suite of tools by inputting their own data, which wasn’t previously supported. The i-Tree team is also developing a version for Europe and Mexico, and is working to translate i-Tree materials into Spanish.
Economics of Invasive Insects to Communities
When nonnative insects, such as Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) or emerald ash borer (EAB) arrive in a community, in addition to damaging and killing trees they also result in communities investing significant resources into insect detection and control. More than 10 years ago, research economists joined biologists in the fight against invasive insects to assist forest managers in best allocating resources to fight the battle.
“Detection and control of biological invasions can be greatly improved by application of spatial-dynamic optimization models that predict economically optimal strategies for surveillance and eradication of invasive species,” said Bob Haight, a research economist with the Northern Research Station. “For example, greater investments in surveillance are warranted when establishment rates or numbers of insects are high, expected invasion damages are high, and surveillance is less costly.”
In recent research conducted on an ALB infestation in the Greater Toronto area in Ontario, Canada, Haight and his collaborators from Canadian Forest Service, Great Lakes Forestry Centre addressed a problem in which decision makers had to determine how much to invest in surveys and eradication to minimize costs while achieving a desired likelihood of eradication. “We used historical data on ALB spread to generate a set of reasonable invasion scenarios that takes into consideration the uncertainty of the beetle’s extent,” said Haight. “These scenarios were then used in the model to identify strategies that reduce the risk of high program costs while maintaining an acceptable likelihood of insect eradication.” Surveillance guidelines obtained from the study were shared with local land managers, enabling them to develop the best strategy possible given targets and constraints.
The results of this study and other similar research are being used as background and justification for introduction of bills into Congress or state legislatures for managing invasive species.
Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center
Twenty years ago, the Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center (HTIRC) partnership was formed between the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Purdue University, and a host of other organizations for the purpose of ensuring the continued health and sustainability of America’s hardwood resources, primarily in the Central Hardwood Region (CHR) of the U.S.
The reasons for establishing the HTIRC included the perceived level of unsustainable harvesting across the Central Hardwood Region and a lack of understanding of how such harvest levels could potentially impact (degrade) levels of genetic variation within tree species over the long run. In addition, the relative scarcity of knowledge on how to produce high quality tree seedlings for reforestation and restoration plantings inspired more research.
Since its inception in 1998, the HTIRC has participated in the development of hardwood tree genomics research projects for a number of species, as well as establishing 130,000 trees (each of known origin) in a series of 180 different plantations across eight states. These unique plantations have been established to elucidate the effects of tree genetic origin on important characteristics such as growth rate, timber form, and adaptability, including adaptation to the effects of climate change.
Headquartered at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, the HTIRC currently consists of 40 students and staff members, 14 partner organizations, and a total annual budget of $3 million that includes $900,000 from the USDA Forest Service. Primary clients for HTIRC products include the hardwood industry, reforestation nurseries and private landowners.
“Our partners play a vital role in helping to guide the ongoing development of future research directions, as well as assist in the identification of current gaps in our knowledge base,” said Mark Coggeshall, research forester and Forest Service lead scientist at HTIRC. “In terms of benefits, the HTIRC is now moving toward a position that will result in deployment of well-adapted, fast growing, high quality trees of certain hardwood species." The ultimate goal of this work will be the creation of seed orchards that serve as new sources of "improved" tree seeds for reforestation and restoration programs in the CHR.
“The most exciting thing for me is that we are now in a very strong position to capitalize on the tree resources we have invested in since 1998 and use some of the latest research technologies such as remote sensing and genome sequencing to answer new questions,” said Coggeshall. “This ‘tree investment’ will continue to generate benefits far into the future.”