Nature is intricately connected; as John Muir said so eloquently, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” At its best, environmental stewardship is similarly hitched to everyone who cares about the land. In May, our web features offer snapshots that reflect connections among researchers, land managers, and citizen scientists.
Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy
Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy is not easily dissuaded. As a teenager visiting the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia with a school group, Thomas-Van Gundy decided not only that she wanted to become a forester, but that she wanted to work on this very forest.
Just as she had planned, Thomas-Van Gundy’s Forest Service career began on the Monongahela National Forest where for 16 years she served as a forester, a fire planner and as forest ecologist. However, while pursuing her master’s degree Thomas-Van Gundy had learned of the Fernow Experimental Forest, which piqued an interest in science that grew into a new career in 2007, when she became a research forester with the Northern Research Station’s lab in Parsons, West Virginia.
Both of her careers got their start when she was a “free range child” playing in the woods near her family’s home in southeastern Pennsylvania. While she discovered nature on her own, Thomas-Van Gundy credits both of her parents with fostering her interest in science and discovery. “My mother told me that the only careers she was encouraged to pursue were teaching and nursing,” she said. “She had vowed that if she had a daughter, she could be anything she wanted to be.”
Thomas-Van Gundy is intrigued by history and the insight it can offer into forests’ seemingly unknowable past. She has used witness trees – the trees used in colonial era surveys – to reveal the role of fire in shaping Appalachian forests and to give forest managers context for using fire as a forest management tool.
While her work has ranged from exploring the needs of running buffalo clover, an endangered plant, to using historical land surveys to understand the composition of forests and the role of fire in eastern forests prior to European settlement, all of Thomas-Van Gundy’s work is squarely aimed at developing knowledge that foresters can use.
Forest managers need to know what actions accomplish the goals of restoring patterns and processes, and they need to be able to predict the results of those actions. Much of Thomas-Van Gundy’s research is focused on the restoration and sustainable management of forested ecosystems in the eastern United States. She is involved in stand-level studies involving prescribed fire, browse control, and a variety of silvicultural practices to sustainably manage forests for a variety of outcomes.
“My colleagues on the Monongahela National Forest sometimes introduce me as 'our researcher',” Thomas-Van Gundy said. “That is exactly how I want them to think of me.”
When you think of a forest, you may not immediately think of fungi, but wood inhabiting fungal species play important roles in how forest ecosystems function. The Center for Mycology Research (CFMR), located at the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station’s lab in Madison, WI, houses the largest collection of wood inhabiting fungi in the world. Information on the collection has become even more accessible with the recent update of the original online database. The new version of the online database is now mobile-friendly, and allows a user to search within results, and export just the information they want. The new framework also allows for easier, more frequent updates, so users can find out about new additions to the collection.
The fungal collection in Madison dates back to 1910 with a fungal culture that was isolated from a mine timber and identified by one of the very early USDA Forest Service pathologists/mycologists who also collected many specimens for the herbarium. Today the fungal collection at the Center for Mycology Research includes approximately 20,000 living fungal cultures representing 1,800 species and 50,000 dried specimens representing 4,200 species.
“The database is used primarily by researchers who are working with specific fungi and who want to know if we have cultures that they would be interested in using for their research,” said Jessie Glaeser, research plant pathologist at the Center. “Fungal identification is a difficult process, and these collections of living and dried organisms serve as reference standards for describing species, determining how much variability occurs within species, the extent of interbreeding among populations and species, and providing information on species’ ecology and distribution.”
The fungi in the collection are also of interest for potential uses in pharmaceuticals, bioenergy and biotechnology. “Hundreds of cultures from the collection have been screened by pharmaceutical companies for potentially beneficial medicinal compounds that can be used to treat human diseases,” said Glaeser. “The collection also serves the global scientific community by providing online access to information that can help unravel the mysteries of the Kingdom Fungi where only 10 percent of an estimated 1.5 million species worldwide have been described and named.”
Trees Outside of Forests Image-based Inventory
In the 1930s, prolonged drought in the Great Plains states led to dust storms that picked up so much parched topsoil that they blackened the sky. President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1935 as a way to reduce the velocity of the wind around farm fields and houses and, along with it, reduce soil erosion. Between 1935 and 1942, the project resulted in more than 220 million trees being planted in approximately 33,000 windbreaks that, if lined up end-to-end, would have measured more than 18,000 miles in length.
Eighty years later, windbreaks remain a familiar but not well-understood resource. While the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program monitors forests across the nation, windbreaks are usually not included because many do not meet the minimum width required to count as forest land. Two Forest Inventory and Analysis scientists in St. Paul, Minn., Dacia Meneguzzo and Greg Liknes formed the Trees Outside Forests Image-based Inventory (TOFii) team to develop methods for efficient mapping of tree cover as well as for identifying the ecosystem functions of trees in the Great Plains’ agricultural landscapes.
“Windbreaks were planted to solve a catastrophic agricultural and environmental problem, the loss of huge amounts of soil to erosion,” Meneguzzo said. “The total length of windbreaks in Kansas and Nebraska today is more than double the length of windbreaks originally planted across six states during the Prairie States Forestry Project. However, there hasn’t been consistent monitoring of windbreaks since the 1950s, and decision-makers need basic information about the extent of tree resources and how they are changing over time.”
The approach that Meneguzzo and Liknes developed uses 1-meter resolution imagery from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Imagery Program and eCognition, ArcMap, and R statistical software programs to identify tree-covered areas. Their spatial analysis classified tree-covered areas based on their distinctive shapes, and it allows users to estimate the abundance of trees in windbreaks, riparian buffers, or other landscapes.
“We’re producing datasets in conjunction with partners to meet their information needs. At the same time, we’re extending the utility of the FIA inventory by including trees outside forests,” said Liknes.
The TOFii team is planning to produce statewide 1-meter resolution tree cover maps for Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and the Texas panhandle, as well as companion maps that identify ecosystem functions such as windbreaks and riparian buffers around rivers and streams.
Goshawk Census Citizen Science
Known for its quick movements and generally furtive habits, the Northern Goshawk is an important predator in North America. However, goshawk populations in Pennsylvania and neighboring states have been declining due to a multitude of factors including West Nile Virus, exurban sprawl, energy development and possibly climate change. In 2016, a group of organizations with concerns about the future of the species joined together to support an effort to collect information on the number and distribution of goshawks in Pennsylvania with the help of citizen scientists.
Partners in this effort include the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, a subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey’s Ornithological Technical Committee, Penn State University, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the Pennsylvania Falconry & Hawk Trust (a falconry group), and Dupuy Falconry (a private business run by a falconer).
“Because goshawks are secretive denizens of remote, wild areas, where they occur at very low densities, trying to survey for them is a very labor-intensive and time-consuming process,” said Scott Stoleson research wildlife biologist with the Northern Research Station. “This was a real barrier to research for all of us studying goshawks, and then it occurred to us to enlist outdoor enthusiasts to help us observe the birds.”
So Stoleson and partners sought out volunteers through a combination of strategies including placing notices on various birding and hiking list-serves as well as in newsletters distributed to outdoor recreationists such as hunters, hikers, and birders. “To train the citizen scientists we ran a day-long workshop at Penn State University taught by several experts on goshawk biology, population trends, identification, and habitat requirements, which was very well attended,” said Stoleson.
Data collected by citizen scientists is reported to a central data repository at Penn State University, primarily though the website or email address set up for that purpose. A Penn State University graduate student summarizes the data, assesses the potential veracity of reports, and assigns volunteers to follow up on those deemed to be reliable. At the end of the field season (spring and summer), the graduate student collates the data into an overall summary of occurrences and distribution of goshawks within the state and shares the information with partners.