Foster Resilient Ecosystems
In today’s forests, land managers are confronting many challenges. Invasive species, a changing climate, removal of fire from the landscape and the stresses of urban conditions all take a toll on forest health. This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership devoted to helping foster resilient ecosystems.
U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit - Meet the Challenges of a Changing Climate - Find information and tools to help you understand and address your climate risks.
Climbing trees, exploring the forest, catching tadpoles, and riding horses were among the outdoor activities Kathleen Knight reveled in as a child growing up in the beautiful mountains of rural West Virginia. “I didn’t mind being covered in mud and sap and really enjoyed being outdoors and experiencing nature,” she said. Knight is a research forester at the Northern Research Station’s laboratory in Delaware, Ohio. Her research is focused on understanding the challenges of preserving and restoring forest health in the face of invasive species, pests, and pathogens with a current emphasis on emerald ash borer and Dutch elm disease.
Knight’s academic journey began as a biology major at Hiram College, a small liberal arts college located in the historic Western Reserve region of Ohio. While there, she traveled to the Smoky Mountains to learn about vascular plants, to New Zealand to study impacts of invasive plants, and learned about forest ecology in northeast Ohio. During a summer internship at the Chicago Botanic Garden she learned about restoration ecology, and studied the biology of forest tree species at another summer internship at Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia. She earned her PhD at the University of Minnesota.
Currently, Knight is working on a project with collaborators from the Allegheny National Forest, State and Private Forestry, Washington and Jefferson College, and her colleagues in the Northern Research Station to study the conservation of ash genetic diversity through insecticide treatments on the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. Of particular interest are how ash mortality spreads through the forest, what factors affect the effectiveness of the insecticide treatment, and how untreated trees might benefit from being near treated trees. She has also recently become involved in research on American elm resistance to Dutch elm disease.
Knight is already instilling a love of nature and the outdoors into her two young sons (3 and 6 years old).
On a Saturday in September her six year old helped her and other volunteers plant elm trees for an experiment. “By the end of the day, he was covered in sticky Ohio clay soil from head to foot,” said Knight. “After I got him changed into clean clothes for the car ride home, he said, ‘Well Mom, you know if I’m this muddy I’ve definitely had a great day.’”
Climate Change Pressures Across the Conterminous United States
Climate change will affect the plants that feed us, clothe us, and shelter us, but exactly what effects will be felt where, and to what degree, is anything but certain. RMAP-NRS-9 developed by Northern Research Station scientists delivers a science-based projection of key changes to growing conditions across the United States, including growing degree days, plant hardiness zones, heat zones, and cumulative drought severity.
Researchers Stephen Matthews, Louis Iverson, Matthew Peters, and Anantha Prasad, all with the Northern Research Station’s lab in Delaware, Ohio, used two models to reflect different climate change scenarios that have been developed by the International Panel on Climate Change. One model represents a lower level of climate change (the Community Climate System Model) and the second one represents a higher expected degree of change (Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory CM3 model).
“Anticipating the effects of climate change is complicated, and decisions made in the near-term will influence which scenario turns out to be closest to what transpires,” said Peters. “Decisions made on greenhouse gas emissions over the next few years will be critical to future climate conditions.”
Although relatively small changes in drought are expected during the next few decades, the assessment of growing conditions suggests that these changes will accelerate during the latter half of the century. These changes will likely impact plant and animal growth and survival and lead to changes in forest composition and structure.
For scientists, data presented in tables can be eloquent. By presenting projected growing conditions in maps, the team behind RMAP-NRS-9 sought to make the information accessible to landowners and managers. “Current management and silvicultural activities will shape the next forest over the course of this century,” said Iverson. “RMAP-NRS-9 gives managers planning forest resilience and adaptation insight into the potential for changed conditions across the United States.”
From eastern Texas up to the Great Lakes region, oak savannahs and woodlands once dominated the landscape, but fire suppression over the last 100 years has led to a precipitous decline in the expanse of these ecosystems and they are now considered endangered worldwide. The restoration of oak woodlands and savannas is a primary goal of many land management agencies today. Scientists are working diligently to develop economic and efficient methods to restore these ecosystems to help ensure success of restoration efforts.
Prior to European settlement, periodic wildfires served to maintain the fire-dependent oak woodlands and savannas that blanketed the eastern United States. Fires served to clear the understory vegetation, increase the amount of light reaching the forest floor, and provide good conditions for acorns to germinate. Once fire suppression policies were implemented, the impacts of fire were removed from the landscape and over time, woodlands and savannas were replaced by closed canopy forests and shade-adapted understory species.
“The high interest by land managers in restoring oak woodlands and savannas stems from their importance as natural communities,” said Dan Dey, research forester and project leader with the Northern Research Station. “These ecosystems are rich in biodiversity and provide habitat for songbirds, bats and many other species of conservation concern.”
Efforts to restore oak woodlands and savannas have shown that the simple reintroduction of fire to the landscape does not produce optimal results. Much greater success has been achieved using a combination of mechanical thinning and prescribed fire. Selective removal of mature trees prior to burning helps minimize damage to mature trees valued for commercial harvesting and has the added benefit of providing revenue for restoration efforts.
“Restoring oak woodlands and savannas will not only create a more diverse landscape and provide habitat for species of concern, it should also increase our options in the face of uncertain futures due to factors such as invasive species and a changing climate,” said Dey.
Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (STEW-MAP)
As cities and towns face challenges ranging from overstressed infrastructure to extreme weather, community-based civic groups are often on the frontlines of responding to these conditions. The Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (STEW-MAP) was developed as a framework for identifying, assessing, and mapping community groups that take care of the local environment to help communities better prepare for and respond to natural disasters. STEW-MAP provides a methodology for more effectively engaging with these sometimes “unseen” groups by understanding their organizational capacities, the physical space they serve, and their social networks.
In collaboration with the New York City Mayor’s Office and the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Forest Service’s New York City Urban Field Station has launched the next phase of STEW-MAP in the New York region. As a longitudinal study, new data were collected in the New York City region in 2017 that will show how groups respond to disturbances, such as Hurricane Sandy.
Increasingly, research is recognizing the value of social infrastructure – the shared spaces that are often supported by environmental stewardship groups, such as parks and community gardens – in strengthening community resilience. “Social infrastructure is where we reconnect and establish the type of social trust and understanding that is essential everyday but pivotal during times of extreme crisis, whether that might be a weather related disaster, or violence, or disease outbreak,” said Erika Svendsen, a research social scientist at the New York Urban Field Station and a co-creator of STEW-MAP.
As a tool for environmental stewardship, STEW-MAP is helping cultivate new partnerships.
“Working with the NYC Urban Field Station has allowed the Gowanus Canal Conservancy to form partnerships and collaborations with other stewards and civic groups we might not have otherwise known about,” said Andrea Parker, Executive Director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. “Using STEW-MAP has helped us understand how our organization fits into the larger NYC stewardship community, connected us to other community organizations, and taught us about the way others work with city agencies and non-profits.”
Since 2007, STEW-MAP has expanded nationally and internationally. STEW-MAP projects are currently under way in Baltimore; Philadelphia; Seattle; Chicago region; Portland, Maine region; Los Angeles; Denver; Honolulu; North Kona and South Kohala in Hawaii; Paris, France; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Valledupar, Colombia.