Looking to the Future
January / February 2019
In the heart of winter, we have time for making resolutions, looking ahead and planning for future outcomes. But is there a way to make the future less misty and undefined? At the Northern Research Station, scientists are exploring techniques that can aid natural resource professionals in how they think about the future as well as developing tools that resource managers can use to anticipate forest health and manage for a sustainable future. In the months of January and February, we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership all focused on helping managers plan for an array of possible future forest scenarios.
Hot off the press, the Federal Government’s five-year strategy for STEM education. The Plan has three goals: build strong foundations for STEM literacy; increase diversity, equality, and inclusion in the workplace; and prepare the STEM workforce for the future.
Dave Bengston’s childhood was filled with long camping trips visiting national parks, national forests, and state parks all across the United States. When not camping with his family, Boy Scouts, or church groups, Bengston was often out exploring and playing in the nearby woods and fields with his brothers and friends. Time spent indoors was often filled with books – from science fiction to environmental classics – which captured his interest at an early age. His father’s copy of “The Futurist” magazine, published by the World Future Society, was also always around the house and sparked an interest that led him to eventually create an individually designed undergraduate degree in “Futures Studies.” An outstanding economics professor introduced him to environmental economics and Dave changed paths in graduate school.
As a research social scientist and environmental futurist with the USDA Forest Service, Bengston’s research has explored connections between people and forests, from the neglected voices of Native Americans and Hmong residents to how people’s values, attitudes and beliefs affect forest management and policy.
A few years ago, Bengston realized that his past interest in futures research is a perfect fit with present forest planning, management, and policy needs, and the result of that epiphany is the Northern Research Station’s Strategic Foresight Group. Bengston works with a team that is developing and testing new methods to improve foresight for forestry stakeholders and decision makers.
When not pondering the future of forestry and natural resources, Bengston can often be found with his family at their “beach house” on Lake Superior or working on his growing collection of bicycles. A year-round bike commuter and hobby framebuilder, he has built cargo bikes, recumbents, a bamboo bike, and an “ice trike” for those really icy winter days.
10 Principles for Thinking about the Future
As a Research Social Scientist who focuses on futures research, Dave Bengston points out that all decisions are about the future, not the past. And the next thing Bengston will point out is that while we learn a lot about the past and ways to consider it during our school years, instruction on thinking about the future is virtually nonexistent.
A guide Bengston developed in 2017 aims to help people, particularly people working in natural resources, approach the future more thoughtfully. Bengston identifies 10 principles for thinking about the future, along with related strategies for improving environmental foresight. For example, “The Future is Plural” is a core principle for thinking about the future. Rather than a single future, there are countless possible, plausible, and preferable futures. “Plural futures are foreign to our normal pattern of speaking and thinking,” Bengston said. “In everyday English usage, we refer to “the future” as if it is singular; futurists often talk about ‘the futures.’”
His 10 Principles guide is a slim 34 pages, but because the present may not give us enough time to read up on a framework for thinking about the future, Bengston worked with the Northern Research Station web team to create an even slimmer online version of the guide. “Distilling our science into products that are both relevant and convenient is part of what we do,” Bengston said.
How does a framework for thinking about the future contribute to planning and decision-making? “Our thinking is often stuck in what we know about the past and what we are experiencing in the present,” Bengston said. “That limits our ability to consider a future that might differ from our past or present, which leaves us making decisions that are based entirely on what we see out the rear window instead of the wide range of possible, plausible, and preferable futures in front of us.”
Predicting how CO2 and Ozone will Change Forest Composition
One way to understand how forests change over time is to spend decades observing forests and recording data. Another approach is to put data from a previous study to work. Scientists at the Northern Research Station in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, using a forest landscape model and information gleaned from an earlier climate change study called Aspen FACE made projections about forest composition in response to elevated carbon dioxide and ozone after 80 years. The study only required one year to complete.
The Aspen Free Air Carbon Experiment (Aspen FACE) was conducted from 1997-2009 and, at the time, was the world’s largest climate change experiment. The study involved exposing aspen, paper birch and sugar maple growing in the field to elevated carbon dioxide and ozone to determine how these three northern tree species responded. The study concluded 12 years after it began, but aspen can grow for 80 years, leaving scientists with questions about whether changes observed in the first 12 years would persist.
Scientists used PnET-Succession, a growth and competition module of the LANDIS-II forest landscape model, to project how specific management and climate scenarios will affect future forest composition and function. PnET-Succession is unique in that it uses fundamental physiological principles to simulate the effects of carbon dioxide and ozone on photosynthesis and growth of each tree species. Results confirmed one Aspen FACE result: while ozone has a negative impact on growth, elevated carbon dioxide levels mitigate ozone impacts. However, the study also showed that short-term species growth trajectories do not always persist in the long term.
Scientists have just completed a follow-up study to implement the Aspen-FACE experiment on a Wisconsin landscape that contains many more species than the original research plot, letting the model account for seed dispersal, disturbances and climate change.
“Results of the latest study will give a more comprehensive picture of future forests under a variety of interacting factors,” said Research Landscape Ecologist Eric Gustafson. “Insights gained from this research will help land managers as they work to sustain the nation’s forests under the changing conditions anticipated with climate change.”
Building forest resiliency for an uncertain future
With the uncertainties associated with climate change looming, Northern Research Station scientists asked Chippewa National Forest staff to join them and university researchers in a partnership to integrate climate science into forest management decision making. A successful grant proposal to the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative provided funding to support the effort.
Scientists and managers worked together in a collaborative and iterative approach in development of a model to make predictions about future forests under a variety of management scenarios. To begin the effort, the core modelling team worked to set up and identify inputs to the basic model (i.e. such as relative growth rates of different tree species, species sensitivity to insects and disease, and species responses to different silviculture treatments). Next, modelers consulted with local experts, including silviculturalists, biologists and forest health and community specialists, to answer questions about how forests would respond under varying conditions. This occurred through a series of communications including phone-calls, emails, and face-face visits.
Finally, with the goal of learning by all parties, scientists and stakeholders designed plausible alternative scenarios and then responded to model results relative to their local knowledge and interests. In this effort management scenarios included: “Business as Usual” (current management practices), “EcoGoods” emphasizing economic return by reducing the minimum age to harvest and increasing the annual harvest, “EcoServices” focused on carbon storage and conserving forest habitat, and “CCAdapt” as a possible strategy to manage climate change by favoring species adapted to expected conditions that included planting four species not currently in the region. A “no harvest” scenario was also simulated to project what might occur if no further management actions were taken.
“One of the unique contributions of the project was the development of a visualization tool (LandViz) that dramatically lowers the bar to access model outputs,” said Brian Sturtevant, research ecologist with the Northern Research Station and one of the collaborators developing the model. “Stakeholders with very little training can easily view model outputs overlaid across a standard Google map background to see how different variables, such as tree-species biomass, forest types, disturbances, or bird habitat change through time.”
The research team is planning to replicate this collaborative process with other national forests in the region, thus helping land managers envision how their forests will look and function in the future given various management decisions made today.