Exploring What Lies Beneath

November 2020

The forests we see are shaped by what lies beneath them. Northern Research Station science expands understanding of soils, the life it holds, and its influence on forest communities and even global carbon cycles.

This month, we highlight a scientist who reveals how underground systems work, research that shows how geologic history has shaped where oak forests flourish, and a partnership that fosters shared stewardship through a comprehensive mapping project.

Environmental Education

Hand holding soil.Visit the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service - Soil Education webpage for soil facts, lesson plans, and resources for all ages.

Featured Scientist

Erik Lilleskov

Forest Service research ecologist Erik Lilleskov stands atop peatlands in the Andes Mountain Range in Ecuador.Northern Research Station research ecologist Erik Lilleskov seeks out studies that make a difference “on the ground,” in all senses of the phrase. His expertise is below-ground processes, the interactions of soil, water, and organisms that underlie the ecological systems on which we depend. Throughout his work, he looks for the interface between fundamental science questions and the implications for the managers and policy makers whose actions shape landscapes and land use.

“Whether it's policy or environmental management practices, it's always really gratifying to think that you might be able to make a difference,” Lilleskov said.

Much of his current research focuses on peatlands because of their vulnerability to degradation by land use or climate change. So Lilleskov was excited to join a research team developing improved mapping methods for mountain peatlands in the Andes Mountains as part of SWAMP, a sustainable wetlands adaptation and mitigation program of the U.S. Agency for International Development and Center for International Forestry Research. Lilleskov especially appreciates the opportunity to train people and help build centers of scientific excellence that will sustain this work into the future.

Lilleskov also delights in serving on a 50-person team characterizing the microbial communities and biogeochemistry of peatlands around the world for the Global Peatland Microbiome Project. Using next generation gene sequencing methods to find the commonalities and differences is “like having a bowl of candy,” he said. “It’s generating a rich treasure trove of information that’s going to drive insights relevant to global climate change or other land use factors like drainage or nitrogen pollution.”

Closer to home he is working with GPS mapping to help create restoration guidelines for Minnesota peatlands, studying mycorrhizal fungi to understand how increased nitrogen deposition may affect tree growth, and assessing the impact of invasive earthworms on soil conditions. These last two studies use the unique research facilities which Lilleskov manages at his home base of Houghton, Michigan. The rhizotron provides an underground view of a forest ecosystem and the mesocosm’s above- and below-ground access allow controlled studies of belowground processes. 

When he is not exploring the world beneath his feet, he is gardening, hunting for edible mushrooms, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking.

More about Erik Lilleskov >>

Featured Research

When Poor Soil Produces Better Oak Seedling Growth

Oak seedlings in a forest.The landscape of northwest Pennsylvania bears the footprint of Ice Age glaciers in its soils. Northern Research Station scientists found that the differences between its glaciated and unglaciated soil types may shape the expansion of some southern oak species in surprising ways.

“All oaks are expected to do well under climate change because they do okay in hotter and drier conditions,” said Lauren Pile, NRS research ecologist located in Columbia, Missouri. Black oak and chestnut oak, two species found predominantly south of this region, are likely candidates for expanding their range northward under a changing climate.

As part of a long-term oak silvicultural study, NRS researchers Pat Brose and Joanne Rebbeck planted acorns across a range of site conditions and tracked their growth and development. Pile’s analysis of the data from northwest Pennsylvania showed that where light conditions were high, both black and chestnut oaks grew better on the poorer, sandy non-glaciated soils than on the nutrient-rich, water-retaining glaciated soil. But at low light levels, both oak species grew better on the glaciated soil.

The difference may be due to fungi associated with tree roots, called mycorrhizae, Pile said. Mycorrhizae can help tree growth on nutrient-poor sites as they bring nutrients into the tree. However, the mycorrhizae also need nutrients for themselves and, at low light levels, may consume more than they provide.

These findings can assist in successful establishment of oak where managers are seeking a different forest composition that fits future climate conditions.  Even where light is favorable for growth, managers might need other management strategies to enable oaks to grow, Pile said.

“The complexities of living things are amazing,” she said. “Species are responding differently, even within similar biological conditions. Sometimes, those abiotic features, such as soil, make the difference.”

More information on Black and Chestnut Oak Seedling Response to Glaciated Soil >>

Featured Partnership

Mapping Effort Aids Oak Restoration

Ohio Interagency Forestry Team.

Oak restoration in the steep hills of southeast Ohio can be more seamless across landownerships, thanks to a new science product supported by a unique partnership of state and federal agencies with a forestry mission.

The Ohio Interagency Forestry Team includes leaders and field staff from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA Forest Service, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio State University Extension, and Central State University Extension. Its formation was catalyzed by a 2015 USDA Joint Chiefs’ Restoration Partnership award. The team works to improve public service and coordination among members and to support a “shared stewardship” approach to forest management.

Key to the team’s collaboration is a regional science framework that delivers the data, tools, and training to support the day-to-day management decisions made by public and private forest managers. The newest tool, Research Map NRS-10 USDA Forest Service Section, Subsection, and Landtype Descriptions for Southeastern Ohio, delineates the ecological landtypes for 17 counties in the Appalachian foothills. For the first time, these landtypes were mapped across both public and private landscapes, providing consistent tools for planning, managing, monitoring, and research.

Development of RMAP NRS-10 was led by USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station Louis Iverson, an emeritus landscape ecologist, and Ohio Interagency liaison Jarel Bartig, a Wayne National Forest employee with a shared appointment to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The effort required assembling data derived from hundreds of field plots in conjunction with high resolution digital elevation data and GIS technology. The document includes detailed descriptions of the ecological, geological, climatological, and topographical attributes of each landtype.

“Once you can sort out the land into those classes, that allows managers to focus their efforts on regenerating oak on the sites that have a higher probability of having success in oak regeneration,” Iverson said. “Having a spatially specific mapping scheme also allows all players to be on the same page with respect to what we think would happen if you do a given type of management in a particular location.”

Bartig reports that the product is already being used in development of the National Forest environmental assessments and the State Forest Action plan for Ohio, and that training in its use is already underway. “We continue to build the community of practice,” she said.

More information on The Ohio Interagency Forestry Team and RMAP-NRS-10 >>

Last updated: 10/28/2020