Looking to the Future

January 2021

Thinking about the future is an inherent component of natural resource management. Forest management actions taken today shape the forests of tomorrow, but not all factors that influence forests are under managers’ control. This month we feature a scientist with a mission to detect tree stress even before there are visible signs, research that uses futuring tools to identify drivers of forest change over the next 20 years, and a partnership of scientists and managers aiming to help an urban park adapt to an uncertain future.

Environmental Education

Screen shot of Virtual Ranger video.Explore future careers with the Forest Service’s Virtual Ranger video series on YouTube.

Featured Scientist

Rakesh Minocha

Rakesh Minocha.On a cellular level, trees and people have a lot in common. That small fact has allowed Plant Physiologist/Biochemist Rakesh Minocha to navigate big turns throughout her career.

Minocha’s love for nature began on her father’s farm in India. She was particularly interested in how pollution affects the environment and people; her M.S. thesis in India explored how the religious practices of throwing flowers into water affect organisms living in ponds.

That interest motivated Minocha to complete a second M.S. degree in zoology (limnology) after moving to New Hampshire in the 1970s, and then to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry. For her Ph.D., she became fascinated in research related to breast cancer, particularly studying the biochemical processes involved in the disease and what triggers it. As the mother of two small children and the wife of a university professor, however, Minocha decided that the commute required to continue cancer research was not feasible. As a career rejuvenation, she found a job-share position with the USDA Forest Service in Durham NH that would allow her to stay active in research.  
That was 33 years ago. As the job-share position turned into a full-time position, Minocha found herself hooked on trees. “I didn’t look back,” she said of her decision to switch from cancer metabolism to tree metabolism.

Today her work focuses on delineating the biochemical and physiological basis of trees’ stress response to factors such as urbanization, drought, global warming, and invasive insects and developing approaches to detecting environmental stress in forest trees. Minocha is developing a suite of metabolic markers that can be used to profile and monitor the health of trees by detecting physiological and biochemical stress early on - before the appearance of any visual symptoms. These studies will also shed some light on the presence of stress memory in trees and how it might relate to providing resilience and adaptation under stress. Her goal is to create a set of diagnostic tools that would be applicable to all species, across regional, continental, and temporal scales, much like blood tests are used to assess human health. These tools focus on the use of cellular metabolites like polyamines and amino acids – all are rich in nitrogen and strong indicators of abiotic stress in all living beings (plants, animals, and microbes).

Collaboration is important to Minocha, and one of the things she is grateful for in her career is the opportunity to work with scientists across disciplines within the United States as well as Brazil, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand, and Kazakhstan on many interesting projects such as stress monitoring at ridgetops across Appalachian Trail and effects of fires on species-diversity in California. In all this work, she appreciates the invaluable contribution of her lab manager Stephanie Long. “I wouldn’t have been able to do all this without Stephanie,” she said.

The love of nature that Minocha developed as a child running on her father’s farm has continued to grow. “I feel a deep connection to the Earth and trees and critters in the soil,” Minocha said. “I find peace in the forest.”

More about Rakesh Minocha >>

Featured Research

Drivers of Change

Cover of Drivers of change in U.S. forests and forestry over the next 20 years.Forest managers think about the future all the time – they apply forest treatments today to achieve desired outcomes in the future. However, many factors affecting forests are outside of forest managers’ control. Using futures research techniques can provide important contributions to planning, management, and policy in forestry, including creating a longer-term perspective, exploring key uncertainties, decreasing reaction time to rapid change, and encouraging foresters to think big. A new publication from the Northern Research Station identifies eight drivers of change that are expected to shape the future of U.S. forests and the forest sector over the next 20 years.

The goal of futures research is to explore possible, plausible and preferable futures and develop insight into how and why the future could be different than today resulting in improved policy, planning and decision making. Identifying drivers of change is one tool used in futures research, also called strategic foresight

Scientists Dave Bengston and Lynne Westphal of the Northern Research Station and Mike Dockry of the University of Minnesota worked together to compile the Drivers of Change. The new publication begins with an introductory chapter, and is followed by eight chapters each by a different expert or professional futurist, each tackling one of the identified drivers of change: climate, the economy, the forest products sector, technology, demographics, forest values, indigenous empowerment, and forestry education.

“Drivers of Change aims to help forest managers as they think about the future and plan for the many factors affecting forests that are outside of their control,” said Bengston. “This helps bring about a preferable future of forests and forestry.”

More information on Drivers of change in U.S. forests and forestry over the next 20 years >>

Featured Partnership

Preparing Urban Parks for the Future

Partners and volunteers planting trees in the floodplain forests at the Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area.

What can natural resource managers do today to help forests adapt to an uncertain future?  To answer that question, Northern Research Station (NRS) scientists have partnered with universities and other federal, state and local agencies on the Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change (ASCC) project to assess what adaptation measures might be effective in preparing forests for an unknown future.

In the first ever urban ASCC affiliate, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, researchers are working to prepare for the future. Urban natural areas along the Mississippi River provide multiple benefits to people, including opportunities for hiking, cycling, and canoeing along with clean water and respite from urban heat. In the only national park dedicated exclusively to the Mississippi River, scientists from the Northern Research Station (NRS), Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, Colorado State University, and the University of Minnesota are joining managers at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, City of St. Paul Parks and Recreation, and Mississippi Park Connection to test new management strategies for urban floodplain forests in a changing climate.

One of the most common trees in the floodplain forests along this stretch of the Mississippi River is the green ash. “Ash trees make up twenty to forty percent of our national park’s forest – a whopping half a million individual trees! We expect to eventually lose most of these trees to the invasive emerald ash borer,” said Mary Hammes, environmental stewardship and volunteer manager with the Mississippi Park Connection. “The forests are changing rapidly; we have an urgent need to act to preserve the benefits this park currently provides.” The park also faces a host of climate-related impacts, many of which threaten the health of natural areas. These impacts include higher average temperatures, increased precipitation, more extreme flooding events, and increased summer drought stress. In just the last 15 years, the Mississippi River Valley has sustained successive 100-, 200-, and 500-year rainfall events. Changing environmental conditions contribute to a loss of tree canopy that is not being replaced through natural regeneration.

Leslie Brandt, a climate change specialist with NRS is leading efforts to assess different management strategies. “We’re trying to adapt our floodplains to climate change conditions by restoring a forested community that may be able to better withstand future changes,” said Brandt.

Through this innovative partnership, Brandt and Hammes hope this work will serve as an example for other floodplain forests and urban natural areas across the nation.

More information on Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change – Mississippi National River and Recreation Area >>

Last updated: 12/16/2020