Scientists & Staff

Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy

Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy

Research Forester
P.O. Box 404
Parsons, WV, 26287
Phone: 304-478-2000 x114

Contact Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy


Current Research

  • Fire regimes of the central Appalachians
  • Central Appalachian silviculture
  • Fire as a silvicultural tool in oak forests
  • Witness trees of the Monongahela National Forest
  • Red spruce recovery and restoration

Research Interests

I hope to continue to work at two scales, stand and landscape, as I build a body of work that includes both traditional silviculture and landscape ecology. I am interested in carrying on the long-term silvicultural studies of the Fernow Experimental Forest. I am also interested in the use of prescribed fire as a silvicultural tool to aid in oak regeneration and as a landscape-scale disturbance.

Why This Research is Important

Use of prescribed fire likely to increase and knowledge of fire history will help in determining where to return this disturbance regime.

In a part of the country without the benefit of General Land Office surveys, witness trees represent a snap-shot in time of species distributions. I hope to use the GIS based witness tree database to describe and categorize land-vegetation relationships of the area. Red spruce forests support rare species and are in slow recovery from era of exploitative forestry. Monongahela Forest Plan places emphasis on recovery and restoration of red spruce and spruce-hardwood forests. Research is needed to help define and achieve goals.

Education

  • West Virginia University, Ph.D. Forest Resources Sciences, 2011
  • West Virginia University, Ph.D. Forest Resources Sciences, 2011
  • State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, M.S. Resource Management/Silviculture, 1992
  • State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, M.S. resource management/silviculture, 1992
  • Davis and Elkins College, B.S. Pre-forestry, 1989
  • Davis and Elkins College, B.S. pre-forestry, 1989

Professional Organizations

  • Society Of American Foresters West Virginia Chapter (2011 - Current)
    I have served as vice-chair and chair of the chapter and currently serve on the executive committee
  • Society Of American Foresters West Virginia Chapter (2011 - Current)
    vice-chair for WV chapter

Featured Publications & Products

Publications & Products

Research Datasets

  • Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa A.; Strager, Michael P. 2014. Witness trees of the Monongahela National Forest: 1752-1899. Fort Collins, CO: Forest Service Research Data Archive. https://doi.org/10.2737/RDS-2014-0022.

National Research Highlights

The compound figure shows historic photos of large trees. the first is one that had been used as an example of an American chestnut in the pre-blight forest, the second photo shows a similar tree and setting that is of a redwood in California, the third photo is a documented photo of a large American chestnut before the blight. The figure was published in the journal Chestnut.

Restoration of a Forest Giant

Year: 2016

The blight resistance of a variety of families of hybrid American chestnuts is under study on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. Early mortality and height growth results show differences between families that will provide useful information for the production of a hybrid with the blight resistance of the Chinese chestnut and the growth form of the American chestnut. As a side effort, the subject in a photo previously reported to be of a large American chestnut in the pre-blight forest was found to be of a redwood tree in California.

The figure is the cover of the station publication for the Minnesota work showing the percentage of pyrophilic witness trees across most of Minnesota with photos illustrating typical fire behavior for three areas. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Witness Trees as Indicators of Past Fire

Year: 2016

In ecosystem restoration, the question “What was the forest like back then?” is often difficult to answer. Understanding and mapping forest composition before European settlement is an important basis for ecosystem restoration. To help in returning fire into ecosystems that formerly burned, scientists from the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station used “witness trees,” which are trees indicated in old land surveys to help identify areas where fire likely occurred in the past.

The figure displays age class in red spruce-dominated forests by alternative and for three time steps (year 0, year 30, and year 100) for a portion of the study area as a result of the models.  There are some differences in the alternatives in the amount of red spruce forest by age class and their location on the landscape. USDA Forest Service

A Landscape Model for Planning Red Spruce Restoration in West Virginia

Year: 2015

A Forest Service scientist developed a model to answer specific questions about meeting restoration goals for red spruce while protecting habitat for the Virginia northern flying squirrel. Although the squirrel was recently removed from the Endangered Species List, management of its habitat and potential habitat is still a concern. The harvests modeled shows that hands-off approaches to threatened or endangered species habitat can delay progress on restoration goals in this red spruce-dominated landscape.

A map showing the boundaries of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.  The outlines of four national forests are also included.  The results of calculating the percentage of pyrophilic witness tree species from town-level surveys are displayed as a color gradient from red to green, with red indicating a high percentage of pyrophilic species and green a low percentage.  The red starts in the south and grades to green further north.  Also displayed is an approximation of the tension zone line between generally wetter forests to the north and drier forests to the south. USDA Forest Service

“Witness Trees” as Indicators of Past Fire

Year: 2015

In ecosystem restoration, the question of “What was it like back then?” is often difficult to answer. Understanding and mapping forest composition from before European settlement is an important basis for ecosystem restoration, helping to ensure the return of fire into ecosystems that formerly burned. Forest Service scientists used “witness trees,” which are trees indicated on old maps and land surveys, to help identify trees that grew in the past.

Fence line of one of the plots with canopy gaps.  The vegetation is noticeably taller and denser inside the fence as compared to outside the fence. USDA Forest Service

Investigating the Roles of Fire, Browse, and Canopy Gaps in the Understory of an Oak-dominated Forest

Year: 2015

Current forests developed under conditions different from original forests, with more deer, less fire, and smaller canopy gaps. This has resulted in understories dominated by trees that are browse-tolerant, shade-tolerant, and fire sensitive, often making it harder for oaks to regenerate in some areas. Forest Service scientists evaluated how three key processes - understory fire, canopy gaps, and browsing - affected tree species in east central West Virginia to help foresters determine management actions.

Changes in age classes for red spruce and red spruce-northern hardwood forest types combined for a section of the study area (about 13,000 acres) at three time steps. Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, USDA Forest Service

Using a Landscape Model for Planning Red Spruce Restoration in West Virginia

Year: 2014

A new Forest Service model was developed to answer specific questions about meeting restoration goals for red spruce while protecting habitat for the Virginia northern flying squirrel. The patch cuts modeled in this experiement were designed to be close to the intended restoration actions. The harvests modeled show that hands-off approaches to threatened or endangered species habitat can delay progress on restoration goals in this red spruce-dominated landscape.

An example of typical understory conditions in the Summer of 2008 on one of the fenced subplots on the Monongahela National Forest. Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, USDA Forest Service

Roles of Fire, Browse, and Canopy Gaps in the Understory of an Oak-dominated Forest

Year: 2014

Current forests developed under conditions different from original forests, with more deer, less fire, and smaller canopy gaps. The difference resulted in understories dominated by trees that are browse-tolerant, shade-tolerant, and fire sensitive, and also makes it harder for oaks to regenerate in some areas. To help foresters determine management actions, a Forest Service scientist and research partner evaluated how three key processes, understory fire, canopy gaps, and browsing, affected tree species in east-central West Virginia.

The Monongahela National Forest is classified according to fire influence on species composition. Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, USDA Forest Service

Witness Trees Reveal Where to Restore Fire

Year: 2013

To help land managers make decisions and plan for restoration of oak-dominated forests, witness trees from early surveys were used by a Forest Service scientist as clues to disturbance history. Tree species were categorized into two categories based on fire ecology and spatial interpolation of point data resulted in a usable picture of past disturbance on a complex landscape.

Last modified: Thursday, September 10, 2015