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MSU environmental scientist wins grant to research forest management consequences

Montana State University

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IMAGE: William Kleindl, assistant research professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University, recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation's Macrosystems Biology and... view more 

Credit: MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

BOZEMAN - A Montana State University environmental scientist was recently awarded $312,000 from the National Science Foundation to study how cumulative forest management decisions at local scales influence the health of forests and the ecological services they provide at large scales.

The award is part of a $1.2 million grant in which MSU researchers will collaborate with the University of Florida, University of Alabama, University of Wisconsin, Colorado State University and Boston University.

"Forest management is an extensive and continual driver that shapes forest structure, affecting the success of associated communities of plants and animals, as well as the forest ecosystem services that maintain human well-being," said William Kleindl, assistant research professor in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the MSU College of Agriculture.

Most of the world's forests are managed at relatively local scales to provide goods and services such as wood, biodiversity and purified water, Kleindl said. But at large scales, forests play an important role in things like regulating weather or providing connections between biomes, large naturally occurring communities of flora and fauna.

"As a result, cumulative changes in management practices that influence forest structure and productivity also influence climate, hydrology and biodiversity," he said. "Yet, little is known about how these cumulative forest management decisions influence forest ecology from regional to continental scales."

With the grant from the National Science Foundation's Macrosystems Biology and Early NEON Science Program, Kleindl and his colleagues will create computer models to evaluate national and regional forest management policies, environmental disturbances, and consequences for ecology, the economy and society.

The goal is to provide ecologists and forest managers information to assist in their decision-making and lead them toward improved stewardship of forest resources in a changing world.

The researchers will use satellites to map forest management types -- such as production, mixed-use and wilderness -- across the U.S. at scales relevant for national and regional policy, and at scales that will help in understanding the forests' interactions with the environment. They will then use the maps in computer models to estimate forest characteristics under various management and environmental scenarios.

Kleindl said that incorporating forest management and disturbances into Earth systems models will improve the models. That will allow scientists to better predict the effects of changing management policy, disturbance regimes and environment on forests across the continental U.S.

"This computer modeling framework will be used to test the relative importance of forest management across environmental conditions and assess the strength of these relationships by region in determining the structure of the forest, the ecological functions they perform and the services they provide across scales from individual forest stands to forests across the continent," he said.

A key component of the project is evaluating the impacts of changing forest policies compared to the direct effects on forests from human-driven disturbances such as climate change and pollution, especially in regard to adapting forest management in the face of these changes, Kleindl said.

"A goal of this project is to integrate our increased understanding of how humans and forest ecosystems interact - the socioecological relationship -- into relevant policy and management," he said. "This increased knowledge will assist future decision-makers in evaluating potential changes that are economically and socially important."

Kleindl said that, in the past, links between ecological theory, forest management and policy have been applied to forests at local scales, such as the Custer Gallatin National Forest, and to regions, such as the Montana Rockies. However, he said, this new study addresses a longstanding need to address those links at even larger scales, such the entire Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest or the Southeast.

"What we propose is novel by challenging ecological theory, developing socioecological understanding and integrating them into a policy- and management-relevant analysis," Kleindl said. "Our project will develop multi-disciplinary methods and conceptual frameworks and then provide these approaches to a diverse range of stakeholders involved in forest management, policy and science."

Kleindl's expertise is in disturbance ecology and socioecological systems. His research goal is to provide straightforward analysis of ecological data to make it applicable to management activities. That often requires complex research into the problems that crop up where natural and human environments intersect. Kleindl currently teaches courses in wetland ecology and management, applied restoration and MSU Honors College seminars.

Before MSU, Kleindl spent 28 years as an aquatic ecology research scientist and consultant, assisting clients throughout the country in the science, policy and management of aquatic environments. That included assessment, restoration and management of degraded wetlands and rivers at multiple scales. He earned his bachelor's degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, his master's in aquatic ecology from the University of Washington and his doctorate in systems ecology from the University of Montana.

"Bill has an amazing background across a wide range of scientific disciplines and land management experiences," said Tracy Sterling, head of MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. "This expertise, coupled with his desire to apply new tools to important societal questions, were key to the NSF recognizing his novel approach for exploring how ecological, social and economic factors are interrelated and how together they influence forest management."

The Macrosystems Biology and Early NEON Science Program awards support research to better detect, understand and predict the effects of climate and land-use changes on living systems and to predict feedback to the environment that crosses local and continental scales.

"The scientific community has seen a recent boon of new tools, from remote ecological sensor networks to citizen scientist-generated data, that allows us to study biology at scales that were never possible before," said James Olds, head of the NSF Biological Sciences Directorate, which oversees the program. "These projects take advantage of those new tools, asking questions about how measurements made at one scale can be applied to others. Macrosystems science studies every dimension of biology, from genes to the globe."

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