Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park

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Project Summary: 

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is a 550-acre park located east of Vermont's Green Mountains. The Park contains the Mount Tom Forest, which is the earliest surviving example of planned and managed reforestation in the country. It is a living exhibit that illustrates the evolution of forest stewardship in America, from the earliest scientific silvicultural practices borrowed from nineteenth-century Europe to contemporary practices of sustainable forest management. Natural resource professionals have assessed how climate change may affect the natural and planted forests present in the Park and are incorporating this information into the natural resource management and conservation activities taking place at the Park.

Geographic area of project: 

Scale of Project: 
National Park
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science
NPS Climate Change Response Program
NPS Northeast Temperate Inventory and Monitoring Network
Redstart Consulting
US Forest Service
Maria Janowiak, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science/US Forest Service; Kyle Jones, NPS Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park; Nicholas Fisichelli, NPS Climate Change Response Program
Project background and scope: 

This project was developed through a collaboration of the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science as an effort to show how climate change information can be integrated into forest management and conservation activities occurring at a National Park.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is a 550-acre park located east of Vermont's Green Mountains. The Park contains the Mount Tom Forest, which is the earliest surviving example of planned and managed reforestation in the country. It is a living exhibit that illustrates the evolution of forest stewardship in America, from the earliest scientific silvicultural practices borrowed from nineteenth-century Europe to contemporary practices of sustainable forest management. Nine of the plantations set out by Frederick Billings in the late 1800s still stand. Older trees, such as open-grown sugar maples and 400+ year-old hemlocks can still be found throughout the property.

Project Process and Implementation: 

Concerned about the effect of climate change on National Parks in the eastern US, staff from the National Park Service (NPS) Climate Change Response Program led the development of climate change vulnerability assessments for several National Parks in the eastern U.S., including Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. These assessments provided park-level details regarding potential forest response to climate, differences in habitat projections among models, and nonnative biotic stressors (tree pests and diseases and invasive plants). The assessment for Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller provided locally-specific information about the climate change and forest pest vulnerability of the Mount Tom Forest, including the historic plantations.

Following the collection of scientific information about climate change and the Park, a workshop was held in May 2014 to integrate this information into Park activities and develop potential actionable steps to adapt forests at the Park to changing conditions. Participants represented the Park, the NPS Climate Change Response Program, the NPS Northeast Temperate Network I&M program, the NPS Northeast Region Office, Redstart Consulting, the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, the US Forest Service, and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Workshop participants used the Adaptation Workbook process from the Climate Change Response Framework to put the scientific information into a context useful for management. They first considered the information about climate change impacts on the Park from the vulnerability assessment. They the then explored the opportunities and challenges to meeting the Park’s management goals and objectives under changing conditions. After identifying the most important impacts, challenges, and opportunities associated with climate change, workshop participants identified a number of potential adaptation actions to enhance the ability of the Park’s forests to cope with changing conditions.

The results from the workshop were integrated into the final vulnerability assessment for the Park and adaptation activities are part of a Climate Change Response Framework adaptation demonstration.

Project Outcomes: 

The collaborative effort at the Park produced a vulnerability assessment specific to the park, which included the climate change considerations and potential adaptation actions identified during the workshop. Following the workshop, the Park staff and collaborators have begun implementing some of the suggested actions. Climate change adaptation actions have been integrated into a forest harvest currently planned for winter 2016-2017.

Key vulnerabilities identified on the MBR include:

  • Some northern tree species, including fir, aspen, and paper birch, are projected to have moderate to strong decreases in suitable habitat under both future climate scenarios , while many temperate species currently present are expected to retain suitable habitat.
  • Under the warmest scenario, several oak, hickory, and pine species uncommon or absent in the park gain suitable habitat in central Vermont in the coming decades.
  • There is great uncertainty regarding the potential effects of climate change on the planted European conifer species Norway spruce, Scots pine, and European larch. The available literature suggests that all three species are at some increased risk of decline in the future from climate change (especially drought effects), although the magnitude of this risk is unclear. Norway spruce currently appears to be declining in some places on the Park grounds.
  • Disturbances are generally expected to increase, although the specific impacts from any type of disturbance is hard to predict. The extensive network of carriage roads across the park is particularly vulnerable to damage from increases in extreme rain events.

Several potential adaptation actions were also identified for the plantations, and these varied based on whether the management intention was to maintain plantation characteristics or to move stands toward native species. For areas being maintained as plantations, the need to identify tree species or seed sources for future plantings featured prominently. Because the regeneration phase may be more sensitive to climate change than established saplings or trees, managers identified a window of opportunity to reestablish stands in the near term (less than 20 years) before the climate changes dramatically. For areas identified for a transition to native vegetation, additional options may be available for increasing tree species diversity and enabling ecosystems to adapt to change.

The managers generally viewed the proposed adaptation actions as slight adjustments to the current management trajectory because of the ecosystem focus in the current plan, as opposed to a significant departure from current management. Additionally, several “contingency plans” were discussed for responding to disturbances or other unforeseen events. For example, introduction of the emerald ash borer or hemlock woolly adelgid or a combination of threats could accelerate mortality of current overstory trees. Replacement of hemlock with another native conifer, after arrival of hemlock woolly adelgid, was discussed. Potential species included red spruce, though in the long-term this species may decline in the region and especially at lower elevations such as within the Park.

Project challenges and lessons learned: 

One of the most substantial challenges for forest management in the Park may be that the Park is composed of many small stands divided by carriage roads and other trails. To date, forest management at the Park has generally focused on thinning the stands, but there will be an increased need to move toward regeneration treatments as the even-aged forests mature. In order to promote many potentially future-adapted species—species which generally require greater amounts of light reaching the forest floor—will require larger gaps during harvest. Managers indicated that it may be more difficult to achieve larger gaps given the combination of small stands, high road/trail density, and concern about aesthetics in harvested stands.

After considering climate change, managers identified forest inventory data as an integral component of monitoring the effectiveness of adaptation actions over time. Permanent forest inventory plots were established within each stand on the property. The inventory provides a useful baseline for prescribing management activities for adaptation. For example, data on tree species abundance can be used to calculate tree species richness and diversity evenness and provided an indication of the relative risk associated with the loss of different tree species. Additionally, inventory data can identify the advanced regeneration. In the future, repeat inventories will be used to evaluate whether the selected management activities increase the abundance of desired species in the understory and eventually the overstory.

Learning Objectives: 
  • The National Park Service is responding in ongoing climate change and adjusting management activities to achieve desired conditions.
  • The Mount Tom Forest illustrates the evolution of forest stewardship in America, from early efforts in the nineteenth century to bring state-of-the-art European practices to this country to present day climate change adaptation.
  • This project is a collaboration among private, state, and federal partners.
  • Climate-informed forest management promotes the ability of the species within the Mount Tom Forest to adapt to continuously changing conditions.
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