Northern Research Station
Steven McNulty, Acting Director
As the Northern Research Station’s Acting Director, I am proud of Station science and results that are both intriguing and meaningful. American forests face complex issues, but they are not new. Our work contributes to forest resiliency, watershed stewardship, and enhancing the broad spectrum of benefits people derive from forests. Our role extends beyond “doing” the science – the Northern Research Station also works to deliver the research we produce in innovative and accessible ways.
It is my honor to present 25 research highlights, including six “Director’s Choice” research highlights that deliver timely scientific knowledge and assist land managers laying the groundwork for the forests of tomorrow. These highlights are a sample of the pivotal and incredibly diverse scientific work being done at the Northern Research Station. From public participation in National Forest planning during the digital (and pandemic) age to restoration of fire-adapted ecosystems, mercury and sulfur pollution in the Great Lakes and decades of silviculture research, our 2022 Research Highlights showcase the skill, curiosity, and determination of Northern Research employees.
The Station serves a region that is both highly forested and highly populated. From Maine to Minnesota and from Missouri to Maryland, the Station produces research and science-based tools that respond to land managers’ questions, spark scientific curiosity, and address ecological challenges of all kinds.
I am thankful for the many hands involved in producing these Highlights, including partners, so this notable science reaches extensive audiences and addresses the needs of National Forests for years to come.
Northern Research Station Locations
Director's Choice Highlights
The following six highlights were selected as the "Director's Choice" for 2022.
Though we are no longer sheltering-in-place, public participation in natural resources planning has forever shifted. What does this mean for ensuring that people have access to participation processes?
Learning from the past, a study of fire history from sites across the eastern United States provides guidance for designing modern day forest management to restore fire-adapted and dependent ecosystems such as oak and pine savannas, woodlands and mixedwoods.
The Northern Research Station’s Forest Service Diversity & Inclusion Science Team has studied historical patterns, problems, and successes in the USDA Forest Service to help the agency achieve a workforce that reflects the diversity of the people served and be a rewarding place for all to work.
Information on how air pollution (nitrogen and sulfur from power plants, cars, and other sources) harms ecosystems can help resource managers make informed decisions for planning and management. The CLAS tool brings together enormous amounts of monitoring data to make it easier for resource managers and policy makers to map air pollution risk for forests, lichens, and sensitive lakes and streams across the United States.
Analysis of historical insect invasions in the United States resulting from plant imports demonstrates the beneficial impacts of government programs to exclude plant pests. However, it also reveals that over one-quarter of insect species invading the nation remains undiscovered and may manifest impacts on agriculture and forestry in the future.
Long-term watershed monitoring at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire helps scientists detect increasing forest water use.
2022 Research Highlights
The Northern Research Station's science is complex, but the need for the research is simple. Land managers, city planners, and policy-makers need sound science on all aspects of the natural world and its complex connections with people to achieve decisions resulting in a healthy and sustainable future for present and future generations of Americans. The following Research Highlights reflect some of our best work in support of these goals in 2022.
Change is inevitable, but how can we prepare for dramatic, and potentially surprising, changes to come? Strategic foresight methods can help. A recent study of hundreds of signals of change related to recreation on public lands pointed to some changes managers see now, like declining snowfall and therefore winter sports. Others are surprising, like the speed at which passenger drones are being developed, leading to questions about infrastructure and noise management on public lands.
Forest communities change over time and so does the amount of carbon being sequestered and stored in those forests. Linking forest communities to carbon cycling can improve knowledge about the feedbacks between forest dynamics and climate change.
The landscape level information habitat models deliver is only part of the bigger picture needed by land managers. A team of Northern Research Station scientists used text-mining to develop landscape level forest type classifications that better represent the habitat models. The scientists demonstrated the utility of the text-mining approach by mapping forest types of the eastern United States to evaluate potential changes in vegetation under future climate scenarios.
Almost nothing symbolizes the Upper Midwest more than acres of pristine lakes and recreational pursuits they support. But burgeoning populations of aquatic invasive species (AIS), including zebra mussel and Eurasian watermilfoil, are putting this iconic landscape—and its associated ecosystems and economies—at risk. A new web-based program is helping to reduce the chance of infestation.
Few assessments of the health impacts of prescribed burning, and potential vulnerabilities among populations exposed to smoke from prescribed fires, have been conducted. Recently, three Northern Research Station scientists, with partners, completed a study of social and health vulnerability surrounding prescribed burns that occurred in the USDA Forest Service, National Forest System between 2010 and 2019.
Non-native, invasive tree pathogens and insect pests continue to threaten forest sustainability across the world. A recent example is beech leaf disease, which severely affects American beech and is spreading rapidly across the eastern United States. In a study led by The Ohio State University, scientists at the Northern Research Station helped develop a tool to detect beech leaf disease even before symptoms appear.
A persistent obstacle to implementing climate adaptation has been that guidance for wildlife management and conservation tends to be generic or mismatched to the actual decision space and authority of most wildlife managers. The Wildlife Adaptation Menu addresses a longstanding need by delivering a comprehensive and structured catalog of adaptation actions for managing wildlife populations as well as wildlife habitat. The Wildlife Adaptation Menu has already been used on four national forests in the Eastern Region and by managers to launch dozens of real-world climate adaptation projects.
Human-derived mercury and sulfur in the Upper Great Lakes Region are important topics of discussion and research, particularly regarding the influence that elevated levels of these elements have on watershed pollution, public health, the mining industry, and wild rice production. The USDA Northern Research Station has been directed by the U.S. Congress to investigate the latest science, possible solutions and remediation technologies, and potential consequences that elevated levels of mercury and sulfur pose to communities – especially those that are at greatest risk, including Indigenous Peoples of the Upper Great Lakes Region. In 2021, the research team developed a science synthesis that includes a series of recommendations for research investments to answer questions for land managers and policymakers.
Wood packaging material is a known vector of wood borer introductions into new regions. Scientists conducted studies to determine the effectiveness of current international heat treatment standards for killing wood boring insects. Study results demonstrated that most, but not all, borers were killed using current standards but may still pose some risk of harboring invasive wood borers.
Using a long-established theory of ecology called metabolic scaling, a Northern Research Station scientist and his partners examined the status and recent changes in tree density across all U.S. forests. They found that U.S. forests are becoming increasingly crowded, a fact that has implications for future tree mortality and forest resiliency in the face of global change.
A research team finds deer browsing may thwart the success of adaptive forestry practices designed to mitigate the growing threat to forests from climate change.
Invasion by the goldspotted oak borer killed thousands of valuable oaks in southern California since the late 1990s. A Northern Research Station scientist and his partners developed a risk map to highlight where this insect might spread next. The risk map has become the backbone of survey and management efforts for the insect by the Cleveland, San Bernardino, and Los Padres National Forests to protect remaining oak trees.
Forest managers, scientists, and policy makers have long relied on the assumption that 50 percent of wood biomass in trees is carbon. In the United States, where there are an estimated 1.4 trillion trees, even small deviations in wood carbon fractions can have big implications on estimates of forest carbon stocks and stock changes.
Across the country, National Forest managers are making strides in engaging new and strengthening existing partnerships. Northern Research Station scientists are working with National Forest staff in multiple states to apply the Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (STEW-MAP) approach on and around National Forest landscapes to understand the stewardship territories, social networks, and organization capacities of current and potential partners.
Generalized regional estimates of forest carbon stocks are a useful tool when site-specific data are not available. Existing forest carbon lookup tables are based on naturally regenerated forests and may not be appropriate for use in planted stands. A Northern Research Station scientist was part of a team that developed general estimates of expected carbon storage for common reforestation scenarios, a tool that will be useful to a variety of land managers implementing nature-based solutions to climate change.
Scientists with the Northern Research Station partnered with Purdue University to update the Forest Service’s Alien Forest Pest Explorer, creating a user-friendly dashboard that combines information from multiple sources to show the impact of different forest insects and diseases, and the potential for further damage. The Alien Forest Pest Explorer delivers science-based interactive data visualization tools that allow users to track the ranges of invasive forest pests, quantify trends in host tree species abundance, and compute increases in mortality caused by insect and disease invasions across the United States.
As wood products companies move past the pandemic, new challenges await. Supply chain disruptions and improved demand have caused woodworking manufacturers to seek out new investments in production and procurement capabilities. How is the industry faring in this unique business environment?
Informing wildlife habitat conservation just became a little easier, thanks to new methods for combining local research with the Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program’s vast database of forest metrics. A Northern Research Station scientist and his partners developed a novel approach to helping the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources better understand potential wood duck habitat in Northern Minnesota.
Harvesting only the most valuable trees from a forest stand might seem financially attractive due to the potential to generate large financial returns in the short term, but research at the Penobscot Experimental Forest shows that this approach costs landowners money in the long run.