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Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy

Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy
Acting Project Leader / Research Forester
Sustaining Forests in a Changing Environment
459 Nursery Bottom Rd
Parsons, WV 26287-0404
United States
Phone
304-478-2000 x114
Current Research
  • Fire regimes of the central Appalachians
  • Central Appalachian silviculture
  • Fire as a silvicultural tool
  • Historical records as ecological data
  • Red spruce recovery and restoration
Research Interest

Melissa's research includes stand- and landscape-level projects at both long- and short-term time scales. Most of this work is focused on the restoration and sustainable management of forested ecosystems in the eastern United States. Successful restoration of an ecological system requires that a series of important questions be addressed: 1) what are the restoration goals, 2) what techniques or actions will meet these goals, and 3) how is success measured. Restoration includes reestablishing patterns, processes, and species often in the context of a given space and time frame. To establish and accomplish ecological restoration goals, land managers need information about historical conditions.

Why This Research Is Important
As with any forest management, managers need to know what actions accomplish the goals of restoring patterns and processes and need to be able to predict the results of those actions. To help answer these questions, Melissa's work includes stand-level studies involving prescribed fire, browse control, and a variety of silvicultural practices. Some of these studies are long-term studies started on the Fernow Experimental Forest to answer more traditional growth and yield questions but also can be used to provide information on long-term stand dynamics.

Red spruce-dominated ecosystems are considered critically imperiled in the central and southern Appalachians. These generally high-elevation sites are the focus of restoration efforts by federal, state, and private land managers. These forests are considered to be in recovery from the exploitative harvests of the past, but they are slow to recover and are now subject to current threats from climate change, nonnative invasive insects, large deer populations, and changes in land use. To explore the efficacy of active management for restoration at a landscape-scale, spatial models are used to track forest development under different management scenarios. The resulting modeled forest conditions can be compared to either stated restoration goals or investigated for support of assumptions and goals of management.

To address the lack of knowledge about European settlement-era forests in the central Appalachian region, Melissa has developed a GIS-based dataset of witness trees from the Monongahela National Forest. With this dataset, land managers and researchers can discern the relationships of pre-settlement forest composition with environmental variables, compare past species composition to the present, and provide a model that will guide ecosystem restoration efforts in mixed-oak and high-elevation red spruce forests in the Appalachians. This work has expanded to include witness trees on the Allegheny, Finger Lakes, Green Mountain, and White Mountain National Forests, township-level data for New England, and the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. As more data are uncovered or made digital, this work may be expanded further into Ohio and Virginia.

As a research forester assigned to NRS-01, Melissa is involved in on-going, long-term silvicultural and forest management research. This long-term research involves developing silvicultural systems for sustaining forest products, wildlife benefits, species diversity, and for restoring forest ecosystems. This research specifically relates to forest management, in particular studying the many silvicultural tools available to sustainably manage forests for a variety of outcomes. Such guidelines and models are sought after by federal, state, and private land managers. Current studies include artificial regeneration; precommercial thinning; crop-tree release; prescribed fire; herbicide use; and even-aged, two-age, and uneven-aged management.
Education
  • 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
  • Davis and Elkins College, B.S., Pre-forestry, 1989
Professional Organizations
  • Society of American Foresters, West Virginia Chapter,  2011 - Current
Featured Publications
Other Publications
Research Highlights

Collaboration makes fire science available and useful to land managers

Year: 2017
Forest Service researchers and foresters are partnering to document the effects of landscape-scale prescribed fire on the George Washington and Jefferson national forests.

Forest management demonstration area highlights working forest

Year: 2017
New research published in 2017 describes the results of a 60-year forest management demonstration area on the Fernow Experimental Forest and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

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, scientis...

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 bli...

“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 burne...

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 are...

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 pot...

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 ...

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 harve...

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...
https://www.fs.usda.gov/research/about/people/mthomasvangundy