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Science Program Areas

Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute

The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, part of Rocky Mountain Research Station, is an interagency, national research facility on campus at the University of Montana. The institute was established (as an interagency facility) in 1993, but was preceded by a Forest Service Wilderness Research Management Unit established in 1967, a few years after passing of the Wilderness Act, in 1964.

The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute's sign.

The Leopold Institute is the only federal research group in the United States dedicated to development and dissemination of knowledge needed to steward the 110 million-acre U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and similarly protected wild lands.

Leopold Institute scientists have a long history of conducting and sharing science in support of the NWPS, as well as collaborating with academic, NGO, tribal, community, and other partners within the U.S. and internationally.

In addition to being administered by RMRS, the Institute’s work is responsive to an Interagency Wilderness Policy Council. This collaboration, defined by an interagency agreement among the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and U.S. Geological Survey and facilitated through an Interagency Wilderness Steering Committee, helps to ensure the institute’s work is relevant to federal wilderness managers. 

Please visit the Leopold Institute’s interagency website to learn more.

Fire, Fuel and Smoke

The Fire, Fuel, and Smoke Science Program (FFS) conducts national and international cutting-edge work in wildland fire research. Primarily located at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, Montana, the Program’s scientists, technicians, and support staff continue a 60+ year legacy of proactively conducting the research we need tomorrow and into the future. By improving fundamental understanding of wildland fire and developing tools and applications, FFS research increases the safety and effectiveness of fire, fuel, and smoke management and helps increase the health of our wildlands.

Specific research activities are focused on four focal areas:

Fire Behavior – Understanding the physics of how wildfires spread and the dynamics of energy release and fire propagation from combustion in wildland fuels across a wide range of spatial scales.  Fire behavior is the foundation for models and knowledge used by managers in prediction, planning, and training.

Fire and Ecosystems – Increasing the understanding and knowledge of fire effects and ecology in fire-dependent ecosystems, which is essential to the development of fuel-related products, treatment alternatives, restoration strategies, and accurate forecasting of future conditions.

Smoke Emissions – Smoke management concerns are among the top impediments to prescribed burning, and wildland fires are major sources of greenhouse gases and carbonaceous particles. Understanding wildland fire emissions and their response to climate variability and changing landscapes is crucial to assessing future air pollution and potential climate feedbacks.

Fire Management Systems - Decision support systems improve the effectiveness and efficiency of fire and forest management activities and increase the safety of planning and operations. With advances in information technology, data, and modeling, long-standing challenges can now reasonably be addressed, including the analysis of tradeoffs within fire management investments and between fire and the variety of land management activities (including fuel treatment and prescribed fire), as well as estimation of risk to highly valued resources. FFS has a long history of producing and supporting systems for management use and continues to engage in technology transfer in the form of system development.

FFS also hosts four “sub-programs” that support scientists, fire managers, and Forest Service Leadership, and provides management of the Tenderfoot Creek Experimental Forest:

The Fire Modeling Institute (FMI) – FMI is a center of expertise that supports fire and fuels management planning, resource management, and science implementation locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. 

Wildland Fire Management RD&A (WFM) – WFM was created to promote application of wildland fire scientific knowledge; develop decision support tools; and provide science application services to the interagency wildland fire community. The WFM RD&A serves as a primary point of contact for communication between scientists and participating field fire managers, as a liaison between research, wildland fire planning and operations, interagency wildland fire IT groups, and as an advisor to program administrators at local, regional, and national levels.

Integrated Organizational Learning RD&A (IOL) – IOL is comprised of three functional areas:

  1. Coordinated Response Protocol (CRP) and Learning Review (LR) Functional Area oversees the Agency’s response to incidents and accidents.
  2. Organizational Learning Functional Area acts as a catalyst for increased organizational learning capacity—not only within the fire community, but across all facets of the Forest Service.
  3. Research and Science Application Functional Area cultivates the scientific foundation for leadership in high performance, resilience and learning, emerging social and behavioral science, and practices such as leadership training, employee support, and organizational learning programs.

The National Fire Decision Support Center (NFDSC) – NFDSC builds upon previous science achievements that promote and facilitate 1) improving and implementing new fire behavior prediction tools, 2) strengthening the science of fire management planning, response, performance, and accountability, 3) advancing the science, development, and dissemination of quantitative wildland fire risk analysis methods.

Tenderfoot Creek Experimental Forest (TCEF) – TCEF was established in 1961 and encompasses the headwaters of Tenderfoot Creek in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. TCEF is the site of diverse research on the productivity and biodiversity of east-side lodgepole pine communities, forest monitoring and health, hydrologic processes, and much more.

Visit the external FFS Program website >>

Forest and Woodland Ecosystems

The Forest and Woodland Ecosystems (FWE) Program develops and delivers scientific knowledge and management tools for sustaining and restoring the health, biodiversity, productivity, and ecosystem processes of forest and woodland landscapes. This research is critical in light of the multiple and varied threats that these ecosystems face, including urbanization and human developments, extreme wildfire events, insect and disease outbreaks, biosecurity threats, and drought.  

FWE scientists conduct short- and long-term research across a wide geographic area, with an emphasis on the Rocky Mountain region. Research focus areas include: 

  • Advancing predicative capabilities about forest disturbances 
  • Managing complex landscapes under a changing climate 
  • Consequences of management activities 
  • Adaptive capacity of forests and woodlands 

Read the FWE Charter here.

Scientists contributing to FWE’s research program are stationed in Flagstaff AZ, Tucson AZ, Fort Collins CO, Woodland Park CO, Moscow ID, Missoula MT and Logan UT. Program research takes place primarily within the RMRS footprint Forest Service Regions: Northern Region (Region 1), Rocky Mountain Region (Region 2), Southwestern Region (Region 3), and Intermountain Region (Region 4).  

Seven Experimental Forests are managed by the FWE program. The Experimental Forests a represent a range of climate, management history, and vegetation types and provide opportunity for Forest Service researchers and other partners to conduct applied research on managed National Forest lands. Further information and data-sets associated with each Experimental Forest are described in the links below: 

Human Dimensions

The Human Dimensions Science Program provides science-based innovation to help human societies develop sustainable relationships with their environment. Program scientists, professional technicians, and support staff use rigorous research methods to produce knowledge that can improve the understanding and integration of social and economic values and effects with ecosystem processes in natural resource planning and decision-making. Major issues confronting societies around the world, such as global climate change, management of energy, fire, and water, and ecosystem services, have important socioeconomic dimensions that this Program explores and addresses.

The Human Dimenions program makes significant contribution to social science and economic analysis in the Intermountain West and throughout the country in a way that reflects and complements the benefits described in this national-level video. While the video is geared towards internal Forest Service audiences, it provides a useful and concise description of how the work of the Human Dimensions program can support land managers in complying with regulatory requirements, considering environmental justice concerns, assessing the benefits of land management for people, and making the most out of public engagement.

The Role of Social Science and Economics in the National Forest System from USDA Forest Service on Vimeo.

Inventory and Monitoring

The Inventory & Monitoring Program provides the data, analysis, and tools needed to effectively identify current status and trends for forests, including the effects of various management options and the threats and impacts of fire, insects, disease, and other natural processes.

The Inventory & Monitoring Program conducts and continuously updates a comprehensive inventory and analysis of present and prospective conditions of the forest and rangelands of the Interior West. Specific objectives of the Program are to:

  • Collect and disseminate information about the forests of the Interior West States relating to forest distribution, condition, health and utilization;

  • Develop innovative methods for sampling and integrating inventory data with remotely sensed information;

  • Maintain a database of up-to-date statistics in order to provide resource information to the Forest Service, its cooperators, other public agencies, and the public at large; and

  • Develop methods and procedures to test and evaluate indicators for assessing rangeland status and health.

Visit the Rocky Mountain Research Station Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) webpage>>

Maintaining Resilient Dryland Ecosystems

The Maintaining Resilient Dryland Ecosystems (MRDE) program investigates the biology, use, management, and restoration of grasses and shrublands. Scientists, professional technicians, and support staff with the MRDE Program develop and deliver scientific knowledge, technology and tools that will enable people to sustain and restore grasslands, shrublands, and deserts under increasing threats from expanding human-related uses, invasive species, changing disturbance patterns, and climate changes.

The National Grassland Council has prepared an audiovisual presentation about the history and value of our National Grasslands. MRDE Research Ecologist Jackie Ott, member of the National Grassland Council, helped to prepare the presentation which she narrates. The presentation takes 10 minutes and is a fascinating account of the homesteading period, 1930’s Dust Bowl, formation of the national grasslands, and their current multiple uses and contributions to the national economy. Nearly all of the 21 National Grasslands are within the territory covered by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, making research on the national grasslands an important RMRS niche. RMRS researchers including Jackie Ott, Research Ecologist Paulette Ford, Albuquerque, Research Ecologist Brice Hanberry, Rapid City, and Research Biologist Francis Kilkenny, Boise and members of his lab, as well as wildlife biologist Brian Dickerson, Rapid City and Biological Technician David Hawksworth, Albuquerque, conduct research on fire, invasive species, plant communities, plant genetics and wildlife on national grasslands. To view the audiovisual presentation, click here: America's Grasslands 

In 2001 MRDE and the Bureau of Land Management initiated the multi-state Great Basin Native Plant Project. Now with over 25 collaborators, the project continues to improve the availability of native plant materials and to provide the knowledge and technology required for their use in restoring diverse native plant communities across the Great Basin.

Members of the MRDE Program are located at seven laboratories in six states in the intermountain West (Provo, UT and Reno, NV), Rocky Mountains (Boise and Moscow, ID), northern Great Plains (Bozeman, MT and Rapid City, SD), and American Southwest (Albuquerque, NM).

Learn more about the MRDE Program in their research updates:

Science Application and Communication

The Science Application and Communication program is a knowledge transfer unit that provides leadership for the integration and use of scientific information in natural resource planning and management across the Interior West. This Program is comprised of four main units that provide services to the Station:

  • The National Forest Service Library is hosted at the Station but supports scientists and land managers across the Forest Service, nationwide.
  • The Public and Legislative Affairs staff can assist news, media, Congressional members, and other stakeholders with their requests for information and interviews.
  • The Science Delivery staff work directly with scientists to help deliver research to various stakeholder groups. They organize webinars and other seminars with partners to share science findings, as well as publish the Science You Can Use Bulletin.
  • Publishing Services is a one-stop-shop for planning and consultation for publishing manuscripts and other Station / Program information. They can help with editing, creation of figures and tables, original artwork, layout and design ideas, symposium instructions, advertising, posting publications online, and multimedia products (brochures, pamphlets, web designs, meeting presentations, and posters).

Wondering who to contact for your science communication, publishing, website, science delivery, and library questions? See the Science Application and Communication Team’s contact sheet for more details on who’s who.

Water and Watersheds

The Water and Watersheds (W&W) Science Program develops core knowledge, methods, and technologies that enable effective watershed management in forests and grasslands, sustain biodiversity, and maintain healthy watershed conditions.

Scientists with the W&W Program conduct basic and applied research on the effects of natural processes and human activities on watershed resources, including interactions between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Knowledge developed by this Program supports management, conservation, and restoration of terrestrial, riparian and aquatic ecosystems and provides for sustainable clean air and water quality in the Interior West.

With capabilities in atmospheric sciences, soils, forest engineering, biogeochemistry, hydrology, plant physiology, aquatic ecology and limnology, conservation biology and fisheries, W&W scientists focus on two key research problems:

  • Core watershed research quantifies the dynamics of hydrologic, geomorphic and biogeochemical processes in forests and rangelands at multiple scales and defines the biological processes and patterns that affect the distribution, resilience, and persistence of native aquatic, riparian and terrestrial species.

  • Integrated, interdisciplinary research explores the effects of climate variability and climate change on forest, grassland and aquatic ecosystems.

W&W has research labs and field unit locations located throughout the interior west. Science teams contributing to the programs' research are based in Flagstaff, AZ; Fort Collins, CO; Missoula, MT; Moscow, ID; and at W&W headquarters, located in Boise, ID.

Three experimental forests exist across the geographic range of W&W. These valuable scientific resources incorporate a broad range of climate conditions, forest and range types, research emphasis, and history. Forest Service, university, and other scientists conduct basic and applied studies on research themes including forest, stream, and rangeland ecology; hydrology; wildlife; biological diversity; and effects of forest and range management. Long-term data on climate, vegetation change, streamflow, and other site factors document environmental change and support research programs. More information about these sites is described in the links below:

Wildlife and Terrestrial Ecosystems

The Wildlife and Terrestrial Ecosystems program is engaged in sustaining species and ecosystems of concern through integrated and multidisciplinary research. The program investigates ecological interactions within and between aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal communities, social and economic values associated with consumptive and non-consumptive uses of fish and wildlife, management of terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and outcomes of land and water uses and natural disturbances on wildlife populations and habitats.