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Crosscutting Issues

Ecosystems & Land Use Change

Encroaching Urban Development
Forest Service scientists study the impact of encroaching urban development on national forests, or the Wildland-Urban Interface

Land use changes and the resulting changes in landscape composition and structure profoundly affect the benefits we get from forests and rangelands. Social and economic considerations are among the important drivers of land use change across a landscape, and thus the quality and quantity of ecosystem services. But the interactions between these social and economic drivers and the environment remain poorly understood.

A World Below Our Feet

Forest Service scientists study the impact of invasive earthworm species on forest ecosystems

Up to two-thirds of the total amount of carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems lies beneath the ground. Understanding the ecological processes in the underground part of a forest or rangeland ecosystem is of great interest to scientists. Studying what happens underground is challenging because it is hard to observe the changes without disturbing them. As a result, we know much less about what happens underground compared with what happens above ground.

See Invasive Soil Organisms and Their Effects on Belowground Processes, in A dynamic invasive species research vision: Opportunities and priorities 2009-29, p 67.

Wildfire & Changing Climate

Globally, wildland fires release about one billion tons of carbon annually to the atmosphere compared with about six billion tons released by burning fossil fuels. The magnitude and effects of changing weather patterns and their combined effect on fire regimes will vary by region. If the frequency, extent, or severity of fire increases due to changing weather patterns, then carbon storage may decrease, and the carbon in the atmosphere—much of which has a negative effect on human health—may increase. Forest Service researchers are looking for new ways to make forests and rangelands less susceptible to fire damages as the frequency and severity of wildland fires increase.

See The Wildland-Urban Interface in the United States.

Urban Ecosystems

Sampling Urban Soils in Syracuse, NY
Sampling Urban Soils in Syracuse, NY

Water and air quality problems are found more commonly in urban areas. In addition to focusing on critical processes on national forests, which are key sources of high-quality freshwater and clean air, Forest Service researchers are also addressing the critical need to better understand water quality and quantity in rural, urban, and urbanizing landscapes.

See Urban Research.

Research in the Long Term: Forest Service Experimental Forests and Ranges

Experimental Forests & Ranges (EFRs) serve as living laboratories, providing windows in time. This network of more than 80 sites is the oldest, most extensive system of research sites dedicated to studying and solving the Nation’s natural resource problems. It is particularly easy to study ecosystems within EFRs their boundaries were selected based on watershed boundaries. They were planned such that several watersheds were included, allowing some to be “treated” by timber harvesting or burning, while the adjacent watershed is left alone to be used as a “control”. All of the water falling as precipitation in that watershed can be accounted for in the creeks, as drops from the leaves, running down the stems, taken up by the roots or soaking into the soil. All of the nutrients within the watershed, in the trees, soil, water and air can be measured as well. This allows the researcher to calculate what the effect of a certain treatment, such as a thinning, has upon the hydrology, the soil structure, or the vegetation. Thus, the health of the ecosystem (or watershed) can be rated.