I worked closely with the Uncompahgre Partnership, a collaborative group of managers, stakeholders, and researchers in southwestern Colorado, during my dissertation to (1) explore ways to better align collaborative goals with ecological realities of dynamic and unpredictable ecosystems; (2) define undesirable conditions for fire behavior based on modeling output, published literature, and collaborative discussions about values at risk; (3) assess the degree to which restoration treatments are moving forests away from undesirable conditions (e.g., homogenous and dense forests with very few open meadows); and (4) look at the validity of rapid assessment approaches for estimating natural range of variability in frequent-fire forests.
I determined that restoration treatments on the Uncompahgre Plateau are moving forests away from undesirably dense conditions that were uncommon prior to Euro-American settlement. My assessment was largely based on data collected during collaborative workdays with the Uncompahgre Partnership. Our rapid assessment approach for estimating historical forest structure took a quarter of the time required for scientifically rigorous stand reconstructions, and it provided reasonably accurate estimates of tree density and spatial patterns.
Our data on historical stand structure revealed that fragmentation and loss of open grass-forb-shrub habitat between tree groups were the most dramatic and undesirable changes occurring in frequent-fire forests over the past century. Many restoration treatments are focused on restoring spatial patterns in tree groups, with little attention to spatial patterns in open grass-forb-shrub habitat. We determined that the juxtaposition of tree groups with meadows (areas >6 m from overstory trees) was important for restoring understory cover, diversity, and composition. Focusing on undesirable conditions in stands, such as high tree density and scarcity of meadows, can help collaborative groups find common ground and design treatments that restore structure, composition, and processes in forest ecosystems.
I worked on an interdisciplinary team of forest ecologist, wildlife biologist, and natural resource economists for my master’s research at Michigan State University. Our project looked at connections among deer hunting, forest management, song bird habitat, and economic growth in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I measured the impacts of tree removal and deer density on sugar maple regeneration and found that higher winter deer densities in the southern portion of the Upper Peninsula are significantly suppressing regeneration, even to the point where saplings were absent from many tree gaps. Removing several trees (rather than one tree or large groups) provided light environments favorable to sugar maple regeneration without encouraging competition from non-tree vegetation.
Collaborative forest restoration can reduce conflicts over natural resource management and improve ecosystem function after decades of degradation. Scientific evidence helps collaborative groups avoid undesirable outcomes as they define goals, assess current conditions, design restoration treatments, and monitor change over time. My research focuses on applied problems of forest management, and I seek the engagement of managers and stakeholders from the beginning stages of identifying a problem through data collection and interpretation.
For example, I worked with collaborators to rethink management goals in terms of undesirable conditions that embrace inherent variability and inevitable change in ecosystems. The concept of undesirable conditions helped the Uncompahgre Partnership come to agreement over types of fire behavior and stand conditions they wanted to avoid through management. Working with managers helped me think about meadows in ponderosa pine forests as key features of the landscape that needs explicit attention in silvicultural treatments. The non-treed portion of a forest is valuable precisely because it is not treed and therefore provides different habitat for wildlife and a source of fine fuels to carry surface fires. Ecological research cannot settle value disputes inherent to collaborative dialogue, but discussions are enriched by locally relevant information on pressing natural resource issues.