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Science You Can Use Bulletin

Photo array of covers of the Science You Can Use Bulletin

Delivering scientific information to those making and influencing land management decisions

Those who manage our public lands, including National Forest System lands, are required to make science-based decisions that balance multiple management objectives while maintaining or enhancing the many benefits that our public lands provide. Land managers are increasingly faced with questions about how to maintain and enhance ecosystem resilience, make wise resource investments, and promote adaptation in an era of climate change.

The amount of scientific information available to help address management questions is tremendous, but at times overwhelming and piecemeal. Time-limited managers need access to synthesized, credible, relevant information that addresses some of their most pressing management needs.

The bimonthly Science You Can Use Bulletin is a USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station publication providing synthesized scientific information for high-priority management needs. It synthesizes current research conducted by Station scientists and collaborators on hot topics, and delivers key science findings and management implications to people who make and influence decisions about managing land and natural resources.

The bulletin is distributed electronically to approximately 2,500 land and resource managers throughout the Intermountain West.

Opt in to our email list If you would like to be notified of future editions.

Contact the editor, Nehalem Clark, with questions, comments, or suggestions.

Bulletin Links and Abstracts

Sheltered from wind and scorching heat, a seedling takes root in mature biological soil crust (photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service).

Don’t Bust the Biological Soil Crust: Preserving and Restoring an Important Desert Resource

January/February 2017; Issue 23

Biological soil crusts are a complex of microscopic organisms growing on the soil surface in many arid and semi-arid ecosystems. These crusts perform the important role of stabilizing soil and reducing or eliminating water and wind erosion. One of the largest threats to biological soil crusts in the arid and semi-arid areas of the western United States is mechanical disturbance from vehicle traffic and grazing. The spread of the annual invasive cheatgrass has increased the fuel load in areas that previously would not carry a fire, posing a potentially widespread and new threat to this resource.

Moderate severity burned area from the Horseshoe 2 Fire in the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona with a study on assessing large-scale effects of wildfire and climate change on avian communities and habitats in the Arizona Sky Islands

Wildland fire: Nature’s fuel treatment

November/December 2016; Issue 22

Every year wildland fires affect much more acreage in the United States compared to controlled burns. Like controlled burns, wildland fire can help promote biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. But despite these facts, wildland fire is not often considered as a fuel treatment in the United States.

Scientists working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station have evaluated more than 40 years of satellite imagery to determine what happens when a fire burns into a previously burned area. Results from this research are helping land managers to assess whether a previous wildland fire will act as a fuel treatment based on the length of time since the previous fire and local conditions such as ecosystem type, topography, and fire weather conditions.

Post-fire erosion after the Route Complex fire

Protecting the source: Tools to evaluate fuel treatment cost vs. water quality protection

September/October 2016; Issue 21

High-intensity wildfires are one of the leading causes of severe soil erosion in western U.S. watersheds. This erosion can lead to disruptive deposits of sediment in reservoirs and water supply systems.  For this reason, land managers can benefit from estimating the erosion potential of high-intensity wildfires in order to decide where to focus fuel reduction efforts.

To help forest managers prioritize forest fuel reduction decisions, scientists from the Rocky Mountain Research Station and other agencies and organizations have developed several modeling tools that predict fire risk and erosion potential in and around watersheds. These tools, which include FSim, FlamMap, and WEPP (Water Erosion Prediction Project), are helping land managers preserve long-term forest health and preserve water supply and access in the western United States.

Fisher

Here today, here tomorrow: Managing forests for fisher habitat in the Northern Rockies

July/August 2016; Issue 20

The fisher is a unique member of the weasel family and a sensitive species in the northern Rockies. Forest managers need information on fisher distribution and habitat needs to conserve this species while balancing multiple uses of forest lands and to maintain fisher populations under climate change.

RMRS researchers matched DNA samples from fishers to habitat features at various scales and found that fishers require large trees and forests with a lot of cover and structure, all nested within a larger forested landscape. Models of fisher habitat in the future under a warming climate suggest that the amount of favorable area is likely to expand and move eastward into the Interior West, but it could become more fragmented. Now and in the future, fisher management will require retention and fostering of mature, complex, mesic forests with a high degree of habitat connectivity.

Damage from the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire in a wildland-urban interface near Colorado Springs, Colorado (photo by Kari Greer, USFS).

Living with fire: How social scientists are helping wildland-urban interface communities reduce wildfire risk

May/June 2016; Issue 19

Reducing wildfire risk to lives and property is a critical issue for policy makers, land managers, and citizens who reside in high-risk fire areas of the United States - this is especially the case in the Rocky Mountain region and other western states. In order for a wildfire risk reduction effort to be effective in a U.S. wildland-urban interface (WUI) community, the risk reduction effort must include community support and engagement. However, WUI communities have a wide range of social, political and economic characteristics that make a "cookie-cutter" approach to wildfire management planning unrealistic and ultimately ineffective.

To provide guidance on collaboration in fire and fuel management as advocated by the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003, scientists at the USDA Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station studied social factors and the diversity of U.S. WUI community types. Their ongoing research continues to be effective in developing tools and strategies that improve collaboration between agencies, organizations, communities, and citizens, and is enhancing WUI communities’ long-term social capacity to address wildfire risk.

 

Decommissioning forest roads can reduce erosion and promote recovery of riparian ecosystems.

Road scholars for the western states: Protecting natural areas by improving road management research

March/April 2016; Issue 18

A poorly placed or unsuitably designed road can result in landslides, flooding, gullies, stream damage, and wildlife habitat destruction. Particularly in natural areas, benefits of roads, such as accessibility and convenience, must be weighed against potential water quality degradation, scenic and wildlife habitat destruction, and hazardous driving conditions.

Scientists at the Rocky Mountain Research Station helped create two free tools—GRAIP (Geomorphic Road Analysis and Inventory Package) and GRAIP-Lite—to help land managers make better decisions about road management in environmentally sensitive areas. GRAIP helps land managers analyze and predict surface erosion, gully risk, landslide risk, stream crossing failure risks, and other hazards. GRAIP-Lite allows land managers to quickly compare roads and road lengths in terms of their potential impact on the environment.

Figure 3.  Close-up of pelletized biochar.

Burgeoning biomass: Creating efficient and sustainable forest bioenergy technologies in the Rockies, part II

January/February 2016; Issue 17

Woody biomass could be used to generate renewable bioenergy and bioproducts in the western U.S. and has the potential to offer environmental and societal benefits. The purpose of the Rocky Mountain Research Station-led Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) project is to research and develop technologies, approaches, and new science that will help to make this possible.

Part one of this series (September/October 2014) addressed the economic and environmental challenges of the biomass supply chain, from the site of harvest to the bioenergy facility— from "cradle to gate." This issue of the Bulletin is focused on the supply chain from the conversion facility to end use, covering material processing, conversion, end use, and disposal—from "gate to grave." Research findings have the potential to facilitate biomass utilization as a feasible renewable energy option to offset fossil fuels, reduce our long-term carbon emissions, and address many significant forest management challenges.

Wildfire

Fire and forethought: Fire effects syntheses are a powerful tool for planning and management across resource fields

September/October 2015; Issue 16

The Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) team synthesizes information about wildland fires, their history in U.S. ecosystems, and their effects on U.S. wildland plants, lichens, and animals. Found at www.feis-crs.org/feis/, FEIS publications can be used for many purposes, including land use planning, restoration and rehabilitation planning, wildlife and range projects, and related environmental assessments and impact statements. While traditionally used for fire management decisions, FEIS can also be used for NEPA, restoration, and other planning needs by managers in other resource fields, including wildlife, plants, soils, hydrology, and roads.

The burning of slash piles is a traditional wood-waste disposal method (photo by L. Asherin).

Slash from the past: Rehabilitating pile burn scars

July/August 2015; Issue 15

In the National Forests of northern Colorado, there is a backlog of over 140,000 slash piles slated to be burned, most of them coming from post-mountain pine beetle salvage logging and hazard reduction treatments. Burning slash piles can create openings in the forest that remain treeless for over 50 years, and can also have the short-term impacts of increasing nutrient availability and creating opportunities for weed establishment.

Working with managers, RMRS researchers have evaluated the available treatments for short-term rehabilitation of both smaller, hand-built and larger, machine-built burn piles. For the smaller piles, they found that both soil nitrogen and plant cover recovered to a level similar to that of the surrounding forest within two years, indicating that these scars may not need rehabilitation unless in a sensitive area. Seeding with native mountain brome (Bromus marginatus) was an effective option for the larger piles, whereas mechanical treatment either alone or with seeding did not increase plant cover.

Erosion of inboard ditch near Rocky Canyon, Idaho.

From watersheds to the web: Online tools for modeling forest soil erosion

November/December 2014; Issue 14

Forest erosion can lead to topsoil loss, and also to damaging deposits of sediment in aquatic ecosystems. For this reason, forest managers must be able to estimate the erosion potential of both planned management activities and catastrophic events, in order to decide where to use limited funds to focus erosion control efforts.

To meet this need, scientists from RMRS (and collaborators) have spent over a decade developing a suite of online tools that can be used to predict erosion potential of forest alterations such as road building, forest management, and wildfire, as part of the Forest Service-Water Erosion Prediction Project (FS-WEPP). FS-WEPP is being continually refined, improved, and expanded upon to increase its usefulness, and to enable managers to run predictive watershed models for better land management decision-making and more desirable outcomes.

The harvesting and burning of woody biomass for energy is an emerging use of forest products.

Burgeoning biomass: Creating efficient and sustainable forest biomass supply chains in the Rockies

September/October 2014; Issue 13

Woody biomass could be used to generate energy in the western U.S. if the utilization process is both economically feasible and ecologically sustainable. The purpose of the RMRS-led Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI) is to develop technologies, approaches, and new science that will help to make this possible.

This issue of the Bulletin is focused on research addressing challenges of the biomass supply chain, from the time that a forest treatment is initiated to the time that the biomass residue reaches an end user (a later issue will address the technology of biomass conversion after the material is delivered). A major roadblock to effective biomass utilization is the high handling costs and low market value of woody biomass.

As part of this project, new technologies are being developed to enhance biomass resources assessment, improve supply chain logistics, and reduce handling costs through equipment modification and more efficiently managing operations in forest treatment areas. and quickly assessing forest biomass supplies, new and innovative tools are now available.

Salmon in a stream.

Climate change, crowd-sourcing, and conserving aquatic biotas in the Rocky Mountains this century

July/August 2014; Issue 12

Climate change is causing rapid changes to stream habitats across the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest as warmer air temperatures and changes in precipitation increase stream temperatures, alter stream hydrology, and increase the extent and magnitude of natural disturbances related to droughts and wildfires. These changes are affecting trout, salmon, and other fish populations, many of which are already subject to substantial non-climate stressors. Fish habitats at lower elevations - near the downstream edges of species distributions - are particularly vulnerable.

However, three Rocky Mountain Research scientists are conducting research and developing applied management tools that harness the power of crowd-sourcing to generate information and create opportunities for collaboration and resource allocation decisions that may help to conserve some of the aquatic biotas currently at risk. This is enabling adaptation to move forward at a scale and pace more appropriate to the challenges posed by climate change.

Alex Gaffke (front) and Diane Johnson (back) measuring Dalmatian toadflax density and heights on a biocontrol site transect, July 2013.

Toadflax stem miners and gallers: The original weed whackers

May/June 2014; Issue 11

Dalmatian and yellow toadflax are aesthetically pleasing weeds wreaking havoc in rangelands across the western United States. These non-native forbs spread rapidly into fields following fire, tilling, construction, or other disturbances. They are successful and stubborn invaders, producing massive quantities of seeds each year and rapidly re-sprouting from root fragments. Eight non-native toadflax feeding insect species have been intentionally released or accidentally introduced in North America.

Stem mining weevils, Mecinus spp., serve as particularly powerful "weed whackers" against toadflax. Biological control of toadflax is complicated by the existence of two Mecinus species - each of which performs better on different toadflax species - and the appearance of competitively superior hybrids of yellow and Dalmatian toadflax. Cooperation between researchers and managers continues to improve the effectiveness of biocontrol and make headway against weedy invaders.

Water from the Big Thompson River washes through a wide landscape in Johnstown, CO (photo by Jenny Sparks, Loveland Reporter-Herald).

Our relationship with a dynamic landscape: Understanding the 2013 Northern Colorado Flood

March/April 2014; Issue 10

The summer of 2013 was drier than normal along the Front Range, so when rain started falling on the northern end on September 9, 2013, some greeted it with enthusiasm. According to the Colorado Climate Center, total rainfall for the week beginning Monday, September 9th measured 16.9” in Boulder, 9.3” in Estes Park, 5.9” in Loveland, and 6.0” in Fort Collins. Because the steep, rocky terrain in and around these communities channels water, the effects of precipitation can be greatly amplified and lead to rapid runoff. The sudden, huge influx led to extensive flooding that damaged infrastructure on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and devastated property, infrastructure, and lives in surrounding communities.

Image: A typical untreated dry mixed conifer forest consisting of Ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, White fir, and Gambel Oak.

Revisiting disturbance: A new guide for keeping dry mixed conifer forests healthy through fuel management

January/February 2014; Issue 9

Planning for hazardous fuels reduction can be challenging, given that land managers must balance multiple resource objectives. To help managers with planning and implementing fuel treatments, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, with support from the Joint Fire Science Program, published A Comprehensive Guide to Fuel Management Practices for Dry Mixed Conifer Forests in the Northwestern United States (RMRS-GTR-292).

Developed in close consultation with managers, the guide contains a synthesis of the best information on the management community's most frequently asked questions about how to: balance multiple resource objectives, understand and choose among the broad range of available treatment options (including considerations for prescribed burn plans and flow charts to guide the choice of equipment for mechanical treatment), develop an efficient and effective monitoring plan, and understand the trade-offs among longevity, effectiveness, and cost of various treatment options.

Mean annual water yield

Coming to a landscape near you: Natural resource changes in the Interior West

November/December 2013; Issue 8

In the coming decades, population growth, economic growth, and associated land-use changes - in concert with climate change - will influence forests and rangelands in the Interior West. Society’s demand for ecosystem goods and services continues to increase as human and biophysical change alter the productive capacity of these lands.

The 2010 RPA Assessment uses scenario-based socioeconomic and climatic projections to analyze these natural resource trends. Geographic variation throughout the Interior West will determine local trends, but regional trends project population growth around existing urban centers and the likelihood of water shortages, primarily in the Southwest. Projected population growth will increase demands for water, agricultural-to-residential land-use changes, and habitat fragmentation. Projected climatic change will further complicate the picture of the region’s future, as water availability decreases, outdoor recreation opportunities shift, and increasing temperatures alter habitat.

Wooden swing in the wildland urban interface.

Fire on the mountain: What motivates homeowners to reduce their wildfire risk?

September/October 2013; Issue 7

New home building in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) continues unabated, despite the high financial and human costs of fighting fires in these areas. The goal of this research is to understand, through surveys and expert assessments, the attitudes and perceptions of WUI homeowners as they relate to taking action to reduce wildfire risk on their property.

In a two-county survey in Colorado, it was found that the most important sources of information for WUI residents that were related to taking action were “informal social networks” (such as talking with neighbors) and guidance from local fire departments and county wildfire specialists. This research helps to further our understanding of how education and outreach can play a role in moving homeowners to better understand the ongoing risk that wildfire poses in the WUI so they can take appropriate steps to protect themselves and their property.

2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire

Seeing red: New tools for mapping and understanding fire severity

July/August 2013; Issue 6

Large, severe fires are ecologically and socially important because they have lasting effects on vegetation and soils, can potentially threaten people and property, and can be costly to manage. The goals of the Fire Severity Mapping Project (FIRESEV), which covers lands in the continental western United States, are to understand where and why fires burn severely, and to give fire managers, fire ecologists, and natural resource managers tools to assess severity before, during, and after a wildfire. FIRESEV has produced a suite of tools for a wide range of fire management applications, including real-time forecasts and assessments in wildfire situations, post-wildfire rehabilitation efforts, and long-term planning.

The quality of water draining forested watersheds is typically the best in the nation.

Our forests in the [water] balance

May/June 2013; Issue 5

Climate change is not only causing temperatures to rise, it is also altering the amount and type of precipitation that falls across the western United States. Research shows a trend of increasingly dry “dry years,” meaning droughts are becoming more severe and streams are flowing lower during these periods. Forests play an important role in delivering high quality water to streams, but climate change is affecting this role. Drought can cause tree mortality due to lack of water or reduced resistance to insects and disease. Dry fuels and stressed vegetation in forests also increases the potential for large wildfires.

When many trees die in a forest fire or from disease or insect outbreaks, the amount of water entering nearby streams often increases. However, so does the delivery of sediment to these streams through erosion. These changes call on resource managers and communities in the West to start conversations today about addressing water supplies in the future. In addition, silviculturists, fuel specialists, and aquatic ecologists can work together to maintain a holistic view of ecosystems that, above all, considers where forests fit in the water balance.

Stem cankers from white pine blister rust.

Return of the king: Western white pine conservation and restoration in a changing climate

March/April 2013; Issue 4

Western white pine (Pinus monticola) is a species that used to dominate the forests of the Interior Northwest prior to the expansion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the late 19th century. However, substantial harvesting and the early 20th century introduction of the invasive fungal pathogen that causes white pine blister rust disease reduced the extent of western white pine by 90%.

Now, as managers seek to restore damaged and degraded ecosystems in the Inland Northwest, new research is shedding light on the genetic structure and diversity of western white pine populations. Genetic diversity is greatest in southern populations, which existed well before northern populations. The scientists’ research can go a long way toward helping to inform western white pine conservation and restoration efforts in an era of climate change.

Blackbrush ecosystem

Upwardly mobile in the western U.S. desert: Blackbrush shrublands respond to a changing climate

January/February 2013; Issue 3

Blackbrush (Colegyne ramosissima) is a desert shrubland species that is currently dominant on over three million acres of the transition zone between the cold desert of the Great Basin and the warm desert of the southwestern United States. Western landscapes are projected to experience unprecedented changes as the climate warms, and researchers at the Rocky Mountain Research Station have been studying the response of this species to assess whether it can move upward in elevation and latitude.

Blackbrush was found to have two distinct populations (in the warmer Mojave Desert and the cooler Colorado Plateau), which should give the species greater flexibility in responding to climate change and managers the opportunity to work with locally adapted seeds and plants. Scientists and managers will need to work together to foster the survival of this important species by identifying priority areas for conservation/restoration, identifying climate-adapted seed sources, and possibly assisting with its long-term migration.

Prescribed burning can be an important component of restoration in frequent-fire forests.

Wildfire triage: Targeting mitigation based on social, economic, and ecological values

December 2012; Issue 2

Evaluating the risks of wildfire relative to the valuable resources found in any managed landscape requires an interdisciplinary approach. Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Research Station and Western Wildland Threat Assessment Center developed such a process, using a combination of techniques rooted in fire modeling and ecology, economics, decision sciences, and the human dimensions of managing natural resources.

The method combines predictive mapping of the distribution and intensity of wildfire with locations of highly valued resources. By soliciting input from experts, the response of each resource to different fire intensity levels is estimated and categorized. Combining the likelihood and intensity of fire with the locations and predicted responses of key resources across a landscape allows scientists and managers to determine the areas and assets most likely to experience significant change due to fire.

Forest impacted by the mountain pine beetle.

From death comes life: Recovery and revolution in the wake of epidemic outbreaks of mountain pine beetle

October 2012; Issue 1

Changing climatic conditions and an abundance of dense, mature pine forests have helped to spur an epidemic of mountain pine beetles larger than any in recorded history. This has raised concerns among many people that the death, desiccation, and decomposition of the overstory could have dramatic and negative consequences for affected ecosystems.

Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Research Station have been studying the current outbreak since its inception in hopes of shedding light on what the future might hold after the waves of mountain pine beetles recede. Through ongoing studies focused on the water, vegetation, fuels, and management practices employed in infested forests, they are beginning to piece together a picture of the long-term change that surging beetle numbers impart on the land. While much remains to be learned about the current outbreak of mountain pine beetles, researchers are already finding that beetles may impart a characteristic critically lacking in many pine forests today: structural complexity and species diversity.