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Forest Disturbance Processes

Fragmentation and Land Use Change

Across the U.S., 2,450 acres of open space are lost to reidential or commercial development every day. Fragmentation and development transform not only the life of the landscape, but also the lives of people who live, work, and visit an area. Resource managers, business leaders, landowners, and community officials are making decisions that will ripple for years, yet they have little access to reliable information on the patterns, the process, or the implications of residential and commercial development. NRS researchers are working to develop a better understanding of land use and land cover change and the effects of forest fragmentation and to develop knowledge and tools to help people make informed choices about how they use natural resources

Selected Research Studies

[photo:] California myotis (Myotis californicus) Photo Credit:  Norman Barrett, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Habitat for Bats in the Face of Development Pressure
Most bats in temperate climates have a strategy for survival where part of the time is spent foraging for food and water, while the remaining time (daytime in summer, or for extended periods in winter) is spent in roosts.  Some species are suffering population declines and are vulnerable to habitat loss associated with urban development.  One strategy to mitigate the problem is to protect areas that provide bat habitat by outright purchases or by acquiring conservation easements on areas before they fall victim to development.  Guidance is needed to help organizations prioritize areas for habitat protection where development pressure is high.


Measuring Forest Parcelization
We measured forest parcelization activity in heavily forested Itasca County (Minnesota) between 1999 and 2006 using readily available real estate sales data, a new approach to assessing parcelization. We then analyzed the immediate and extended relationships between parcelization and land development activities.


Photo The Working Forest Initiative: Simulating the cumulative effects of the forest management strategies of multiple landowners on landscape pattern and biodiversity
Sustainable forestry involves the extraction of forest products while maintaining ecosystem integrity to conserve biodiversity and to provide other non-commodity benefits to society.  Population viability is a function of the combined actions of multiple landowners, which create a dynamic mosaic of forest types, stand structures and age distributions.  Consequently, it is necessary to understand how the actions of individual land owners interact with the actions of others to determine the spatial pattern of the landscape mosaic, and therefore its ability to maintain biodiversity. 


[image:] Graphical summary of the landscape modeling approach.Planning Informed by Alternative Future Watershed Ecosystem Services
Scientists from the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, University of Minnesota, and the Harvard Forest are involved in a research project focused on creating plausible scenarios or “storylines” about the future of forests and ecosystem services within a large watershed basin of northeast Minnesota, including Duluth MN and Superior WI.


[image:] Output from a habitat suitability simulation.Cumulative Effects of Succession, Management, and Disturbance on Forest Landscapes
Multi-resource forest planning and management requires knowledge of the long-term, large-scale cumulative effects of alternative management strategies.  For common management goals such as sustaining forest biodiversity, providing habitat for desired wildlife species, and reducing forest fragmentation this requires spatially explicit forecasting tools that enable resource managers to map the spatial arrangement of forest size structure, species composition, wildlife habitat suitability, timber volume, and other attributes over time for large forest landscapes.   


[image:] An example of how models are linked to understand climate and disturbance impacts on forested landscapes.  Linking Population, Ecosystem, Landscape, and Climate Models to Evaluate Climate Adaptation Strategies
Climate change and forest mortality from disturbance agents such as fire and insects are among the top challenges facing natural resource management.  Landscape change will result from interactions among climate change; land use and management; and population, ecosystem, and landscape processes.  Approaches to forecasting landscape change have commonly addressed a subset of these factors but rarely have they all be considered.  Land managers and planners need knowledge of how these factors will interact and modeling tools to assess the effects of mitigation strategies.   


[photo:] Natural Gas well on the Fernow Experimental Forest, summer 2009, immediately after restoration of the site. Understanding Effects of Oil and Natural Gas Development on Appalachian Forests
Rapidly increasing fuel prices have resulted in an economic climate that favors domestic energy development.  This is especially true in the mid- and northern-Appalachian region where the Marcellus shale formation is found in the bedrock. 


[image:] Status of weather anomalies around the U.S. in early 2002, compiled by the National Weather Service. Adapting Forests to Climate Change
Climate models have projected significant increases in temperature over the next century for the Northeast and Midwest.  Climate change will also affect rainfall patterns, but scientists cannot yet predict how regional rainfall patterns will change.  Growing seasons will lengthen further in both spring and fall.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is very high confidence that the vulnerability of North America depends on the effectiveness and timing of adaptation and the distribution of coping capacity, which vary spatially and among sectors. Climate change will constrain North America’s over-allocated water resources, increasing competition among agricultural, municipal, industrial and ecological uses (very high confidence).


[image:] Map of predicted losses of nitrogen from forested lands of the Chesapeake Bay watershed under no nitrogen deposition, current nitrogen deposition, and doubled nitrogen deposition (Pan et al. 2004).Mid-Atlantic Forests and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Forest landscapes are changing as a consequence of climate and environmental change. These changes affect people and the forest ecosystems they depend on for clean water, clean air and forest products, and recreation. How can we best manage our forest resources to sustain this array of ecosystem services under increasing environmental stress and a changing climate?


[image:] Aerial view of jack pine planting pattern used in Kirtland's warbler habitat management programSpatiotemporal response of the male Kirtland’s warbler population to changing landscape structure over 26 years
Species conservation remains an important challenge for ecologists and managers given the rate of habitat transformations occurring worldwide.  Strategic planning for wildlife restoration programs over broader geographic regions will become the standard rather than the exception as increasing numbers of populations become smaller and more isolated.  However, there continues to be a lack of synthesis between general principles of the fragmentation process and field evidence.  To further our understanding of habitat loss/fragmentation, we need to examine how populations that currently exist in patchy environments respond to increasing habitat amounts and changing arrangements over long time periods and broad spatial scales simultaneously.    


Photo Changing Midwest Assessment
At the Changing Midwest Assessment (CMA) internet mapping server, public and public officials users can use an interactive, spatially explicit, web-based model to visualize changes that are likely in various likely future scenarios. The characteristics mapped include land cover, forest characteristics, plants and animals, and human demographics. given a range of alternative ecological, economic, and social scenarios.


PhotoParcelization and development of private forestlands
Parcelization and development of private forestlands have become major concerns of public agencies and private groups in many regions across the U.S. and beyond. NRS researchers have examined factors thought to influence parcelization using recent Forest Inventory and Analysis data. Findings showed that some of the greatest changes were happening on the smallest properties, 0-10 acres.


PhotoThe 2000 wildland-urban interface in the U.S.
The wildland-urban interface is where houses meet or intermingle with wildland vegetation. The WUI is where wildfire pose the biggest risk to human lives and structures. It is also an area of widespread habitat fragmentation, introduction of invasive species and biodiversity loss. Our project provides a detail, national assessment of the WUI across the conterminous United States.


Photo National Woodland Owner Survey
Landowners are the key linkage between society and the land and are a fundamental component in assessing forest resources. The USDA Forest Service conducts the National Woodland Owner Survey (NWOS) to increase understanding of private woodland owners with an emphasis on non-industrial owners. The NWOS determines who owns the forests of the U.S., why people own forests, and what the future of the forests is. Survey results facilitate the planning and implementation of forest policies and support forest sustainability.


Last Modified: 10/22/2020