Faculty and staff in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources conduct research and outreach programs dealing with a multitude of important issues addressing ecological, economic, and social aspects of natural resource management. Recently, we asked whether by collectively addressing a select set of issues as interdisciplinary teams we might achieve greater impact and recognition. After careful consideration of our strengths and interests, we identified three areas in which we have made a collective commitment to excel. These Areas of Excellence are devoted to synergistic, interdisciplinary activities that unify and integrate FNR faculty interests and expertise. These three areas, which are described below, include:
Partnering for Land Use Sustainablity, PLUS
We are building an FNR signature program that addresses the overarching research question: What ecological footprints are needed for sustainable land use futures? Specific research questions explored are:
- What individual behaviors impact ecological footprints?
- How can tools such as models and decision support systems be used to determine the course to sustainability?
- How can policies be adopted that alter behaviors to sustain ecological footprints?
Members of the PLUS group believe that a fresh approach is needed and places sustainability into a context of lifestyle choices, behavior characteristic of landowners and decision makers, and biological thresholds and carrying capacity limits occurring in ecosystems. Our project is designed to help frame current discussions on land use occurring in Indiana, including: What would ecological footprints of a biofuel future look like for Indiana? If current development trends continue, what would the ecological consequences be? What are the configurations, location, and quantity of wild lands needed to sustain ecosystems? What behaviors (drivers of change) impact the use of our land for housing, economic development, food, fiber, wildlife, and energy?
Applied Ecological Genetics (AEG)
This is a focal area within which the theoretical and technological aspects of population genetics, conservation genetics, evolutionary genetics, quantitative genetics and genotoxicology are used to address applied questions in plant and animal ecology. The field of Applied Ecological Genetics is interdisciplinary in nature and exists at the interface of the disciplines of ecology and genetics, with an emphasis on the use of genetic tools and concepts to address applied problems in the ecological sciences, including those pertaining to the conservation, management, and genetic improvement of species.
Research conducted by the AEG group is vital to our advancement of science on a number of fronts, including:
- understanding the genetic implications of climate change;
- elucidating and conserving functional components of biodiversity at multiple spatial scales;
- predicting the effects of habitat degradation on species persistence and ecosystem function;
- development of strategies for recovering and maintaining threatened and endangered species;
- developing genetically-modified organisms of significant economic importance that are physiologically adapted to predicted biotic and abiotic challenges associated with climate change;
- enhanced management of wild species inhabiting increasingly human-dominated landscapes; and
- basic research on evolutionary mechanisms underlying the processes of species adaptation to environmental change.
Sustaining Hardwood Ecosystems
The use and conservation of forest lands is an important but controversial topic in the Midwest. Most Indiana forests are privately owned, small parcels within a highly fragmented landscape. Many landowners do not maintain forests in order to generate income from timber harvest, but instead use their forests for outdoor recreation, hunting, and to enjoy the aesthetic beauty of woodlands. Timber harvest is often promoted as a technique for managing forest lands, to retain high quality species such oak trees, for instance, but is resisted by some people as “unnecessary change” in the land. But habitats will change with time whether or not active forest management is conducted, and many landowners are unaware of the consequences of the management options that are available to them.
The long-term goals of the Sustaining Hardwood Ecosystems signature area are to determine: the ecological and social impacts of long-term forest management on public and private lands in Indiana and the Central Hardwoods Region. We are establishing a research program that examines the impacts of alternative timber management regimes in Indiana forests.
In 2006 we initiated a long-term field experiment in collaboration with Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Division of Forestry on Morgan-Monroe State Forest. We created a set of study sites on which the most common approaches to forest management will be implemented and monitored long-term. This framework of study sites will be used to evaluate the response of selected animal and plant species in both the treated areas and the surrounding forest. Simultaneously, we will conduct surveys of landowners and the general public in the communities in the surrounding region, to assess their attitudes toward active land management.
In the next several years, we will continue baseline studies of the selected study sites and expand the study to a wider variety of forest patch sizes, ages, and management regimes, including privately owned forest. The goal of the expansion is to provide a wider array of forest conditions for individual studies and to include benchmark conditions for comparison with our long-term experiment.