Forest Service Funded Outdoor Classroom Recognized by Tennessee Wildlife Federation

by Patty Matteson, SRS Science Delivery
Committee members accepting award. From left to right: Terry Lewis, Board Chairman, Tennessee Wildlife Federation (TWF); Erich Henry, Director of Conservation, Blount County; Jeff Wadley, Environmental Educator; Billy Minser, Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee; J.T. Vogt, U.S. Forest Service; and  Sam Marshall, Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Photo by Mark Johnson, Communications Director, TWF.

Committee members accepting award. From left to right: Terry Lewis, Board Chairman, Tennessee Wildlife Federation (TWF); Erich Henry, Director of Conservation, Blount County; Jeff Wadley, Environmental Educator; Billy Minser, Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee; J.T. Vogt, U.S. Forest Service; and Sam Marshall, Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Photo by Mark Johnson, Communications Director, TWF.

Just steps away from their school, 1,400 students and their teachers at Carpenters Elementary can hunt for crayfish, listen to birds sing, identify trees, and gather plants. Helping children learn about the forest and the importance of natural areas is the premise behind the development of a 16-acre outdoor classroom next to the school in Blount County, Tennessee. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation recently recognized this project with a Conservation Organization of the Year for Outstanding Achievement award.

“These awards celebrate individuals and organizations that have made truly meaningful contributions to conservation in our state,” said Michael Butler, the Federation’s chief executive officer. “Looking across our history, you can see today’s winners building upon the great work of the ones who came before them, and we are proud to honor their contributions.”

Funding from a U.S. Forest Service grant is being used to install a kiosk and interpretive signage along the nature trail and wetlands according to James T. Vogt, deputy program manager with the Forest Service Southern Research Station Forest Inventory and Analysis unit. Twelve teaching sites have been created along the trail, and a 1.4-mile graveled, handicap-accessible loop trail connects the sites. The outdoor environmental classroom will be a draw for students from Blount and surrounding counties.

Learn more about the Carpenters Elementary Outdoor Environmental Classroom.

Adapted from a Tennessee Wildlife Federation news release.

For more information, email J.T. Vogt at jtvogt@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Forest Inventory & Analysis

Burning Caicos Pine Yards

U.S. Forest Service research helps to restore threatened Caribbean rocklands habitat

by Zoё Hoyle, SRS Science Delivery
U.S. Forest Service researcher helped set prescribed fire in pine rocklands on Caicos in May. Photo courtesy of TCI Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs.

U.S. Forest Service researcher Joe O’Brien helped set prescribed fire in pine rocklands on the island of Caicos in May. Photo courtesy of TCI Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs.

This spring found U.S. Forest Service scientist Joe O’Brien helping to set a prescribed fire in the Turks and Caicos, a small Caribbean island chain that’s a British Overseas Territory. O’Brien, research ecologist with the Forest Service Southern Research Station Center for Forest Disturbance Science, was there to help save a unique rockland pine habitat from disappearing.

As a member of the Caicos Pine Recovery Project, O’Brien plans and trains crews to conduct the prescribed burns needed to help restore Caicos pine yards on the islands. O’Brien draws from years of research on controlled burning and specifically from his work on the increasingly rare pine rockland habitats of Florida and the Caribbean.

“Controlled burning – or prescribed fire – is the primary tool used in these habitats to suppress competing hardwood growth, prevent the buildup of excess fuel, and add nutrients to the thin soil,” said O’Brien. “Prescribed fire is already used extensively in the pine rocklands of the Bahamas and Florida, where the habitat can cover thousands of acres.”

The Caicos pine (Pinus caribaea  var. bahamensis) is the national tree of the Turks and Caicos and the foundation or keystone species of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) pine yard, a fire-dependent rockland habitat found only on low-lying areas of North Caicos, Middle Caicos, and Pine Cay, where it serves as habitat for a number of other plants, birds, reptiles and insects.  Without the pine, the entire ecosystem ceases to exist.

The Caicos pine yards are home to threatened species such as the Turks and Caicos rock iguana (Cyclura carinata). Photo by Tim Sackton, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Caicos pine yards are home to threatened species such as the Turks and Caicos rock iguana (Cyclura carinata). Photo by Tim Sackton, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 2005, pine tortoise scale was discovered on Caicos pines and identified by a scientist from the Kew Royal Botanic Garden (Kew). An invasive soft-scale insect that probably hitched into the islands on Christmas trees from the northern U.S., pine tortoise scale quickly escalated in the warm climate. By 2010, nearly 95 percent of TCI’s Caicos pines were dead, many destroyed in a 2009 fire in North Caicos, where there were numerous dead trees and dense flammable undergrowth.

Recognizing that the Caicos pine ecosystem faced near extinction, a range of collaborators from Kew, the U.S. Forest Service, the TCI Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, and other organizations started planning the controlled burns needed to improve the health of the remaining forests.

O’Brien helped with the extensive training for TCI’s first controlled burn on Middle Caicos on May 9, 2012. Since then, team members conducted additional controlled burns on small rocky patches – some only a few acres – of Caicos pine in North Caicos. During the burns, O’Brien took thermal images to study fire temperature, intensity, and behavior, and investigated different treatments. Other team members tracked tree health and pine survival after the burns.

“Caicos pine is fire dependent, which means that it needs fire to stimulate germination and to reduce competition from shrubs and hardwoods,” says O’Brien. “After the three controlled burns we conducted in 2012, we found tree health greatly improved, with trees once stunted by insects growing quickly and producing cones within a year. We expect the same from these latest burns. “

Pine forests in TCI (shown in orange) only occur on the Islands of Pine Cay, Middle Caicos and North Caicos. Image by Martin Hamilton, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

Pine forests in TCI (shown in orange) only occur on the Islands of Pine Cay, Middle Caicos and North Caicos. Image by Martin Hamilton, Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

Last month’s controlled burn was the second in a new series that started in December 2014. The December burn was conducted on a two-acre plot that contains some of the healthiest remaining trees and was overseen by O’Brien and other fire experts. In May, project members burned in a core conservation area in the Middle Caicos pine yard. O’Brien and fellow project members again took thermal video images of the fire to chart burn temperatures. They’re also recording time lapse images to monitor the recovery of burn plots, expecting the gains in tree health to be as heartening as those from the 2012 burns.

As a researcher, O’Brien is also interested in how other stressors impact these fire-dependent rockland pine systems.  In his research in the Florida Keys, he saw stands of slash pine, the foundation species in that ecosystem, destroyed by storm surge and sea level rise after a hurricane.

“This caused an instantaneous change in the state of the system that will likely persist,” said O’Brien. “In the Turks and Caicos, I’ve started a project investigating the interaction of the invasive pine tortoise scale with trees stressed by sea level rise. So far, the results are similar to those in the Keys. The results of these studies will inform efforts to restore both of these species-rich ecosystems.”

Read more about the Caicos Pine Recovery Project.

For more information, email Joe O’Brien at jjobrien@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Fire, Insects and Diseases, Restoration, Southern Pines, Threats

The Future of the Francis Marion’s Coastal Forests

Incorporating climate change into forest planning

by Emrys Treasure, Eastern Forest Threat Assessment Center; Mary Morrison, Francis Marion and Sumter National Forests; and Sealy Chipley, Chipley Consulting
Climate change models predict increases in hurricane storm surges, which could increase saltwater intrusion and impact forested wetland species such as bald cypress. Photo by Bill Lea.

Climate change models predict increases in hurricane storm surges, which could increase saltwater intrusion and impact forested wetland species such as bald cypress. Photo by Bill Lea.

When Hurricane Hugo hit the coast of South Carolina in September of 1989, the Francis Marion National Forest (Francis Marion) suffered a devastating blow. Sixty percent of its pine trees sustained moderate or heavy damage, and its bottomland hardwood trees fared even worse: 43 percent were broken and 43 percent were uprooted.

At that time, national forest planners recognized that they needed to update their 1985 Land and Resource Management Plan to help the forest recover. By 1996, they had developed a plan that would assist ecosystems in becoming more resistant to the effects of hurricanes, drought, and insect outbreaks. The plan featured a specific focus on the recovery of the red-cockaded woodpecker and the restoration of longleaf pine forests.

More than 25 years after the devastation from Hurricane Hugo, the health of woodpecker and longleaf pine species have improved. However, threats posed by growing population in the region, increasing urban development, and encroaching nonnative invasive plant species have been joined by a new and even more alarming threat: climate change.

Environmental scientists project that rising temperatures and sea levels in the area will produce more floods and droughts, more severe tropical storm systems, and a general increase in climate variability. This combination of social and environmental changes will result in another new management context for the Francis Marion. Managing ecosystems and human communities so both are resilient to the impacts of climate change will play a key role in the forest’s next management plan.

Working with staff at the U.S. Forest Service Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center (EFETAC), forest managers for the Francis Marion used the Template for Assessing Climate Change Impacts and Management Options (TACCIMO) web tool to guide development of the 2016 version of their forest plan. TACCIMO provides vital climate information in an easy-to-use format, enabling users to quickly find location-specific climate studies through quotations from peer-reviewed literature and GIS-based climate change projections.

With access to information through TACCIMO, the team developed a three-phase plan to integrate climate change into their next forest management plan. In the first assessment phase, forest managers used TACCIMO to facilitate a comprehensive review of existing information relevant to conditions and trends of the forest.

The TACCIMO analysis revealed some troubling trends for the forest: rising sea levels and more severe storm surges threaten to drastically alter the composition of tidal marshes on the Francis Marion, and greater overall climate variability may lead to more wildfires and allow invasive species to infest the area. These findings were used to develop a “need to change” document, which serves as a transition from the assessment to the forest plan development phase.

For the second phase now in progress, the planning team is developing adaptive management strategies that respond not only to a changing climate, but also to the spread of nonnative invasive species and increasing urban development. These strategies form the basis of a monitoring and evaluation plan, and include multi-party monitoring at the local and regional levels. The strategies also encourage cooperation among partners to meet common goals.

The final plan for the forest will integrate the concept of adaptive management as a way to dynamically respond to changes that result from our changing climate. The plan aims to lessen the potential impacts of climate change by promoting native and resilient ecosystems, providing more carbon sinks, reducing existing forest stresses, and collaborating with partners to monitor and respond to climate-related changes in forest health.

Adapted from an article on the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit website.

For more information, email Emrys Treasure at etreasure@fs.fed.us.

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Posted in Climate Change, Forest Watersheds, Longleaf Pines, Threats