Korean Forests Gain Ground with U.S. Forest Service Support

Kurt Riitters (second from right) is pictured with other visiting scientists invited to critique the Korean Forest Health Monitoring program two years after its inception. Photo by U.S. Forest Service
Kurt Riitters (second from right) is pictured with other visiting scientists invited to critique the Korean Forest Health Monitoring program two years after its inception. Photo by U.S. Forest Service

Korean forest scientists know all too well how degraded forests affect ecosystems and people. During the 20th century, unsustainable harvesting and conversion of forests to cropland caused “serious social and environmental problems like lack of fuel, severe flooding, and droughts,” according to the Korea Forest Service.

In the 1970s, the country began a widespread forest rehabilitation program, resulting in forest cover over about 64 percent of Korea’s land mass today. But the forests have lacked diversity in species and structure, making them especially vulnerable to a variety of stressors, including climate change, wildfire, insects, and diseases. A few years ago, Korea adopted methods from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Health Monitoring (FHM) Program to keep a watchful eye over forest growth and recovery in the face of these threats. In 2011, the Korea Forest Service and Korea Forest Research Institute (KFRI) officially established the Korea Forest Health Monitoring program.

In September, KFRI sponsored Kurt Riitters, a research ecologist with the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center, to attend the International Symposium on Forest Health in Seoul, Korea. The symposium, last held in 2007, convened international forest health monitoring professionals to share knowledge and experience to continue advancing Korea’s monitoring program. Riitters represented the United States with a presentation highlighting the U.S. FHM Program’s annual national reports, which are produced by a diverse team of experts including researchers from the Eastern Threat Center and cooperating scientists from North Carolina State University.

Since 2001, the annual FHM reports have served as a periodic source of information about the status of U.S. forests. Just as forests and human needs grow and change, so have the annual reports. What began as a focus on timber resources has evolved to include information about  the status of numerous forest health indicators, including insect and disease activity, wildfire patterns, tree mortality, fragmentation, climate change impacts, soil conditions, and more. “The FHM program’s annual reporting efforts provide a dynamic and flexible way to consistently share information about forest health conditions over time and space. This information can reveal trends that may require further monitoring and research, which are key components of a sustainable forest management strategy,” says Riitters.

The symposium also included a field demonstration of forest health measurements used by Korean forest health officials. Along with several KFRI researchers, Riitters joined other visiting scientists from Italy, Japan, Germany, and Austria during observations and critiques of Korean data collection procedures. “I learned a good deal about the range of research at the KFRI, and had some good discussions of forest health monitoring,” says Riitters. “Personally, I gained an appreciation of the dedication of Korean scientists to forest inventory and forest health monitoring.” 

International cooperation has been influential in the development of Korea’s Forest Health Monitoring program, and this symposium provided a unique opportunity to further broaden Korea’s monitoring efforts. These efforts illustrate the vital importance of forest health to the ecosystems and people of Korea.

For more information, email Kurt Riitters at kriitters@fs.fed.us.

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