Research Sustains Ecosystem Services

Ecological assessments across the landscape

a weir in a forest
Ecological assessments depend on data, such as streamflow and water quality information. Long-term research sites including the SRS Experimental Forest Network provide crucial information for managing ecosystem services. USDA Forest Service image.

From clean drinking water to sustainably harvested forest products and the region’s outdoor tourism industry, nature provides abundant benefits to people in the southern Appalachians. Benefits also include biodiversity, the sense of place found in forested landscapes, and much more.

Ecological assessment is a key tool for understanding the role of private and public lands in providing ecosystem services to society and ensuring their sustainability. Scientists at the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station produce a wide variety of ecological assessments.

Providing information for private forest landowners and managers through these assessments is a core goal of the Station. Assessments measure and map:

  • The capacity of landscapes to supply ecosystem services,
  • The flow of services to increasing human populations, and
  • The vulnerability of ecosystem services to various stressors.

The Forests to Faucets program is one example of an assessment tool focused on the vulnerability of a single service — clean water supply from forest lands — to a variety of stressors. Situating a forest property in its local watershed using this tool can provide insight into the value of the forest for conserving water quality downstream.

Forest loss to urbanization and the impacts of invasive species, climate change, and tree diseases pose increasing risks to ecosystem services. The National Insect and Disease Forest Risk Assessment is an example of a tool that focuses on a specific threat and provides local information to forest managers and owners across the US.

However, ecosystems face multiple threats at the same time, and those threats put stress on multiple ecosystem services. Major efforts such as the Southern Forest Outlook synthesize cutting-edge forest science to understand these relationships and their consequences for the future. This research builds on previous work that shows how economic changes, such as changing demand for timber products, can impact various ecosystem services by reducing the economic value of keeping private working lands forested.

The Keeping Forests program is a result of engagement between state forest resource agencies, the Forest Service, and a broad consortium of other partners in the South. The program includes assessments and goes further by highlighting opportunities throughout the southern region for working with local landowners to keep working forests as forests — so that they can continue to provide a wide variety of ecosystem services.

map of vegetation change in four southern states
The Landscape Dynamics Assessment Tool uses satellite imagery to track vegetation change. The image shows gains (orange) and losses (blue) in vegetation productivity over two decades. Impacts related to urbanization, climate, and other changes are visible. USDA Forest Service image.

Assessments are at their best when they focus on stakeholder values and land management challenges. Some assessments highlight engagement with partners, which can point to ecosystem services that may otherwise go unnoticed. One example is the Assessment of Nontimber Forest Products in the United States Under Changing Conditions. This document details the use, sustainability, and economics of forest resources used for food, medicines, and crafts by indigenous people and other rural populations. Tribal partners are often crucial in such assessments.

These are only a few examples of how ecological assessment can help conservation stakeholders weigh different management options from an ecosystem services perspective.

A wide variety of Forest Service assessments are available online, including Southern Research Station products and tools. The Ecosystem Services Conservation Atlas synthesizes findings from multiple assessments for the Appalachian region. The Forest Service has a collection of information about ecosystem services and ecological assessment, from within and beyond the agency.

Resources like these drive home the importance of landscape context — any private land holding is surrounded by and connected to other private and public lands. Likewise, public lands such as state and national forests are embedded in broader, privately owned-landscapes.

Benefits provided by natural ecosystems are experienced in common across those lands, as are stressors like changing land uses and climate change. These connections make sustaining clean water, forest products, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and many other ecosystem services a shared responsibility and challenge.

This article was originally published in the EcoForesters newsletter.

Read about The Role of Regional Ecological Assessment in Quantifying Ecosystem Services for Forest Management.

For more information, email Lars Pomara at lazarus.y.pomara@usda.gov.

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