Grant to support long term ecological research


CORVALLIS - Scientists from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service have received a six-year, $3.4 million research grant from the National Science Foundation to continue one of the nation's leading programs in forest ecosystem research.

The OSU Long-term Ecological Research Program, or LTER, is centered at the Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Range near Eugene, Ore.

New and continued research will be possible with the new funding support, including studies on forest streams and plants, cycling of carbon and nutrients, biological diversity, climate and landscape ecology.

Art McKee, director of the Andrews Forest, said the new grant is the National Science Foundation's "vote of confidence on the importance of the work we're doing."

The overall goal of the research program, McKee said, is to improve understanding of how Pacific Northwest forests and streams function. The LTER approach is to use teams of scientists from different fields to gain a broad perspective, studying long-term and large-scale ecological processes.

The National Science Foundation began funding the LTER concept in 1980, and now supports work at 18 sites in the United States, Puerto Rico and Antarctica. Much of the research in this region takes place on the 16,000-acre Andrews Experimental Forest, one of six original sites in the program.

Studies at the Andrews Forest have already made their mark on forest practices in the Pacific Northwest, McKee said.

Loggers are now leaving more woody debris on the ground and more standing live trees in harvesting operations because LTER research showed such wood was good for nutrient cycling and wildlife habitat. Logs are sometimes even added to streams because LTER scientists and others have shown that they're needed for healthy fisheries.

LTER studies on forest streams have contributed to tighter rules for stream protection from logging operations. And the very concept of "ecosystem management" - now a major policy thrust of the Forest Service - emerged in part from LTER research into the possible negative effects of large-scale fragmentation of older forests.

Leading the research funded by the new grant will be Frederick Swanson, a geologist with the Forest Service; Stan Gregory, an OSU professor of fisheries and wildlife; and Mark Harmon, an OSU associate professor of forest science. About 25 other researchers from OSU, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington will also take part, as will about 30 graduate students.

LTER research is fundamental in the sense that it asks basic questions about forest biology, geology and climate, Swanson said. But its results, he said, have a very practical thrust.

"If you really understand how forested landscapes work," Swanson said, "you can predict better how they will respond to different management practices, climate change or natural processes such as floods or fire."

Another important job for LTER researchers is managing the huge quantities of data that come out of their experiments.

OSU is the "bank" for data from LTER and other research spanning many decades of ecosystem change. University researchers have developed techniques for coping with large amounts of interdisciplinary information, and the Forest Science Data Bank now manages over 2,000 data sets from more than 200 studies.