OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of forestry

Overgrazing turning parts of Mongolian Steppe into desert

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Overgrazing by millions of sheep and goats is the primary cause of degraded land in the Mongolian Steppe, one of the largest remaining grassland ecosystems in the world, Oregon State University researchers say in a new report.

Using a new satellite-based vegetation monitoring system, researchers found that about 12 percent of the biomass has disappeared in this country that’s more than twice the size of Texas, and 70 percent of the grassland ecosystem is now considered degraded. The findings were published in Global Change Biology.

Overgrazing accounts for about 80 percent of the vegetation loss in recent years, researchers concluded, and reduced precipitation as a result of climatic change accounted for most of the rest. These combined forces have led to desertification as once-productive grasslands are overtaken by the Gobi Desert, expanding rapidly from the south.

Since 1990 livestock numbers have almost doubled to 45 million animals, caused in part by the socioeconomic changes linked to the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the report said. High unemployment led many people back to domestic herding.

The problem poses serious threats to this ecosystem, researchers say, including soil and water loss, but it may contribute to global climate change as well. Grasslands, depending on their status, can act as either a significant sink or source for atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“This is a pretty serious issue,” said Thomas Hilker, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Forestry. “Regionally, this is a huge area in which the land is being degraded and the food supply for local people is being reduced.

“Globally, however, all ecosystems have a distinct function in world climate,” he said. “Vegetation cools the landscape and plays an important role for the water and carbon balance, including greenhouse gases.”

Even though it was clear that major problems were occurring in Mongolia in the past 20 years, researchers were uncertain whether the underlying cause was overgrazing, climate change or something else. This report indicates that overgrazing is the predominant concern.

Mongolia is a semi-arid region with harsh, dry winters and warm, wet summers. About 79 percent of the country is covered by grasslands, and a huge surge in the number of grazing animals occurred during just the past decade - especially sheep and goats that cause more damage than cattle. Related research has found that heavy grazing results in much less vegetation cover and root biomass, and an increase in animal hoof impacts.

Collaborators on this research included Richard H. Waring, a distinguished professor emeritus of forest ecology from OSU; scientists from NASA and the University of Maryland; and Enkhjargal Natsagdorj, a former OSU doctoral student from Mongolia. The work has been supported by NASA and OSU.

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Thomas Hilker, 541-737-2608

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Overgrazing in Mongolia

Grazing in Mongolia


Grazing in Mongolia

Mongolian herders

New book details world-wide research on Douglas-fir

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The Pacific Northwest’s iconic Douglas-fir tree rivals coast redwood for honors as the world’s tallest tree. It isn’t a true fir – the species that was named for Scottish botanist David Douglas is, however, the mostly widely distributed North American conifer.

And it is a marvel of water engineering. From root to top, a mature tree transmits water across more than 22,000 cell walls, each equipped with 50 to 60 elegantly designed valves.

In recognition of this commercially important tree, the Forest Research Laboratory at Oregon State University has published “Douglas-fir: The Genus Pseudotsuga,” which details more than a century of research. It covers what is known about the species’ evolutionary history, genetics, environmental requirements and breeding programs in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America.

Douglas-fir is native to western North America but has been accepted in forest management programs around the world. It is a member of the genus Pseudotsuga, which includes up to a dozen species in Asia and North America. In Europe, Douglas-fir is the most commonly planted North American tree.

Two OSU forest scientists, Denis Lavender and Richard Hermann, wrote “Douglas-fir.” Both received Ph.Ds. from Oregon State in botany and went on to conduct research on the species through the OSU Forest Research Lab until they retired.

“When Denis and I were at the Forest Research Lab, we received questions about Douglas-fir from around the world,” said Hermann. “So we decided to collect everything we could find and write a book.”

A native of Germany, Hermann specialized in Douglas-fir management in plantations and natural regeneration. In addition to his work at Oregon State, he held research appointments in Poland, France, Germany and Italy and served in leadership positions with the International Union of Forest Research Organizations.

Lavender, who died last spring, focused on reproductive biochemistry and the role of dormancy in tree vitality. After leaving Oregon State in 1984, he served as the head of the Forest Science Department at the University of British Columbia and helped to establish the Silvicultural Institute of British Columbia. His method for storing and planting seedlings increased the survival rate of conifers by 20 percent.

“Douglas-fir” is available free online at http://hdl.handle.net/1957/47168 or in print for $45 ($60 for international orders) from the communications office in the OSU College of Forestry, forestrycommunications@oregonstate.edu.

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Richard Hermann, 503-223-8307

Reflections on wilderness featured at Corvallis Science Pub

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which today protects nearly 110 million acres in the United States. At the June 9 Corvallis Science Pub, Cristina Eisenberg, an Oregon State University conservation biologist, will discuss why intact wilderness areas matter more today than they did in 1964.

The Science Pub presentation is free and open to the public and begins at 6 p.m. in the Majestic Theater, 115 S.W. Second St. in Corvallis.

Eisenberg’s intimate acquaintance with wilderness stems from 20 years of living with her family in a cabin adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. At 1 million acres, it comprises the second-largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

In her research, she studies interactions among wolves, elk, aspen and fire. In Rocky Mountain ecosystems, she has shown that relatively intact, large tracts of land are essential to create ecologically resilient landscapes. Such landscapes typically consist of extensive protected wilderness.

She will also read and show images from her recently published book, The Carnivore Way, in which she profiles the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, a 28-million-acre wildlife corridor that runs along the mountainous spine of North America.

Sponsors of Science Pub include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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Cristina Eisenberg, 541-737-7524

“The Carnivore Way” could be key to large predator conservation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – North America’s mountainous backbone, stretching from Mexico to Alaska, could serve as a model for balancing the needs of large predators and people, an Oregon State University biologist suggests in a new book.

In “The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators,” published May 1 by Island Press, Cristina Eisenberg describes the ongoing efforts of humans to coexist with wolves, cougars, wolverines and other species in a largely wild but developing landscape.

Eisenberg, who grew up in a hunting and ranching family in northern Mexico, is an instructor in the Oregon State College of Forestry, a Smithsonian research associate and an Earthwatch scientist. She obtained her doctorate and completed two post-doctoral fellowships at Oregon State.

From her home in northwestern Montana, where grizzlies and wolves outnumber people, she traveled more than 13,000 miles – from the Arctic to northern Mexico – to trace corridors that link carnivores with the habitats they need to thrive. She met with scientists who studied these animals and with officials who found ways to conserve grizzlies, wolves, wolverines and other species. She talked with conservationists who hiked the trails and documented challenges to predators and their prey.

“Large carnivore conservation is ultimately about people,” Eisenberg wrote. “Science and environmental law can help us learn to share landscapes with fierce creatures, but ultimately coexistence has to do with our human hearts.”

For Eisenberg, it also has much to do with ecosystems. Wildlife scientists have documented the crucial role that large carnivores play in shaping forests and rangelands, she said.

“When you’re out there on the ground and a wolf shows up or a cougar shows up and starts doing what they do, you have these ‘aha’ moments,” Eisenberg said. “What I’m doing in ‘The Carnivore Way’ is providing a lot of stories and examples. There’s a massive amount of science in the book, but in the end, it’s sharing those ‘aha’ moments that help people connect with these animals.”

In a world in which ecosystems are reeling from climate change and other human influences, she said, wolves and other carnivores can restore resilience that benefits the resources that people depend on. By maintaining a role for carnivores, ecosystems are more likely to rebound in the face of drought, fire and other disturbances linked to a changing climate.

"Scientists studying ecosystems worldwide have found that carnivores indirectly improve the health and vigor of plant communities by reducing the density of their prey and in some cases by changing prey behavior,” said Eisenberg. “In many places in North America, for example, by preying on elk, wolves reduce the browsing pressure that elk place on plants. This enables trees and shrubs to grow to maturity and provide habitat for many other species, such as songbirds.”

Eisenberg’s research on the effects of predators on ecosystems has been supported by Parks Canada and the High Lonesome Ranch, which occupies 400 square miles in western Colorado. She and Oregon State co-investigator David Hibbs recently obtained Earthwatch Institute funding that will support their research on wolves, elk, and fire for several years. Articles featuring her research have appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, High Country News and other outlets.

In 2010, Island Press published her previous book, “The Wolf’s Tooth,” which describes the ecological roles of large carnivores. She is writing a book on climate change, “Taking the Heat: Wildlife, Food Webs, and Extinction in a Warming World,” also for Island Press.

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Jaime Jennings, Island Press, 202-232-7933, ext. 44

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Cristina Eisenberg, 406-270-5153

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Corvallis, Albany teachers link Costa Rica with Oregon schools

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Three elementary school teachers – two from Corvallis and one from Albany – are conducting fieldwork with Oregon State University scientists at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica this month.

As they band birds and track pollinators, the teachers will communicate with their pupils through a blog and enable students to share information with their counterparts in Costa Rica.

The research is supported by a multi-year grant from the National Science Foundation to Matthews Betts, associate professor in the OSU College of Forestry. The goal is to understand how hummingbirds and other pollinators are affected by land use patterns.

Teachers participating in the project include Claudia Argo and Alleya Jack from Garfield Elementary School in Corvallis and Cindy Drouhard from the Timber Ridge School in Albany. They will be at the field station from Feb. 16 to March 1.

“This project has all the elements of a real-world learning experience,” said Kari O’Connell, an educator with Oregon State’s Oregon Natural Resources Education Program. “The students will be doing math, science and art and practicing their language skills. It also involves their families. One of the teachers has already translated information into Spanish so that Spanish-speaking families in Oregon can be involved.”

While in Costa Rica, the teachers will help researchers observe and band hummingbirds, O’Connell added. “They all teach science, so they will be talking with their students about what it’s like to do fieldwork, collect data and interpret it.”

 

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Kari O'Connell, 541-737-6495

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11Cloud Forest

This montane tropical cloud forest at Las Cruces Biological Reserve in Costa Rica is the site of another study being led by Matthew Betts. (Photo: Matthew Betts)

Green Hermit Hummingbird

This green hermit hummingbird visits a Heloconia tortuosa in Costa Rica. The species is part of an OSU study that tracks hummingbird travels with a tiny radio transmitter attached to its back. Photo by Matt Betts

12Northern Waterthrush

The northern waterthrush migrates from the Cascades to Costa Rica, where Matthew Betts and his fellow researchers are studying the effects of forest fragmentation on bird behavior and pollination dynamics. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Betts)

2014 Starker Lectures at OSU to explore “Working Forests”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The 2014 Starker Lecture Series at Oregon State University will begin on Thursday, Feb. 6, when speaker John Gordon outlines the future of forestry in Oregon. The theme for this year’s series is “Working Forests Across the Landscape.”

Gordon is the Pinchot Professor emeritus and former dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His free public talk, which begins at 3:30 p.m. in Richardson Hall Room 107, is titled “Forestry Diversity: A Key to Oregon’s Future.”

The Starker Lectures are sponsored by the OSU College of Forestry and funded primarily through a donation by the Starker family in memory of T.J. and Bruce Starker, late leaders of the Oregon forest industry, with support from the college and the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. Each year, the lecture series explores forestry issues in the Northwest and beyond.

Other events in the 2014 series include:

  • Feb. 27 Lecture – “A Luxuriant Landscape: Oregon’s Working Forest Landscapes, an Ecological Perspective,” by Tom Spies, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station (3:30 to 5 p.m., Richardson Hall 107);
  • April 24 Lecture – “Beyond Boundaries: Social Challenges and Opportunities in Forest Landscape Management,” by Paige Fischer, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center (3:30 to 5 p.m., Richardson Hall 107);
  • May 29 Capstone Field Trip – A tour of the Cool Soda All Lands Collaborative Project in Linn County, led by representatives of Cascade Timber Consulting, South Santiam Watershed Council, U.S. Forest Service, and the Sweet Home Ranger District (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Registration is required by May 20.

More information on the Starker Lectures is available at: http://starkerlectures.forestry.oregonstate.edu/

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Jessica Fontaine, 541-737-3161; Jessica.fontaine@oregonstate.edu

Oldest trees are growing faster, storing more carbon as they age

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In a finding that overturns the conventional view that large old trees are unproductive, scientists have determined that for most species, the biggest trees increase their growth rates and sequester more carbon as they age.

In a letter published today in the journal Nature, an international research group reports that 97 percent of 403 tropical and temperate species grow more quickly the older they get. The study was led by Nate L. Stephenson of the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center. Three Oregon State University researchers are co-authors: Mark Harmon and Rob Pabst of the College of Forestry and Duncan Thomas of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The researchers reviewed records from studies on six continents. Their conclusions are based on repeated measurements of 673,046 individual trees, some going back more than 80 years.

This study would not have been possible, Harmon said, without long-term records of individual tree growth. “It was remarkable how we were able to examine this question on a global level, thanks to the sustained efforts of many programs and individuals.”

Extraordinary growth of some species, such as Australian mountain ash – also known as eucalyptus –  (Eucalyptus regnans), and the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), is not limited to a few species, the researchers said. “Rather, rapid growth in giant trees is the global norm and can exceed 600 kg (1,300 pounds) per year in the largest individuals,” they wrote.

“In human terms, it is as if our growth just keeps accelerating after adolescence, instead of slowing down,” said Stephenson. “By that measure, humans could weigh half a ton by middle age, and well over a ton at retirement.”

The report includes studies from the Pacific Northwest. Harmon and his colleagues worked in forest plots – some created as early as the 1930s – at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest east of Eugene and Mount Rainier National Park. Researchers measured growth in Douglas-fir, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, western red cedar and silver fir. The National Science Foundation and the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the USDA Forest Service provided funding.

Under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Tropical Forest Science, Thomas and colleagues in Africa established a 123-acre forest research site in Cameroon in 1996. They measured growth in about 495 tree species.

“CTFS does very important work facilitating collaboration between forest ecologists worldwide and therefore enabling us to gain a better insight into the growth of trees and forests,” Thomas said. “This model for collaboration was the basis of the Nature study.”

While the finding applies to individual trees, it may not hold true for stands of trees, the authors cautioned. As they age, some trees in a stand will die, resulting in fewer individuals in a given area over time.

The study was a collaboration of 38 scientists from research universities, government agencies and non-governmental organizations in the United States, Panama, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Colombia, Argentina, Thailand, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, France, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, New Zealand and Spain.

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Mark Harmon, 541-737-8455; Duncan Thomas,  541-752-5211

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Photo by Duncan Thomas
Korup canopy
Photo by Duncan Thomas

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Photo by Al Levno

$1 million USDA grant boosts Oregon State tree research for bioenergy

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A $1 million grant to a research team led by Steve Strauss, Oregon State University distinguished professor of forest biotechnology, aims to boost America’s energy independence by helping to develop a tree-based bioenergy industry.

The funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will support an investigation into the genetics of fast-growing cottonwood trees. The researchers will focus on the molecular mechanisms of hybrid vigor, which promote growth and productivity. All commercially grown cottonwoods in the Pacific Northwest are hybrids between different species, and it is costly and time-consuming for industries to identify the most productive hybrids.

“The research may enable more rapid development of highly productive and stress-tolerant varieties,” Strauss said.

The research will be carried out in collaboration with Portland-based GreenWood Resources, the major grower of cottonwoods in the Pacific Northwest. Other major scientific collaborators include Stephen DiFazio of West Virginia University and Todd Rosenstiel of Portland State University.

The grant is part of an $8 million national bioenergy initiative supported by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Steven Strauss, 541-737-6578

GMOs in agriculture to be Corvallis Science Pub topic

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Direct modification of DNA, or genetic engineering, is a tool for plant breeding that has spread at unprecedented speed over the last two decades. At the Oct. 14 Corvallis Science Pub, Steve Strauss, director of Oregon State University’s Outreach in Biotechnology program, will discuss the pros and cons of gene technology for agriculture.

The Science Pub presentation begins at 6 p.m. in the Majestic Theater, at 115 S.W. Second St. in Corvallis. It is free and open to the public. In November, Science Pub will resume at its usual location at the Old World Deli.

Today’s agricultural bounty can be traced to traditional plant breeding and other technologies, but population growth and demands for higher quality food will require large improvements in agricultural productivity, said Strauss. The undesirable environmental and social effects of more intense farming systems also need to be minimized.

“Gene technology is a valuable tool, not a silver bullet,” Strauss added. “It can do a lot, but it must be used with due caution and as part of integrated, ecologically-guided management systems for sustained benefit.”

Biotechnology appears capable of providing major humanitarian benefits to the poor by improving nutrition and food security.

“Despite the fears and growing legal barriers, the stakes in this debate are too high to turn away from,” he said. “We must find socially acceptable ways to move forward.”

While genetic engineering can provide nutritional and agronomic benefits, it has also come up against strong social and legal resistance in many countries, making its future uncertain. Strauss will review what the technology actually is, how it is similar and different from conventional breeding, and how it has impacted agriculture to date. He will also discuss diverse sources of the controversy surrounding it, including the numerous myths and confusing science that pervade the online world.

Strauss is a distinguished professor in the Oregon State College of Forestry and a fellow of the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University. He is also the director of the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative at OSU that conducts research on mitigation of risks from genetic engineering in forestry.

Sponsors of Science Pub include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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Steve Strauss, 541-737-7568

Climate center at OSU gets major grant to study forest mortality

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has received a five-year, $4 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to investigate increasing impacts of drought, insect attacks and fires on forests in the western U.S., and to project how the influence of climate change may affect forest die-offs in the future.

The researchers will also enhance an earth system model to allow them to predict when forests are becoming vulnerable to physiological stress and then create strategies to minimize impacts of climate, insects and fire.

“The western United States has gone through two decades of devastating forest loss and we don’t even fully know why it happened, much less how to predict these events,” said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at OSU and a principal investigator on the grant. “Certainly wildfire, bark beetle infestation and drought play a role, but the intersection of these factors with forest management decisions hasn’t been well-explored.

“A change in severity of drought, for example, can make the difference between trees losing some needles and wiping out the entire stand,” added Mote, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU. “The margin between life and death in the forest can be rather small.”

Other lead investigators from OSU on the project include Beverly Law, a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, who will focus on modeling forest processes with the Community Land Model; and Andrew Plantinga, a professor in the Department of Applied Economics, whose expertise is on the economics of land use, climate change and forests.

“Climate variation and extremes can impact trees differently depending on species-specific traits that determine how they compete and respond to environmental conditions,” Law said. “We know little about how physiological limits vary by species, and have not incorporated such knowledge in earth system models.”

The OSU researchers note that forest management decisions could potentially play a role during periods of drought, for example. Drought-stressed trees become vulnerable when they experience vapor pressure deficits – and cannot take in enough water to sustain them, or to remain vigorous enough to help repel invading bark beetles, said Law, who is co-lead principal investigator on the project.

An excess of trees in an area of limited water might benefit from targeted thinning so fewer trees remain to compete for the same amount of water, Law noted. However, forests that already have low densities “are not expected to respond well,” she said.

“What we don’t know,” Mote said, “is what the threshold is between stress and mortality, which trees to thin and how many, and whether such a strategy not only works, but is economically feasible for landowners.”

Law said the intervention strategies “should not result in potentially harmful ecological impacts on habitat and soil quality.”

Among the goals of the project are to:

  • Improve the ability of a leading land surface model to predict tree mortality;
  • Map the vulnerability of western forests to mortality under present and future climate conditions,  particularly in Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho;
  • Apply forest vulnerability data to forest sector models to help land managers better predict ecological and economic outcomes, including timber production, forest recreation and water use.

As part of the study, the researchers will run computer models that will utilize a crowd-sourced computing effort called Weatherathome.net, through which a network of thousands of volunteers will use their home computers to run climate model scenarios. Such a network can equal or exceed the output of a supercomputer.

The OSU grant is part of the inter-agency Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction Using Earth System Models Program, which is coordinated by the National Science Foundation and includes USDA and the Department of Energy.

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Phil Mote, 541-737-5694

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Dying trees

Forest die-off