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Study focused on creating tools needed to restore and manage resilient forests

A view of the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest as seen from St. Peter's Dome.
Katie Thoresen
A view of the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest as seen from St. Peter's Dome.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to our forests.

Rising temperatures and extreme weather patterns are expected to lead to extreme drought, bigger wildfires, massive flooding events, and more insects that can spread disease.

There are certain species of trees that may be better equipped to handle these changes.

Part of Christel Kern’s job over the next five years is addressing these issues.

“When we're thinking about climate change, that's a very, very large scale. That's why these projects are focusing at landscape-level resilience and restoration,” she said.

WXPR sat down with Kern at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Rhinelander. She’s a research forester based there.

Kern will be working with a team of scientists over the next five years.

They’ll be tackling the big question of, ‘how do we restore northern mesic forests and make them more resilient?’

“All of these individual researchers are coming together to look at something like the northern hardwood type, and bring all these research studies together and synthesize that. And that's not easy to do,” said Kern.

Past research done in the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest and other forest land across the northeastern U.S. and Canada will be key to finding solutions.

Katie Thoresen
The Argonne Experimental Forest.

Places like the Argonne Experimental Forest have decades of data that help tell the story of how our forests got to be like they are today.

“We will look at the forest resource spatially across the landscape and assess the condition. Then we will look at the data we have to understand the relationships within that condition. So, where it's at today, where we may have slower growth, where we might have places where there's die back due to drought, other places where it's growing phenomenally, and understand the climate, the soils, the biotic/abiotic factors relating to that,” said Kern.

Kern says once they understand the relationship between all those factors, researchers can then project that across similar landscapes and time.

“Based on what we understand of how the forests are working, we can use models to project how they may perform over hundreds of years,” she said. “Then this gives us clues, clues on where forests may be vulnerable to all the challenges they face, such as climate change, and other places where they're doing well.”

Getting all this information is only half the battle.

The other major part of this research project is to create the tools forest managers need to apply this knowledge and make the best decisions toward creating resilient forests.

“There's a bunch of ways to define [resiliency]. One really simply is can the forest renew itself? Can the mature trees have viable flowers that are pollinated and develop seeds that have the right conditions to germinate and turn into seedlings? Then can those seedlings survive the drought and the deer and all the other factors against them to then again be an overstory Tree? There's a lot of points alone along that process that we can simply look at, can the forests renew themselves and be resilient?” said Kern.

The project will be a major collaboration.

Kern will be working with researchers from universities and governments across the northeastern U.S. as well as some in Canada.

“The forests don't stop at the border. Something like the northern hardwood forests, which is maple, beech, birch, usually dominant type of forests, they run from Minnesota, all the way to Maine, crossing Ontario, and Quebec, as well. Our partners just north of us have been doing a lot of research and a lot of management that we can learn from as well. We're looking at it large scale, that's not just for the US, but crossing that border, so we can learn from each other as well,” said Kern.

Kern says the large undertaking is made possible with more than $1.1 million in funding from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The law set aside millions of dollars for ecosystem restoration, something Deahn Donnerwright says the Northern Research Station in Rhinelander is well positioned to tackle.

Donnerwright is the project leader for the station.

“We want a resilient forest, we want a healthy forest, we want to restore a forest to the condition for those stressors,” said Donnerwright. “Why is it important to us is we were doing some of that research, but that funding gives us the opportunity to broaden our research. We get to work with more partners, more federal, state, tribal, local governments. It gives us a lot of opportunity to grow our research, if you will, with other partners.”

Kern’s project is just getting underway and is expected to take five years.

She’s excited to work on a project at such a large scale and for the impact it will have.

“We all live up here because of the forest, the critters we see, of the fall colors, which are just vibrant right now or just starting. This is about having that in our backyard for hundreds of years, trees can live 100 years, 200 years. We have time, but to have a resilient, continuous forest, we need to be mindful of how we manage it and live around it,” said Kern. “This work will be establishing the condition of the forest now, and being sure it's restored into a condition that it can maintain all these great benefits that we have here in the Northwoods for many, many years to come.”

Kern is the lead on the project. She’ll also be working with researchers at Michigan State University, the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests, and other Forest Service researchers based in Alabama and Maine.


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Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.