RAPID Response: Brian Harvey to Study Re-Burned Yellowstone Forests

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

In 1988, wildfires burned about a third of Yellowstone National Park’s forests. Most of those wooded areas hadn’t burned in 100 to 300 years, largely within the average burn cycle for those forests, and they bounced back really well from the disturbance. But what happens when the next fire comes far sooner than the average? With shorter-interval burns and changing climate conditions, will the younger trees and forest be as resilient to a severe fire? Along with collaborators at the University of Wisconsin, Professor Brian Harvey will try to answer those questions, among others, this summer as part of a new National Science Foundation grant for Rapid Response Research (RAPID).

A lodgepole forest in Yellowstone that naturally reseeded after the 1988 fires.

RAPID grants are a special category for funding research that needs to be carried out immediately. They provide a one-year pulse of money for time-critical projects that can’t wait for the usual funding cycle. In this case, more than 10 thousand hectares of forest in Yellowstone did in fact re-burn last summer—only 28 years after the 1988 fires—so this summer will be the first and best opportunity to observe how these forests respond to the short-interval disturbance. “This grant provides an awesome opportunity to get there as soon as the forest is likely to show signs of resilience, or if it is not going to be as resilient,” says Brian. “This is the key time and place to be testing these questions.”

Natural disturbances, of course, are integral to forests worldwide, but conifer forests in western North America are facing warmer temperatures and larger, more severe wildfires than at any time in recorded history. Changing climates—with hotter, drier summers—are increasing disturbance frequency in some areas, and disrupting long-established patterns of forest regrowth and succession. In Yellowstone’s forests, the dominant species is lodgepole pine, which has closed, serotinous cones that release their seeds only in response to fire. Nearly all of the seedlings then establish one year after a fire; historically, they’ve then had many decades to grow and start producing cones (and seeds) of their own before the next burn. But instead of a fire interval of 150 to 300 years, these Yellowstone forests could start seeing new fires within a matter of a few decades. “Some systems are used short-interval fires,” says Brian. “But throughout much of Yellowstone, that’s a novel thing.”

The ecological consequences of these changing fire regimes are unclear and could be profound in the next century. The results of this study, in turn, could be widely relevant for understanding abrupt changes in forest ecosystems across the globe.

“This project is a unique opportunity to test what’s going on at the leading edge of climate change and changing fire regimes in these areas,” says Brian. “We’re really seeing the start of conditions in Yellowstone that may be heading outside the range we’ve seen in the paleo-ecological record. No matter what we find, it’s going to be extremely exciting, and very important. On one hand, these ecosystems can always surprise us in their resilience. On the other hand, as many times as we’ve been surprised by their resilience, we may be heading toward a state where things could be changing pretty rapidly.”

Similar to the sites Brian will be studying this summer, this lodgepole pine forest—originally burned in the 1988 fire—was re-burned in 2012 (with this photo taken in 2015).

Starting this July, Brian will head out to the burned sites in Yellowstone with his incoming master’s student, Saba Saberi, along with an undergrad field intern. They will meet up with a team from the University of Wisconsin, and together they’ll be investigating and measuring a number of factors for how the shortened fire interval is affecting the forest, including burn severity, post-fire tree seedling establishment and carbon storage.

A major component of this research, which Brian’s master’s student will be leading, involves studying how well satellites can measure burn severity in forests that are still very young since the last severe fire. “We have well-developed satellite indices to measure burn severity in forests, but most of these indices have really only been tested on older forests with much greater live biomass,” says Brian. “However, when fire burns through a dense stand of 25-year-old trees, we don’t know how accurately the satellite can detect burn severity. This is a big part of what Saba will be testing in her master’s research at SEFS. “Calibrating these satellite indices will allow us to investigate spatial patterns of burn severity over much broader scales, and gain insight into how fire regimes may be changing right before our eyes.”

The RAPID grant provides a total of $200,000 in funding, with just under $60,000 coming to Brian for his role in the project, and the rest supporting his collaborators at the University of Wisconsin.

Also joining the crew in the field will be a freelance writer from the New York Times to spend a weekend a write a store about the project. The Discovery Channel will be sending a team, as well, as part of documentary about the research on climate change and fire. Brian and his collaborators plan to produce a series of mini-documentaries (5-8 minutes in length), in English and Spanish, to explain effects of increased fire activity and climate warming on western forests to a wide audience.

It’s going to be a packed July for Brian and his partners, and we look forward to hearing reports from the field!

Photos © Brian Harvey.

SEFS Seminar Series: Fall 2016 Schedule!

The schedule is set for the Fall 2016 SEFS Seminar Series, and this quarter’s talks are loosely organized around a spatial theme, “Ecosystems, Ecology and Management at Scales.” We’re excited to welcome a wide range of speakers, from new faculty hire Brian Harvey, to a research fellow from Tasmania, to Professor Randy Dahlgren, who will be visiting from UC Davis to give the Distinguished Alumni Seminar.

Held on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 4:20 p.m. in Anderson 223, the talks are always open to the public, and the first seminar of each month will be followed by a casual reception down the hall in the Forest Club Room (or the Salmon BBQ, in the case of the October 5 seminar!). Students can register for course credit under SEFS 529A.

Check out the schedule below and join us for as many talks as you can!

2016_09_fall-2016-posterWeek 1: September 28
“Carbon cycling in the global forest system”
Dr. Tom Crowther
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Week 2: October 5*
“From subduction to salmon: Geologic subsidies drive high productivity of a volcanic spring-fed river”
Professor Randy Dahlgren
UC Davis

Week 3: October 12
“Putting PNW retention forestry practices into a global context”
Dr. Sue Baker
Research Fellow
University of Tasmania & Forestry Tasmania

Week 4: October 19
“A comparison of low-intensity management options for Douglas-fir dominated forests in western WA”
Professor Greg Ettl

Week 5: October 26
“Bring on the heat: How climate change may protect eastern hemlock”
Dr. Angela Mech
Postdoctoral Research Associate

Week 6: November 2*
“Avoided impacts on human health by recovering wood residues for bioenergy and bioproducts in the Pacific Northwest”
Professor Indroneil Ganguly

Week 7: November 9
“Unlikely hero, or the next to fall? Causes and consequences of subalpine fir mortality in the wake of recent bark beetle outbreaks”
Dr. Brian Harvey
Smith Fellow (and future SEFS faculty member!)

Week 8: November 16
“California spotted owl habitat: New insights from a multiscale analysis from LiDAR data”
Professor Van Kane

Week 9: November 30
“Changing fire regimes in eastern Washington: Recent large wildfire events and implications for dry forest management”
Dr. Susan Prichard
SEFS Research Scientist

Week 10: December 7*

“Exploring frequent fire forests at multiple scales”
Dr. Keala Hagmann
Postdoctoral Research Associate

* Indicates reception after seminar

New Faculty Intro: Brian Harvey

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

Brian Harvey might not be able to pinpoint the exact moment he knew he wanted to be a professor, but he can definitely recall a series of “pinch me” moments that gradually crystallized his dream—a dream he’s now realized, as he will be joining our faculty this spring as an assistant professor of forest ecosystem science and services!

Brian, who was born in Cleveland but spent most of his childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, double-majored in geography and environmental studies as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. After he graduated, one of his first jobs was with an environmental consulting firm, where he was involved in a lot of remediation clean-up at industrial sites. “It was a really good experience in terms of working with all the different stakeholders in environment management,” he says, “from businesses and municipalities to state and federal governments.”

Brian with his wife Denisse Guerrero-Harvey and son Joaquin Guerrero-Harvey on a recent trip to New York City.
Brian with his wife Denisse Guerrero-Harvey and son Joaquin Guerrero-Harvey on a recent trip to New York City.

Still, though he found much of the work fairly interesting, Brian says the job mostly had the unintended effect of rekindling his interest in ecology and natural sciences—and therefore a desire to return to school.

So he then enrolled in a master’s program at San Francisco State University to study geography and natural resource management. “I went back to school to get back into ecology, and particularly forest ecology, and I did my thesis research on a post-fire study of the Point Reyes National Seashore.”

Resurveying an area that had burned in 1995, Brian was able to explore more than a decade of post-fire succession to see how the forest ecosystem had responded. “Those years at San Francisco State were when things really started to click for me,” he says. “I realized this was my dream job, to be able to combine research in forest ecology with teaching and mentoring.”

That revelation solidified his decision to continue on in graduate school for a Ph.D. Since he’d always been fascinated by the Yellowstone fires of 1988, he reached out to one of the pioneers of research in that area, Professor Monica Turner from the University of Wisconsin, and joined her lab to focus on forest disturbance ecology in the Northern Rockies. “That was sort of the next pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment,” he says, “walking around in Yellowstone in the forests I’d seen as a kid go up in flames in 1988, and here I was getting to study this stuff for my Ph.D. It was unbelievable.”

Brian hiking to a research site with his youngest field assistant, his son Joaquin!
Brian hiking to a research site with his youngest field assistant, his son Joaquin!

While he was wrapping up his doctoral program in 2015—he had actually defended his dissertation in 2014 just before the birth of his son, who turned a year and half this August—he started looking for postdoc opportunities. He ended up applying to and getting selected for a prestigious Smith Conservation Research Fellowship, and he based his project at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Founded by Dr. David H. Smith, a pediatrician who developed a vaccine for childhood spinal meningitis and later became an active conservationist, Smith Fellowships support early-career scientists working in the field of conservation biology. The Society for Conservation Biology now runs the program, which brings in five fellows a year, provides funding for two years and allows them to design their own projects (SEFS Professor Josh Lawler was also a Smith Fellow from the class of 2004).

Professional training and development are also central elements of the program, as Smith Fellows attend three weeklong retreats a year. Traveling to different sites, they gain skills in everything from science communication and working with the media, to how to translate their research into successful environmental policy and management. “For me,” says Brian, “the Smith Fellows program has been a tremendous foundation for fulfilling my social contract as a scientist—making sure my research is not only broadening our understanding of the natural world, but also providing a solid foundation for informed decision-making.”

The core of the Smith Fellows program, of course, is the fellows’ proposed research project, and Brian has been looking at the phenomenon of subalpine fir decline in the Rocky Mountains. Largely overlooked since it never significantly factored into timber production, subalpine fir has suddenly gained prominence as some of its peers—especially lodgepole pine and spruce—have suffered extensively from bark beetle outbreaks. Mountain pine beetles and spruce beetles have killed trees across large tracts of forest, and Brian says a lot of research has identified subalpine fir has a critical stopgap species to keep habitat intact until the next generation of spruce and pine can establish. Yet now subalpine fir populations have also started to decline, so Brian is trying to figure out why that’s happening. “Resilience, or the capacity of forests to ‘bounce back’ after disturbance,” he says, “is critical for maintaining many of the ecosystem services we associate with forests—water supply, wildlife habitat, carbon storage and recreation opportunities.”

This research will keep Brian plenty busy through the fall and winter until he completes his fellowship, and then he’ll begin his move to Seattle. His official start date with SEFS is March 16, 2017, just in time for spring quarter—and he can’t wait to get here.

Brian taking a lunch break during fieldwork on a project examining post-fire tree regeneration in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Brian taking a lunch break during fieldwork on a project examining post-fire tree regeneration in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

“As a forest ecologist, I can’t imagine a more exciting time to be in the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “You’ve got an enormous wealth of foundational forest ecology research from many of the folks at UW, and at the same time we’re starting to see the emergence of some really big changes in forests from wildfires and bark beetle outbreaks in the last several years.”

Brian sees a growing need to understand when, where and why these disturbances are happening, and to answer the critical question of how our forest ecosystems will respond. “A lot of my work focuses on understanding the mechanisms of resilience in these forests,” he says, “and then how processes play out across different spatial and temporal scales. Disturbances like fires and insect outbreaks are natural and important components of ‘normally’ functioning forests. At the same time, climate change and the associated steep increases in disturbance activity can trigger big changes in forests, setting different trajectories for decades to centuries.”

More broadly, Brian says he’s looking forward to connecting with graduate students and colleagues in the school and university, and collaborators and stakeholders across the Pacific Northwest. “The key theme in my research is looking at how forests change over space and time, and the role disturbance plays in those changes,” he says, “and I really like to use multiple approaches and tools to answer questions. That opens up a lot of opportunities to work with grad students who have a diverse skillset, and also to collaborate with folks across a broad spectrum of disciplines.”

We can’t wait to welcome Brian and his family to Seattle this spring, and to start harnessing his tremendous energy and ideas. “I absolutely love what I do,” he says, “and I’m excited to interact with folks who are as enthusiastic as I am!”

Photos © Brian Harvey.

Brian walking through a recently burned forest in western Wyoming where native fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) has taken advantage of the space opened up from disturbance.
Brian walking through a recently burned forest in western Wyoming where native fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) has taken advantage of the space opened up from disturbance.

Advanced Silviculture Seminar

For the Advanced Silviculture Seminar (SEFS 526) this quarter, Professor Greg Ettl has organized a truly continental line-up with speakers from Canada, Mexico and the United States. This winter’s theme, “Single Tree and Small Gap Selection Forestry Systems of North America,” will explore responses to selection systems where one to a few trees have been removed at regular intervals from forests (in some cases for decades). And thanks to the videoconference facilities in Kane Hall, the speakers will be able to present live from eight different locations without making the long flight out to Seattle!

The seminars are open to the public and are held on Fridays from 2:30-3:30 p.m. in Kane Hall, Room 19 (with time afterward for Q&A). Check out the full schedule below, and come out and join us—starting this Friday, Jan. 10—for an incredible series of talks from experts across North America!

Advanced Silviculture SeminarJanuary 10
“Introduction to single-tree and small gap selection systems: Potential applications in the Pacific Northwest.”
Greg Ettl, SEFS

January 17
“Selection methods for loblolly and shortleaf pine: Lessons from the Good and Poor Forty Demonstration established 1937, Crossett Experimental Forest, southeastern Arkansas.”
Jim Guldin, USFS, Southern Research Station, Hot Springs, Ark.

January 24
“The application of partial harvest systems for the southern boreal forests of Québec in the context of natural disturbance-based management.”
Brian Harvey, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue

January 31
“Long-term dynamics and emerging trends associated with selection-based systems in Lake States northern hardwood forests.”
Anthony D’Amato, Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota

February 7
“Response of mature trees versus seedlings to gaps associated with group selection management: The Blodgett Forest, Sierra Nevada, California.”
Rob York, University of California

February 14
“The effects of selection system harvesting on longleaf-slash pine forests: light availability explains regeneration, and understory composition.”
Kimberly Bohn, University of Florida, Milton, Fla.

February 21
“Single-tree selection in Acadian mixed conifer forests: the balanced, multi-aged stands of the Penobscot National Forest.”
Laura Kenefic, USFS Center for Research on Ecosystem Change, Bradley, Maine

February 28
“A dominance of shade tolerant species following 60 years of single-tree selection cutting in upland mixed-hardwood forest of the southern Appalachian Mountains.”
Tara Keyser, USFS, Southern Research Station, Asheville, N.C.

March 7
No seminar.

March 14
“The success of the ‘Mexican Method’ of selection forestry in pine and pine-oak forests.”
Martin Mendoza, Colegio de Postgraduados, Mexico