In keeping with its commitment to advancing the science of sustainability, Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment has created the Center for Natural Resources Assessment and Decision Support.

“Our first task will be to answer the question, ‘Are we using our forest resources in a sustainable manner?’” said Stephen Prisley, associate professor of forest inventory and geographic information systems (GIS) in the college and director of the center.

The center has begun to create models of forest harvest and regrowth in Virginia at the county level and an even finer geographic scale.

Housed with the college’s Conservation Management Institute in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, the center will provide datasets of forest resource conditions; computer models designed for use by industry, government, and policymakers; and assistance in adapting models and data for specific applications. The center will also offer research and internship opportunities to students.

“As important as forests are to our quality of life, it is critical that we sustain them — that we use only what we and nature can replace,” said Prisley. “Yet the data and analytical tools needed for assessment and projections are not as precise or as flexible as they need to be.”

Plans for the new center took hold after college representatives heard from a number of natural resource stakeholders in Virginia agencies and industries that they need improved data, models, and analytical techniques to assess the status and trends of natural resources such as wood fiber, water, and biodiversity.

The Nature Conservancy has committed funding, and many corporations have contributed support for the center, including Dominion Resources, Enviva, MWV (formerly MeadWestvaco), and RockTenn. The center also receives critical support from the Virginia Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service.

In the long term, the center will include assessments of additional geographic regions and incorporate GIS layers of land use, infrastructure, population, and other attributes. “We will expand our research to assess the wider range of natural resources to include water, wildlife habitat, and diversity among plants as well as animals,” said Prisley.

“In addition to improving the data and analytical tools to create highly accurate projections for forest managers and policymakers, we will have the ability to revisit an assessment in the face of real-life variables such as fire, weather, land-use changes, and shifting market demands,” he continued.

Such models, based on data from remote sensing and measurements collected by the U.S. Forest Service, will provide a new perspective on available resources and sustainability. “We will improve the integration of land-based forest inventory and remotely sensed resource data,” Prisley added.

The center’s clients will gain strategic planning advantages, better risk management, new data, new measurement and modeling tools, boots-on-the-ground data verification, and the ability to anticipate resource and market changes. They will also be able to identify students as prospective employees.

“The college has the critical scientific expertise in forest inventory, information technology and modeling, resource management, hydrology, forest growth and yield prediction, spatial analysis, land use change, remote sensing, economics, harvesting and transportation, and natural resource policy,” Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college, pointed out. “The center will provide the focus and, thanks to our partners in industry and government, the resources to fine-tune assessment science for decision making about natural resources.”

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