When people consider the large-scale crops that contribute to modern society, wheat and corn often come to mind. But for many in the southeastern United States, known as the “wood basket” both for the United States and the world, pine is key.

That’s why, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered a grant for coordinated agricultural projects, a team of researchers banded together to propose an unprecedented study on southern pine forests.

The Pine Integrated Network: Education, Mitigation, and Adaptation project, better known as PINEMAP, began in 2012 when Tim Martin, professor of tree physiology at the University of Florida, along with representatives from 11 southeastern land-grant universities and a host of other research cooperatives, proposed a five-year research project to determine how changes to climate could affect pine forests in the southeastern United States.

The vast team of scientists, educators, and cooperative extension professionals worked to develop a plan to help forest landowners increase carbon sequestration, increase the efficiency of fertilizer inputs, adapt forest management approaches, and plant a larger variety of trees to increase forest resilience and sustainability under a changing climate.

“We wanted to know how we might expect the natural resources we manage to respond to climate change in the future, and how we could effectively convey that information into management recommendations that stakeholders could use,” said Martin, the project director.

According to Professor Thomas Fox, who serves as the lead principal investigator on the portion of the project in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, PINEMAP initially had three main goals: research, outreach, and education. The project’s recent selection for a Partnership Award by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture is recognition of the successful integration of those three missions.

“The award is a recognition that we’ve collectively been able to accomplish the objectives of the project and do this translational research effectively,” Fox said. “It’s a tribute to the ability of a large group of researchers across disciplines to work together.” Fox also serves as the overall lead principal investigator for silvicultural research on PINEMAP as well as the integration team leader for mitigation.

Combining research, outreach, and education was no small task and required cooperation between hundreds of researchers, students, and landowners. Martin highlighted the unique nature of a project that brought together experts from a diverse set of fields, including forestry, geography, economics, and education. “We’ve really established research infrastructure that will enable us to do this kind of interdisciplinary science in the future,” he said.

Virginia Tech’s team, based in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, included more than a dozen graduate students, post-doctoral associates, and staff members in addition to following faculty members:

  • Harold Burkhart, the Thomas M. Brooks Professor of Forestry and University Distinguished Professor
  • Thomas Fox, the Honorable Garland Gray Distinguished Professor of Forestry
  • Jason Holliday, associate professor of forest genetics and biotechnology
  • John Seiler, the Honorable and Mrs. Shelton H. Short Jr. Professor of Forestry and Alumni Distinguished Professor
  • Brian Strahm, associate professor of forest soils and ecology
  • R. Quinn Thomas, assistant professor of forestry
  • Valerie Thomas, associate professor of forest remote sensing
  • Randolph Wynne, professor of forest remote sensing

Seiler helped lead the educational component of PINEMAP. Over the course of four years, 45 undergraduate students from universities across the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada completed the PINEMAP Undergraduate Fellowship Program.

The student fellows spent a summer conducting research alongside PINEMAP investigators. In the fall, they enrolled in a Virginia Tech virtual course called Effective Communication Skills, in which they learned to communicate what they learned during the summer to a broad range of audiences, including middle and high school students near their home universities. In total, PINEMAP undergraduate fellows presented lessons to over 7,400 students from 95 different public schools.

“This was really a unique model, because we taught college students from all over the United States,” Seiler explained. “It was a Virginia Tech course, but they paid tuition and were graded at their home institutions.”

Wynne worked with climatologists to develop climate models that would account for a variety of potential climate changes.

“We created climate predictions from 2070 through 2100,” Wynne said. “We’re going to see a net increase in forest growth, because more CO2 in the atmosphere will drive an increase in plant productivity. Landowners will need to know how to manage these changes.”

Ultimately, the project affirmed that researchers are on the right track to effectively maintaining the Southeast’s pine forests. “The best way to prepare for the uncertainty and risk associated with a changing climate is to effectively and diligently apply the principles of sound forest management that we already have,” Martin explained.

According to Martin and Fox, the PINEMAP efforts will continue well beyond the end of the current grant.

“We need to continue working to understand the pine forest ecosystem in the Southeast that is a major economic driver in the region and provides tremendous environmental services that benefit society,” Fox said. “We also need to continue our education and outreach efforts so that we put the knowledge we gain to work improving people’s lives and the environment.”

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