Modeling forests in the shadow of Big Ben

James Millington, a former post-doctoral researcher Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, and colleagues are once again publishing details of their computer models that aim to help forest managers work more efficiently for more robust and productive forests.

Feb. 15, 2013

James Millington and his colleagues aren’t out of the woods yet.

Millington, a former post-doctoral researcher Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS), and colleagues are once again publishing details of their computer models that aim to help forest managers work more efficiently for more robust and productive forests.

Filling the gap: A compositional gap regeneration model for managed northern hardwood forests” is the second of a one-two punch of research in the journal Ecological Modelling. The first piece, "Modelling for forest management synergies and trade-offs: Northern hardwood tree regeneration, timber and deer" was published in November.

The research group, which includes Michael Walters, MSU associate professor of forestry; Megan Matonis, who recently earned a master’s degree in forestry while a CSIS member and now is working on her doctorate at Colorado State University; and Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and CSIS director – create new computer simulations to understand how timber can reproduce over time in different scenarios – and understand what sort of factors affect that.

Forest management on one hand seems simple: trees are cut down, sun shines, new trees grow back. Repeat. But nature’s dynamic isn’t that simple – and the interface between humans and the plants and animals on which they live and depend upon is complex.

The team members are academics. Some, like Walters and Matonis, spend a good portion of their time in the woods. Liu and Millington work more these days at their desks. The team together combines the strengths of empirical and modeling work  -- using data about what’s in the forest to inform models  created in the computer that help understand forest dynamics, past and present.

Take Millington -- he ponders these questions of Upper Peninsula forests at King’s College in London. The view from his building is stunning – Big Ben, the Tower of London. It can’t get more urban. 

But Millington’s expertise is ecological modeling. His work simulates how forests really grow, and showing likely outcomes of different scenarios. How grazing deer and other factors affect which trees grow back , what timber-friendly hardwood regeneration can mean for bird habitat, and how his agent-based land-use models can have an effect on those who use and live on the land.

A Brit by birth, he has spent months doing research in the forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in Spain and in the UK. As a child, maps – like that of London’s Tube – intrigued him.

“I love thinking about how places connect to one another and how simplifying, visual tools like the Tube map allow us to understand the world – about what’s happening in different locations and how they’re connected,” he said.  “These kinds of issues are important in the UP, for example, because we’re finding that different conditions  – such as relating to deer, soil and climate – in different areas of the forest result in different rates of juvenile tree regeneration. This in turn has consequences for future timber productivity and how we manage the forest as whole.

“Computer simulation models are very useful for exploring the impacts of changes in deer and climate over time and space and how different management actions in different places in the forest influence one another.”

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