Assessing the Potential for Climate Change and Forest Insects to Drive Land-Use Regime Shifts

Climate change and forest insects have significant impacts on forest ecosystems and these factors also strongly influence land-use decision-making, with indirect forest impacts at least as significant as the direct impacts. A scientific frontier in sustainable forest management, is developing a better understanding of these processes and drivers of land change, especially identification of factors that can trigger major land-use shifts. This project will address this challenge using a computer simulation model of how changing land-use decisions and forest insect outbreaks affect each other. The simulation will be set within the context of a changing climate and emerging energy markets for woody biomass. The study region will be New England, which is densely populated, highly forested, and has damaging forest insect pests. The research will use interviews and a survey to study land owners and institutional land managers as a basis for a computer simulation of land use decision making that will be linked to a simulation of forest processes, including insect dynamics. The interacting models will be examined for alternative outcomes in the production of ecosystem services. The outputs from these models will be integrated into a portfolio of decision support tools designed to help landowners make informed land-use decisions.

The research will examine how climate change and insect infestations affect land-use, and it will quantify the individual, aggregate, and interactive impacts of these processes on forest landscapes. The interacting influences of emerging woody biomass energy markets, insect infestations, and climate change on forest land-use decisions will be addressed. The study will examine (1) whether and how climate change and insect dynamics are shifting land-use regimes in New England by altering human decision-making; (2) how these alterations in human decisions may affect forest ecosystems and the flow of select ecosystem services; and (3) how, in turn, these ecosystem changes affect landowners. To achieve these goals, the researchers will employ a three-faceted approach: (1) social science data collection including surveys, and targeted structured interviews to understand how private landowners in New England perceive climate change and insect and how these perceptions are influencing their land us; (2) agent-based simulations; and (3) regional-scale forest simulations that quantify changes in forest structure, carbon, and species composition. The coupling between the agent-based model representing the human system and the forest simulation representing the natural system will be dynamic in order to capture the specific patterns that emerge from the complex feedbacks between the two. In this framework, the macroscopic properties of complex systems - i.e., land-use regimes - emerge from lower-level interactions among agents. The research also includes a comparative assessment of the effectiveness of the broader impact strategy.

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