CNH: Collaborative Research: Explaining Socioecological Resilience Following Collapse: Forest Recovery in Appalachian Ohio

Much is known about the processes leading to forest loss, that understanding must be complemented with new knowledge regarding the socioecological factors that influence forest recovery and sustainability. This knowledge is critical for predicting where and when second- and third-generation forests might emerge and for understanding the conditions necessary to maintain them. Furthermore, such knowledge is urgently required to inform global climate models, climate change mitigation scenarios, and a suite of other environmental issues. This interdisciplinary research project will focus on the human and ecological linkages that give rise to specific forest forms (including forest extent, species composition, and land-cover patterns) and functions (including benefits of the forest like timber, recreation, privacy, and wildlife habitat). The investigators will examine the extent to which those linkages and the forests emergent from them lead to irreversible changes in socioecological systems. They will focus their attention on Appalachian Ohio, an area whose which forests have returned and where there is sufficient time depth to examine the underlying socioecological processes that give rise to them. A former extractive periphery devastated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, its extensive forests have emerged in surprising ways over the last century. Project goals are (1) to compare forest composition between pre-settlement forests and contemporary forests; (2) to describe the social and ecological form and function of recovered forests; (3) to explain the emergence of the forest over time; and (4) to predict how these socioecological systems will function in the future. The methods to be used include an agent-based model representing land-use decision-making and implementation coupled with the landscape disturbance and succession model, which simulates forest succession and regrowth. To inform the models with empirical data, the researchers will collect field data on forest structure and composition, generate time-series classifications of remotely sensed images, and investigate political, economic, infrastructural, and cultural dynamics using archival and field-derived data.

This project will make important contributions to theory and methods for understanding dynamically coupled socioecological systems. The project will advance basic understanding of forest transitions by focusing on forest resilience, thus treating forest recovery as an emergent property of complex socioecological systems. The project will focus attention on differences in ecosystem attributes before and long after massive disturbance, showing that humans and ecosystems have together created unexpected ecologies. The project will demonstrate specific ways that forest form and function respond to local forces and distant shocks that are both social and ecological. Methodologically, the project will advance agent-based modeling science by using innovative metrics to incorporate social inequality and power dynamics and by coupling social simulation with landscape-level forest growth models. As a collaborative project between two Ohio-based universities and the U.S. Forest Service, the project will provide practical information regarding pressing social and environmental issues in Appalachian Ohio, including rural poverty, ecological change, and management of public and private forests. Global applications of this portable framework include enhancing the ways that scholars and policy makers understand, plan for, and help to foster ecological recovery, in particular by drawing attention to the role of social inequalities in shaping socioecological resilience. The findings of this research can also inform climate modeling and mitigation. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

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