CNH-Ex: Shifting Land Use and Forest Conservation: Understanding the Coupling of Social and Ecological Processes Along Urban-to-Rural Gradients

This interdisciplinary research project will focus on understand the complex and coupled socioecological processes that shape the structure, function, and transformation of forested landscapes across urban-to-rural gradients. The dynamics of forest cover and the ecosystem services they provide are shaped by the land-use and management decisions of thousands of individual landowners and the land-use planning and conservation actions of towns and environmental organizations. The researchers will examine shifting land use and forest-conservation practices across an urban-to-rural gradient between Boston and central Massachusetts. They will combine new data collection through focus groups, a mail survey, interviews, and archival research with existing ecological and spatial data to meet four research objectives: (1) to characterize the patterns of conservation and land-management practices along the urban-to-rural gradient over the past 30 years; (2) to compare the influence of land use and management on key attributes of forested ecosystems and the provision of ecosystem services along the urban-to-rural gradient over the past 30 years; (3) to analyze the ways in which socioecological processes have shaped conservation and land-management practices; and (4) to characterize the strength of coupling among human development, conservation, and ecosystem services.

This project will advance basic understanding of the interactions among human development, conservation, and ecosystem services across urban-rural gradients. In particular, it will shed light on the ways and degrees to which social and ecological processes are coupled and if and how these differ along the gradient. The project will uncover ways in which increasing development alters the possibilities for conservation, carbon sequestration, and the provision of other ecosystem services from forests by changing biophysical characteristics and by changing the relationship between people and their surroundings. The project also will illuminate the importance of ecosystem characteristics and services in shaping conservation and land-management practices relative to other social, political, and economic factors. Such understanding will enhance the capacity for conservation efforts and the protection of ecosystem services in urban, suburban, and rural areas in and beyond the study region. The project will provide education and reference material to community leaders who will transfer the information to other landowners and decision makers. The project also will facilitate the exchange of conservation information across the urban-to-rural gradient and strengthen the collaboration between the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program and the Boston Urban Long-Term Research Area Exploratory (ULTRA-Ex) program. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

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