In keeping with its commitment to advance the science of sustainability, the College of Natural Resources and Environment created the Center for Natural Resources Assessment and Decision Support. The center will draw on data and expertise from within the college, as well as outside sources, to provide its clients — policymakers, government agencies, and private firms that hold large tracts of land — with information they need to make informed decisions about natural resources.
“Our first task will be to answer the question, ‘Are we using our forest resources in a sustainable manner?’” said Professor Stephen Prisley, the center’s director.
“As important as forests are to our quality of life, it is critical that we sustain them — that we use only what we and nature can replace,” Prisley said. “Yet the data and analytical tools needed for assessment and projections are not as precise nor as flexible as they need to be.”
“For example,” Prisley said, “forest inventory data from the U.S. Forest Service are useful for assessments covering entire states or regions, but they can miss critical changes that happen at smaller, multi-county areas within a state. We’re working to fill those gaps.”
The center provides data on forest resource conditions and computer models. Its staff can help adapt models and data for specific projects, as well as offer research and internship opportunities to students.
“The college already has the critical scientific expertise,” said Dean Paul Winistorfer. “The center will provide the focus and, thanks to our partners in industry and government, the resources to fine-tune assessment science for decision-making about natural resources.”
Plans for the new center took hold after college representatives heard from landowners in both the private and public sectors that they need improved data, models, and analytical techniques to assess the status of natural resources such as wood fiber, water, and biodiversity.
Among the center’s nearly 20 funding sources are The Nature Conservancy, Dominion Resources, Enviva, MWV (formerly MeadWestvaco), Morgan Lumber Company, and RockTenn. The center also receives critical support from the Virginia Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service.
The center provides clients strategic planning advantages, better risk management, new measurement and modeling tools, boots-on-the-ground data verification, and the ability to anticipate resource and market changes. Clients also can identify students as prospective employees.
The center is creating models of forest harvest and regrowth in Virginia’s counties based on data from satellite imagery and on-the-ground measurements collected by the U.S. Forest Service. Those models will provide a new perspective on available resources and sustainability issues.
An important distinction in resource assessment is to know what portion of the overall forest resource is actually “available” for potential use by wood industries. In a 2014 assessment of Virginia’s forests, the center analyzed data to examine what conditions can constrain timber harvesting and, as a result, wood supply.
For example, the assessment revealed that about 13 percent of Virginia’s private forest area exists in parcels of fewer than 10 acres, while harvest records indicate that these small parcels account for less than 2 percent of harvest area. In other words, the remaining 87 percent of forests supply 98 percent of the harvest area. “As Virginia’s forests are split into smaller parcels with each new generation of landowners, this reduces the amount of forest that is likely to supply wood to Virginia’s forest industries,” Prisley said.
In the long term, the center will conduct additional assessments and incorporate geographic information system (GIS) data regarding land use, infrastructure, population, and other attributes. “We will expand our research to assess the wider range of natural resources to include water, wildlife habitat, and diversity among both plants and animals,” Prisley said.
“In addition to improving the data and analytical tools to create highly accurate projections for forest managers and policymakers, we will have the ability to revisit an assessment in the face of real-life variables such as fire, weather, land-use changes, and shifting market demands,” he said.
“We are excited about the opportunity to bring together the massive quantities of publicly available data about natural resources and the substantial expertise of college faculty to address questions and concerns about the sustainability of the natural resources we depend on,” he said.
The College of Natural Resources and Environment responded to the increasing need for professionals trained in data gathering and knowledge integration by creating a major in environmental informatics.
Will Saulnier of Christiansburg, Virginia, a master of forestry student, will conduct a private woodland owner survey in summer 2014 to identify trends in Virginia landowners’ willingness to harvest forest products from their land.
The Center for Natural Resources Assessment and Decision Support will analyze the data to help project the available wood supply on Virginia’s private land.
Baseline information about forest resources is critical for planning and making policies. Among its research projects, the Center for Natural Resources Assessment and Decision Support has completed a “Tier I” forest resource assessment for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Stephen Prisley, director of the Center for Natural Resources Assessment and Decision Support, encouraged master of forestry student Drew Cockram of Woolwine, Virginia, pictured, to meet with representatives of RockTenn, a center partner, at the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s 2013 career fair.
Cockram is now a forester for RockTenn and serves as the firm’s liaison with the center on forest assessments.