USDA Grant Paves the Way for Thriving Forests and Stronger Economies in the East

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by | Feb 17, 2023

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The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded Purdue University a $10 million grant to help landowners and stakeholders adapt their forests to meet increasingly complicated economic and climate conditions in the Eastern US.

Around half of the acreage of Eastern US forests are owned and controlled by around 5 million small, private landowners. In contrast with forests in the Western U.S., most of which are publicly owned. This project aims to improve the management of 15 million acres of those forests, an area nearly the size of West Virginia. Purdue will be joined in this endeavor by the University of Georgia, the University of Maine, and the US Forest Service. The project covers three regions in the United States: the northern hardwood forest in the Northeast, the central hardwood region, and the southern pine and mixed hardwood.

A professor of forestry and natural resources, and Dean’s Chair of Remote Sensing at Perdue, Songlin Fei says that they are providing digital tools that will provide rapid responses and precision in managing forests with an aim at improving their health.

PERSEUS (Promoting Economic Resilience and Sustainability of the Eastern U.S. Forests), as the project is aptly named, will work to protect forestry’s benefits, which include fiber and timber production as well as climate mitigation. Long-term viability however is facing threats from climate change as well as land-use changes and evolving markets. Aaron Weiskittel, the Irving Chair of Forest Ecosystem Management at the University of Maine, says high interest in carbon while renewing interest in forests, has complicated their overall management. He concluded by saying that PERSEUS would provide a more holistic approach, by giving landowners new tools to guide their decision-making practices.  Sounds like giving credence to the name of Perseus, the hero who slew the Gorgon.

The partners involved will add to the research, applying artificial intelligence and digital tools to a variety of forest types. They will work together as a team to explore methods of combining data collections from drones, satellites, and other sources. Pete Bettinger, the project lead at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, says they will need to provide research, outreach, and extension products to benefit private forest landowners of the Eastern U.S. They will also need to design systems that improve efficient data development and accessibility.

PERSEUS will act as a guide for landowner decision-making via a digital framework, visually representing both current and future forest directions; this will provide data upon which they can base their decisions. They aim to provide a range of economic and ecologically friendly scenarios about the most beneficial management based not just on the 20 or 50 acres owned by the individual, but in the context of the broader area. If, for instance, too many landowners in an area plant walnut trees, it could lower the profitability of their operations. PERSEUS pursues engaged climate-smart management to ensure the project’s success. PERSEUS will also enhance the Center for Digital Forestry’s efforts in the production of a digitally competent next-generation workforce. Fei said this is the future, if US agriculture wants to stay competitive, they need to put a lot of energy into this area.

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