NASA Awards Reforestation Grant To U Montana Researchers

Dec 4, 2018

A team of researchers at the University of Montana has received a $700,000 grant from NASA to promote reforestation efforts across the western United States.

The grant will allow UM’s researchers to develop a set of tools to help the U.S. Forest Service improve its decision-making process following major disturbances like wildfires.

Solomon Dobrowski, a professor of forest landscape ecology, is the grant’s principal investigator.

“We're seeing increasingly 200, 300, even 400,000 acre fires. And when you get disturbances of that magnitude, the scale of the reforestation efforts that have to occur really start to become large," he says.

Dobrowski says that forest managers are finding more low elevation forests that experience drought not adequately regenerating on their own following wildfires.

“That's forcing a number of forest managers to basically go into these areas and try to replant them, but the scale of the problem is basically outpacing their capacity to keep up.”

That’s what Dobrowski says his team would like to help with.

They’ll use NASA Earth Observation data, forest inventory data and a hydrologic model to simulate drought stress and lethal surface temperatures for seedlings.

Dobrowski says this will help forest managers prioritize where natural regeneration can occur, and where intervention would be the most beneficial.

While the modeling can be applied to forests across the West, Dobrowski says this is an issue that hits close to home.

“If you go into some of these forests in the Bitterroot you'll see no natural regeneration in the understory. And so what that means is those forests are uniquely vulnerable to disturbances in the future. Because if there's a fire that burns through, or beetle outbreak, they won't naturally regenerate. And so, we here in Missoula, have the potential to lose some of our low elevation forests.”

The project team is composed of three researchers at UM: Dobrowski; Marco Maneta, a professor of hydrology and hydrologic modeling; and Zack Holden, an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Geography. Partners also include scientists and managers from the U.S. Forest Service. This project builds on a previous study by these researchers related to drought and water stress in tree seedlings.

The research will begin in January.