My research addresses several questions about the dynamics of forest communities and their patterns on the landscape. I am particularly interested in late-successional forests - "old-growth" stands - and their properties, and in the possibilities of modeling forest composition at the landscape scale. Students are participants and collaborators in all of my research. Current projects are part of two general research thrusts:
Ecologists have theorized about the properties of ecological succession for decades, and ecology texts present much of this theory as standard models. However, these models remain substantially untested in their application to late-successional, or "old-growth" forests. The attribution of various properties to old-growth forests is not well-supported by actual observational data, for the very simple reason that community processes in these forests are too slow for easy monitoring. Canopy trees live several centuries; research projects are rarely funded for more than a few years. The inadequacies of our knowledge are a serious problem for conservation planning and in efforts to understand the consequences of environmental change.
In two old-growth stands in northern Michigan, permanent study plots established 35-65 years ago have become the backbone of a multi-faceted inquiry into the dynamics of late-successional hemlock-northern hardwood forests. These studies, abandoned by previous researchers, have been re-initiated and extended with the support of the National Science Foundation, The Andrew J. Mellon Foundation, The United States Forest Service, and The Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation.
Remeasurements of permanent plots over the last decades have shown these old-growth forests to be quite dynamic in a multi-decade time-frame. Even though there has been no logging and no massive disturbance in at least several centuries, forest canopy composition continues to change as some tree species apparently displace others. The dynamics we have observed are complex, and appear to be driven by several factors, including competition, climate change, deer population dynamics, and range changes of some dominant species. Our continuing research addresses some of these factors more specifically.
Bennington College is situated in the foothills of the northern Taconic Mountains. The Taconics are ecologically diverse, but less well-studied than the neighboring Green Mountains and Adirondack Mountains. We are working with owners of several large parcels of conservation lands (The Merck Forest and Farmland Foundation, Equinox Preservation Trust, The Nature Conservancy) to understand vegetation patterns in the northern Taconics. Initially we are conducting extensive vegetation sampling over the full range of elevation, exposure, and geology present in these areas. Data from this work will be integrated with environmental and historical land-use data to try to understand the factors structuring species distribution and community diversity. Ultimately, our goal is to use GIS (Geographic Information System) technology to integrate these data and generate a predictive model of forest communities of the Taconics. Our ecology lab maintains a fully equipped GIS system that is used in teaching and student research as well as in this project.