Pine forests to get help from WUSTL biologists

WUSTL biologists will play a key role in helping restore the longleaf pine communities of the southeastern United States.

Ellen Damschen, Ph.D., and John Orrock, Ph.D., both assistant professors in biology in Arts & Sciences, are the lead principal investigators on the ambitious project that hopes to restore one of the most unique ecosystems in the country.

John Orrock, Ph.D. (left), assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, graduate student Caleb Hickman and Ellen Damschen, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, examine plants in the Goldfarb Greenhouse that are part of the longleaf pine ecosystem in the nation’s Southeast.

“We will examine the mechanisms that limit the recovery of longleaf pine understory plant communities at three separate government installations in the southeastern United States,” Orrock said.

“These communities are some of the most diverse plant communities outside of the tropics, and less than 3 percent of original, pristine habitat remains. Our work will use large-scale experiments and landscape-level analyses to determine how to best restore these systems,” he said.

The project, titled “Developing and Testing a Robust, Multi-Scale Framework for the Recovery of Longleaf Pine Communities,” received funding of $1.98 million dollars over five years.

Funding is coming from the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program — the Department of Defense’s (DoD) environmental science and technology program — in partnership with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Damschen and Orrock will be working with longleaf pine forest ecosystems at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the Savannah River Site located near Aiken, S.C.

Longleaf pine communities once stretched from Virginia to Texas. This diverse ecosystem harbors many rare, threatened and endangered species of plants and animals.

Damschen and Orrock have worked in this ecosystem since 2000 and have published many papers based on previous findings.

“While there is less than 3 percent of the historical ecosystem left, much of the southeastern United States has potential for recovery,” Damschen said.

“We want to determine the relative importance of local site conditions and ecological mechanisms and how they interact with larger landscape effects across space and time,” he said.

Damschen and Orrock will use a combination of historical land-use data and contemporary large-scale vegetation data to determine how past management actions and activities and military operations influence recovery potential.

They intend to generate a field-ready method to classify understory plant communities in longleaf pine savannahs and develop recovery guidelines to provide a roadmap for the restoration methods most likely to work best with the characteristics of the current degraded community.

They hope their findings will allow the DoD and DOE to identify conflicts between recovery and military training and testing activities as well as conflicts between recovery and the inferred habitat requirements for threatened, endangered and at-risk species.