New Mexico State University, working in partnership with New Mexico Highlands University and the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, has been awarded a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the first comprehensive, New Mexico-based forestry research center in the Southwest.
The grant will fund the development of a Center of Excellence in Forest Restoration to house the Forest Restoration Triangle, or FORT, a collaboration of NMSU's John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora, part of the Agricultural Experiment Station in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; the Forestry Program in the Department of Natural Resources Management at NMHU; and the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, also based at NMHU.
The center aims to advance the understanding of the effects of restoration activities on forested areas in New Mexico through multidisciplinary research, education and stakeholder collaborations. It also will provide science-based solutions for private, tribal, state and federal forest managers, who face the threat of catastrophic fires due to overgrown forests and the inability of post-fire plant communities and ecosystems to naturally regenerate after such fires.
Like similar forestry programs at land-grant universities throughout the United States, FORT will have research, education and outreach components, said Owen Burney, associate professor and superintendent of NMSU's John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center.
"Fire and droughts are major concerns for this region. It is more important than ever to research and implement effective and efficient forest management and restoration strategies that address these issues," Burney said. "This CREST grant allows us to do the research, incorporate students and connect the landowners with the research that is being conducted."
"My role in research is to look at restoring the post-fire environment through forest regeneration via tree planting," Burney said. "This work involves everything that starts from seeds and genetics through nursery production and finally into planting and the development of a future forest."
The FORT center will be vital to New Mexico and throughout the Southwest because of the region's dependence on resources from forests, especially water, Burney said.
About a third of New Mexico is forested, he added. "The forest provides a lot of resources to New Mexicans and the general Southwest region. But water is likely the most important one," he said.
However, the health of New Mexico's forests is on the decline because of factors that include historic fire suppression and poor management prescriptions that resulted in fuel-density increases.
"Now, what we're left with is these dense forests with high-fuel loads that result in catastrophic fires," Burney said, adding, "We've seen in the recent years some of the largest catastrophic fires in the Southwest. The number of actual fires is going down. But the size and intensity of the fires - how catastrophic and severe they are - have dramatically increased."
To address this, the FORT center will develop strategies for the management and restoration of resilient forests in the context of climate change and fire. It also will train students in fire management as well as forest ecology and restoration, offering undergraduate and masters programs at NMHU. Plans also include developing a collaborative Ph.D. program between NMHU and NMSU, Burney said.
"The FORT center will be a game-changer in New Mexico and the Southwest," he said.