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Pete Bettinger teaches a class in the woods

New project connects forest management, digital tools

The University of Georgia is a partner in a new $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will help landowners better adapt their forests to increasingly complicated economic and climate conditions.

 

The project, called PERSEUS (Promoting Economic Resilience and Sustainability of the Eastern U.S. Forests) encompasses hardwood forests in the Northeast and central regions, as well as Southern pine and mixed hardwood stands. The grant, which was awarded to Purdue University, includes the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the University of Maine.

 

The project aims to improve the management of 15 million acres of forests across the eastern United States—an area nearly as large as the state of West Virginia. About 5 million small, private landowners control just over half the forest acreage in this portion of the country, compared with forests in the western United States, which are mostly publicly owned.

 

The project’s name invokes the hero of Greek mythology who slew the snake-haired Medusa; in this modern incarnation, PERSEUS will work to counter long-term threats to forest sustainability, which includes climate change, evolving markets and land-use changes. “We will provide the digital tools that allow rapid response and precision management to improve forest health,” said Songlin Fei, a professor of forestry and natural resources and the Dean’s Chair of Remote Sensing at Purdue.

 

Researchers at UGA and the University of Maine will add to the depth of the research, applying digital tools and artificial intelligence to a variety of areas and forest types. Working together, the team will explore ways to merge data collected from drones, satellites and other sources in an AI environment to automate forest inventories. They will also build systems to analyze ecosystem services provided by forests, as well as the environmental footprint of the forestry supply chain.

 

“We need to provide research, extension and outreach products to benefit private forest landowners of the eastern United States,” said professor Pete Bettinger, the project lead at Warnell. “And we need to design systems that improve the efficiency of data development and the accessibility of information related to alternative management options.”

 

Along with assisting in developing artificial intelligence environments, Warnell researchers will explore the efficiency and environmental footprint of the forestry supply chain and analyze tools that could help the sustainability of loggers, wood dealers and others. They will also research perceptions the public may have toward the industry and develop workshops and educational materials.

 

The larger goal of PERSEUS is to give landowners a digital framework that visually represents current and future forest trends. This data can then be used for real-time decision-making.

 

“You could manage the same patch of forest for timber, carbon, wildlife or for something else. Opportunities come and go,” said Fei, who also directs Purdue’s Center for Digital Forestry. “We will provide different economic and environmentally friendly scenarios about the most beneficial way of managing it. This modeling approach is not just on your 20 or 50 acres. It’s put into context of the broader region.”

 

The project will also respond to changes in markets, including the emerging opportunities in carbon markets.

 

“The high interest in carbon has renewed interest in forests, while complicating their overall management,” said Aaron Weiskittel, the Irving Chair of Forest Ecosystem Management at the University of Maine. “PERSEUS will work to provide a more holistic approach to forest management, while giving landowners new tools to guide decision-making.”

 

All the while, the project will keep a focus on sustainability, designing tools that are acceptable to landowners, economical and environmentally friendly. It will also help contribute to a digitally competent workforce.

 

“This is the future,” said Fei. “If the U.S. agricultural sector wants to stay competitive, we will need to put a lot of energy into this area.”

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