Branching Out

Peter Reich is planning for the future of our boreal forests with science and society in mind.


Peter Reich

Photo: Josh Kohanek
Peter Reich is a resident fellow of the Institute on the Environment, as well as a Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources. More >>

Smart investors assemble a diverse portfolio to weather uncertain times. Likewise, scientists are beginning to consider how northern Minnesota’s boreal forest can be managed to withstand changes in climate, economy and population.

University of Minnesota professor Peter Reich, one of the world’s top forest ecologists, is guiding such an effort with a Discovery Grant from the Institute on the Environment. During the next four years, Reich and a team of ecologists, economists and other scientists will work with several community groups to imagine the future of the northern forest and consider how best to prepare for changes.

“What’s the range of possibilities that are plausible?” asks Reich. “And given those possibilities, what can we do as a society to maintain the best quality of the environment and sustain economic vitality at the same time?”

Timing is crucial because Minnesota’s forests face rapid transformation. Most ominous is climate change. As average temperatures climb, southern species creep northward. Exotic species and new forest pests take root.

Depending on moisture, Minnesota’s northern forest could veer toward open oak woodlands or dense, shade-loving hardwoods. How would either development affect, for example, a timber industry dependent on pulpwood species such as aspen? How will tourism fare when the forest changes? What happens to forest species as timber companies sell off land?

These are the sorts of changes Reich hopes people will anticipate. “Even if you can’t predict the future, you’re set up as well as possible to be in the best situation possible.”

A leading authority on tree physiology and the carbon cycle, Reich has worked in a variety of forests—from boreal to tropical. For 15 years, he has studied the ecology of oak savannas and the response of plants to changes in climate and atmosphere at the U of M’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

Though Reich describes himself as a “basic science guy,” undertaking projects that are clear-cut in design, the outlines of his most recent effort are much less straightforward. “It’s not strictly a scientific project,” he says. “It’s a project trying to link science and management and economics.”

Why the focus on the boreal forest? For several reasons, says Reich. For starters, people of northern Minnesota are especially dependent on forest industries such as logging, paper and tourism.

Moreover, the state sits at the edge of the northern forest biome, where the landscape grades swiftly from conifers to hardwoods to prairie and farmland—the sweep of change you’d see in traveling from Nova Scotia to Texas. In this zone of abrupt change, scientists expect the most dramatic shifts due to climate.

Finally, the boreal forest tugs at Minnesotans’ identity. “It’s an iconic, cultural, almost spiritual entity for the people of Minnesota,” says Reich. “For all those reasons it seems like an important thing to study.”

Key to preparing for a volatile future, Reich says, is strengthening the resilience of the forest ecosystem: the ability of the forest to adapt or bounce back from disturbance or change. For example, as climate drives northern species such as moose from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and allows southern species such as red maple to spread northward, should we let species migrate and adjust on their own? Or should we transplant southern species or even exotic species that are better adapted to a warmer climate?

“If climate change happens as anticipated and a lot of the species that are common now don’t do well in 20, 40, 60 or 80 years, how do you maximize resilience of the forest? That’s the kind of discussion we need to have—what do you want the Boundary Waters to look like in 50 years? And how do you get there?”

To consider these questions, Reich is developing a four-pronged process:

First, analyze “past trajectories that got us to where we are today and that might give hints as to what the future will hold.”

Second, gather a variety of citizens to envision the range of plausible scenarios of the forest and society in the future.

Third, get stakeholders to consider “the things that must happen to make us better off given that range of future possibilities.”

And fourth, “try to implement some cross-ownership, landscape-scale management initiatives.”

Although initially, Reich would be satisfied simply to get citizen and professional groups engaged in a conversation that would continue indefinitely, he says it’s also important to get different groups working together to make the forest more resilient in the face of threats such as fire, climate change, fragmentation and invasive species.

“When I’m dead and gone—hopefully not right away—it would be nice if there was a northern forest that’s healthy and vibrant. Probably a differ­ent forest…but with people living there and making a living and maintaining environmental quality. No one would disagree with that. It’s like apple pie and the American flag.”

GREG BREINING is a St. Paul, Minn.-based travel, science and nature writer. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Audubon, National Geographic Traveler, Minnesota Conservation Volunteer and many other publications. He’s also the author of several books on travel and the environment.