Foresters' use of management tool focus of Penn State study

Penn State researchers examined the use and user-friendliness of SILVAH-Oak — short for Silviculture of Allegheny Hardwoods — a decision-support tool developed by the U.S. Forest Service for making silvicultural decisions in mixed oak forests. Shown is a young, regenerating forest, which is the site of the second part of the project. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Forests, especially those abundant in oak, a dominant and valued tree species, have struggled in recent years due to high white-tailed deer populations, insect outbreaks and fire suppression, prompting scientists to create decision-making tools that can aid in forest regeneration.

Yet, despite broad agreement by forestry experts on the importance and usefulness of decision-support tools for conservation and management of natural resources, not much is known about their broad-scale use, a gap in knowledge that researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences set out to fill.

"Given the advantages of using these tools, we wanted to find out whether they are used, and if not, why," said Josh Rittenhouse, of McVeytown, who, as an undergraduate in forest ecosystem management, embarked on the unique study. His research examined the use and user-friendliness of SILVAH-Oak — short for Silviculture of Allegheny Hardwoods — a decision-support tool developed by the U.S. Forest Service for making silvicultural decisions in mixed oak forests.

Rittenhouse's interest in the research grew from his time working in forests and speaking with managers about the tool, which analyzes field inventory data and provides recommendations on management techniques to improve the likelihood of forest regeneration.

Under the guidance of Laura Leites, associate research professor of quantitative forest ecology in the college's Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, Rittenhouse carried out the study during his junior and senior years, with the assistance of Kelly Derham, a former doctoral student, and Scott Miller, district forester with the state's Bureau of Forestry.

The team studied 97 cases from 2001 to 2008 — the years following the tool's adoption in Pennsylvania — in which managers used SILVAH-Oak prior to implementation of management practices. After poring over documentation on standardized forest inventory, the SILVAH-Oak recommendations, and each manager's adherence, the team found that almost 70 percent of managers followed through with prescribed recommendations.

"This is an important level of adherence that I believe is a result of the involvement of the managers in the development of the tool from very early stages," Leites said.

Findings of the study, published in this month's issue of the Journal of Forestry, also point to the importance of both understanding how the model works, such as what the model takes into consideration to make a prescription, and the user-friendliness of the tool for its adoption.

The team was pleased with the outcome, Rittenhouse said, adding, "This type of study is important because it shows that those charged with managing and protecting our forests are using resources available to them to promote sustainability."

Rittenhouse, who graduated in 2017 with a bachelor's degree and works as a private-lands forester for the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Research Institute, plans to return to Penn State this fall for graduate studies. He will rejoin the Leites' lab as a master's degree student and move forward with the next phase of the research, which is to evaluate the effectiveness of management practices in restoring forests.

Leites said she is pleased that Rittenhouse will be furthering his studies and praised his strong work ethic, scientific curiosity and interest in bettering the environment — all attributes that she believes undergraduate students can elevate through research.

"I strongly believe in providing undergraduates with research opportunities because it really enhances their education and, in many cases, generates an interest in graduate school, as it did with Josh," she said. "The experience shows them everything about the scientific process, including writing a proposal, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting the results.

"When they work in a quantitative-oriented lab such as ours, they also begin to make the connection about how math and statistics can be linked to managing forest resources," she said. "It's great to see when the 'light-bulb' comes on."

Rittenhouse, in turn, said he is grateful to Leites and Penn State for giving him that "light-bulb" moment.

"Penn State has shaped my life in a way that has allowed me to learn and eventually work in a career path that is very interesting to me," he said. "The education I received is top-of-the-line, and the relationships I have built with my Penn State colleagues have shown to be just as valuable in propelling my career. I look forward to returning."

Rittenhouse received an undergraduate research grant from the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry to conduct the study.

Josh Rittenhouse, who embarked on the study as an undergraduate in forest ecosystem management, is shown collecting field data. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 25, 2018