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Affiliates receive award for interdisciplinary research on sustainability of woodland health and human livelihoods

trees in forest

GCSC faculty affiliates from three colleges were successful in competing for an NSF award to research coupled natural-human systems. Researchers Brian Codding (PI), Phil Dennison (Co-PI, Geography), Shane Macfarlan (Anthropology), Simon Brewer (Geography) are from the College of Social and Behavioral Science. Bill Anderegg (Co-PI, Biology) is in the College of Science, and Court Strong (Co-PI, Atmospheric Science) is in the College of Mines and Earth Sciences.

In this interdisciplinary project, researchers will focus on the piñon-juniper woodlands of southern Utah where Navajo and Ute people rely on wood fuel, examining the combined effects of environmental variation and firewood harvesting on woodland ecosystems to determine the conditions that promote healthy forests capable of sustaining wood fuel use into the future.

While growing evidence suggests that forests are threatened by droughts, extreme temperatures, and overharvesting, scientists currently have difficulty predicting future forest conditions, and that restricts capabilities to anticipate the energy security of one-third of the Earth’s people who rely on wood as a primary fuel source. To overcome these limitations, this project will gather data about forest health, human harvesting practices, and climate and other environmental conditions. The investigators will use these data to examine the dynamics between people and their local environment and to develop a model that can forecast future variation in this coupled natural-human system. Project findings will provide more generalizable insights for assessing the sensitivity of small-scale socioecological systems to environmental transitions. This project will inform land management decisions aimed at improving the sustainability of woodland health and human livelihoods under variable environmental conditions. The project also will provide education and training opportunities in the conduct of interdisciplinary research for graduate and undergraduate students.

Forest fuels comprise about nine percent of the global primary energy budget, but data are limited regarding the coupled forest-fuelwood-climate nexus, particularly the sustainability of forests to provide firewood for subsistence populations in a changing environment. This project will be conducted by an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, biologists, geographers, atmospheric scientists, and engineers who will gather empirical data about woodland biomass and harvesting demand across a variety of climatic conditions and land-management regimes. Data generated from quantitative ethnography, field ecology, remote sensing, and climatology will be used to create and validate a dynamic model capable of predicting future conditions of this system under altered climate and harvesting scenarios. Results will provide a general framework capable of predicting diverse coupled natural-human systems under varied environmental scenarios. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.

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