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Our Research

The Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech undertakes research in a number of focus areas. These include: forest biometrics and geomatics, forest biology, ecology and soils, forest economics and policy, forest operations and business molecular genetics, genomics and biotechnology, human dimensions, natural resource recreation, and urban forestry.

We apply quantitative methods of economic theory and econometrics to study both natural resource use and policy design, from perspectives of society and individual resource owners and users.  Our graduate students take courses in economics, policy, mathematical economics, and statistics and econometrics.  Topics of research are varied and have included international forest and natural resource exploitation and conservation, the importance of parks and natural resource buffers to climate, health, and political instabilities, enforcement of community natural resource use and welfare effects of institutional and tenurial regimes in developing countries, land use and wildland-urban interface risks and uncertainties facing resource owners, forest and water reclamation, sustainable management of forests and fisheries, non-industrial forest landowner behavior and policy effects, and bioenergy and alternatives to resource exploitation.  Our graduate students have worked on projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Carribbean, and faculty of the unit have affiliations and regular interactions with several universities in the US and abroad.

The ecosystem Science and Management area addresses a broad spectrum of both basic and applied research questions with the goal of understanding the biotic and abiotic mechanisms controlling forest ecosystem function. This research seeks to predict how forests will respond to external forces in order to guide the sustainable management of forest resources for the goods and services they provide, including water quality and quantity, climate regulation, and forest products. Research programs in this area are addressed in a multi-disciplinary and collaborative manner with numerous faculty and graduate students working closely together, drawing on disciplines and experiences that include ecology, soils, biogeochemistry, silviculture, ecophysiology, fire, agroforestry, wetlands, and global/climate change.

Natural resource problems and solutions are embedded in political, economic, and cultural institutions. Students and faculty in the human dimensions program explore solutions to these social challenges through applied research in a wide variety of interest areas including community-based conservation, environmental education and communications, environmental conflict resolution, natural resource policy, outdoor recreation, parks and protected area management, private lands stewardship, and public planning processes. Our work engages faculty from throughout the university and typically crosses traditional disciplinary, professional, and programmatic boundaries. Both Ph.D. and Masters degrees are offered.

We use molecular biology, genetics, genomics, and other 'omics approaches to study the genes, networks, and molecular mechanisms controlling tree growth, physiology and adaptation. Our broad research goals are to: 1) help guide the development of biotechnology and genome-enabled breeding approaches to tree improvement; 2) provide fundamental insight on the molecular mechanisms controlling economically and ecologically important traits, and; 3) discover genes and mechanisms underpinning adaptation of natural tree populations to aid in maintaining forest health in a changing climate.

Quantitative assessment of forest resources is essential for informed decision making. Rapid advances in measurement, remote sensing, and computing technologies, as well as in quantitative sciences, have had a profound impact on the how forest resources are characterized. The need for continued advances in capturing, summarizing, analyzing and modeling data on forests remains critical as managers and decision makers confront important issues pertaining to production of wood products and provision of ecosystem services in the world's forests. The research and graduate education program in Geospatial Analysis and Biometrics applies the latest remote sensing, geographic information systems, statistical analysis, informatics and ecosystem modeling techniques in innovative ways to develop timely and accurate quantitative methodologies for assessing current values and future forecasts of forest resources.

Forest operations and business research within the broad field of forestry and natural resources management fills an applied niche that serves forest management practitioners at multiple scales. Outcomes include providing information to business owners and agencies actively engaged in forest operations that will aid in efficiency, profitability, and environmental sustainability. Research topics and areas of expertise include forest harvesting logistics and business management; engineering economic analysis; wood supply chain efficiency; fiber procurement; woody biomass utilization; environmental impacts of forest operations; best management practices; and forest operations workforce and safety issues.

Urban forest ecosystems strongly influence the livability and sustainability of urban areas, where 80% of U.S. residents and more than half of the world live and work. Our research explores the essential role of urban forests as a driver for social and environmental health in urban areas.

In particular, we study the effect of management practices on urban ecosystem functions such as soil carbon sequestration, atmospheric cooling, and storm water capture. Our work with urban forest inventory and structure assessment intersects with both research and outreach to contribute to the decision-making processes that affect management of urban forests. We work in several types of field research settings, including metropolitan areas, storm water management facilities, and experimental plots near the Blacksburg campus. We employ techniques from a variety of disciplines, including forest biology, geospatial analysis, soil science, hydrology, multivariate statistics, and social sciences.

Water resources research in the department is designed to integrate the study of land, water, and other natural resources to understand and evaluate watershed ecosystem function and the effects of management activities on water quantity and quality. Emphasis is on the effects of vegetation and land management on water quality, quantity, site productivity, erosion, and sedimentation. Interrelationships among land use, soil, and water and the connectivity of uplands and downstream areas are critical research themes among the faculty. Some specific research areas include: water quality impacts from forest roads, hillslope hydrology, climate change, mine land reclamation, stream restoration, forested wetlands, and ecophysiology and plant water use.