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Researchers Try to Balance Rural Economies with Sustainable Forests

Media Contact:
Jennifer Martin, CSREES Staff (202) 720-8188

By Stacy Kish, CSREES Staff
March 24, 2008

The first assessment of forested watershed Best Management Practices effectiveness is occurring at the Mica Creek Experimental Watershed in northern Idaho.
Credit: Timothy Link

In the western United States, forest management programs struggle to strike a balance between encouraging vigorous rural economies and maintaining sustainable forest environments. With funding from USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), scientists in Idaho examined different forest management programs in order to develop a program that finds this balance.

Timothy Link and colleagues at the University of Idaho, in partnership with Potlatch Corporation, conducted research at the Mica Creek Experimental Watershed in northern Idaho. Their work focused on how different forest management practices affect the surrounding watershed. As forest harvest intensifies, water flow increases in intensity and timing, which can impact surrounding communities. This study examined water flow in the watershed of three different forest management types: no harvest, thinned and clearcut forests. Understanding how different management practices affect water flow will result in more effective best management practices that support both forest production and the surrounding community.

In the study, watersheds in forests that have been clearcut by 50 percent experience an increase in annual flows by approximately 30 percent. The same analysis in forests that have only been thinned by 50 percent show an increase in annual flow by roughly 20 percent.

The results of the study suggest a combination of thinned and cleared areas provides a greater volume of runoff to the surrounding communities. In addition, the water flow is sustained into the summer dry season when water is most needed downstream by communities and for maintenance of aquatic ecosystem health.

This research should help municipal watershed managers develop and adapt current plans to compensate for future environmental fluctuations caused by climate change.

Future research on this topic will provide further guidance on how to manipulate the forest canopy to help buffer the impacts of weather variability and warming trends as climate changes.

The results from the Mica Creek study area are being used in an upper-division watershed science and management course and a graduate-level physical hydrology course at the University of Idaho. The study is featured in a number of continuing and adult education programs for natural resource professionals and for outreach tours and presentations for political leaders, government officials, industry groups and scientists.

This is the first study to assess the effectiveness of Best Management Practices in industrial forestlands that are subjected to contemporary forest management practices, and it's the first comprehensive paired watershed study in the inland northwest.

CSREES funded this research project through the National Research Initiative's Water and Watersheds program. Through federal funding and leadership for research, education and extension programs, CSREES focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit www.csrees.usda.gov.