UA Team Evaluating Relationship
La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Kathleen Lohse has received an ADVANCE Project grant
to evaluate watershed management and restoration.
Land managers throughout the United States are attempting to restore watersheds and ecosystems by rolling back a familiar industrial staple: roadways.
In fact, watershed restoration has, in recent years, billowed into a billion dollar industry, particularly in the nation's western region - and it shows no sign of a slowdown.
But so little is known about what happens to natural habitats as a result of removing roads or whether such efforts are most appropriate for long-term rehabbing.
A team of University of Arizona researchers has set out to find out.
Kathleen A. Lohse, an assistant professor in the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, has just received a $35,000 grant for a one-year pilot study intended to clue researchers, governments, environmentalists, conservationists and others in on some of the fundamental affects such restoration efforts.
"We're starting from scratch in terms of understanding how different restoration efforts affect the structure and function of these hillslopes," said Lohse, an ecosystem scientist and principal investigator on the grant.
Jean E.T. McLain, a UA adjunct assistant research scientist, and associate professor for geosciences Jon D. Pelletier are serving as co-principal investigators. Also, Rebecca Lloyd, a graduate student studying ecohydrology who works in Lohse's laboratory, also will work on the project. Lloyd previously spent 10 years developing and working on the restoration project in Idaho where this research is focused.
"We're asking whether or not we're being successful in actively restoring desired ecological functions and services across this landscape," Lohse said.
Millions are invested in road removal programs across public lands each year but there are no thorough research studies about whether different prescriptions for "closing" a road have equivalent restoration benefits," she added.
The pilot, "Recovery Rates of Ecological Hydrological Functions to Passive and Active Hillslope Restoration," is being funded by grant through the UA's "ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Award: Eradicating Subtle Discrimination in the Academy" Project.
ADVANCE, a $3.3 million, five-year National Science Foundation-funded initiative, promotes women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields while also working to dismantle gender inequity in the academy. Lohse, along with associate professor of physiology Heddwen Brooks, were the two ADVANCE seed grant recipients at the UA this year.
Lohse and her team's study area is located on the Clearwater National Forest where the Clearwater National Forest and Nez Perce Tribe have for the past 11 years implemented a landscape scale restoration program focused on protecting aquatic species.
There, restoration work includes replacing barrier culverts, improving some roads, treating invasive plants and removing more than 600 miles of road.
Many of the roads that the team will investigate were built during the 1950s and beyond for timber harvesting. During the late 1990s, the region experienced a series of rain and snow events which triggered landslides, most of which occurred in areas where roads had been built along hillslopes. This has led researchers to believe that roads have much more of an adverse affect on the environment than thought.
"There are probably 800,000 kilometers of road on public land, and there is a real motivation right now to restore these habitats," Lohse said.
The research is particularly pressing as resource managers are currently faced with challenging issues about how to best manage land and resources for the protection of water quality and water conservation or habitat and species, and situations regarding climate change.
"There are still a lot of managers on public land who are faced with the question of whether roads should potentially be decommissioned through active road removal or abandoned," she added, "yet little information is available to them on how to do this in a way that will promote the rehabbing of these different landscapes."
The objective is to study by comparing hillslopes with three different treatments: hillslopes where roads that had been actively restored through recontouring; hillslopes that have never been roaded; and hillslopes where roads have been abandoned.
The UA team will spend the year investigating how each of these scenarios affects the ways in which hillslopes function. Specifically, the team is interested in how decommissioning or stripping away roadways affect soil, water, biological structure and function and understanding what this means for the stability of hillslopes.
One of the unique facets of this research is that it is integrated into an ongoing management effort.
The Nez Perce Tribe and Clearwater National Forest have prioritized restoration because the watersheds provide critical habitat for the Endangered Species Act listed salmonids and resident fish, Lohse said.
Many of the questions addressed in the UA team's project emerge directly from the managers in the program.
"We also want to understand the efforts in moving these systems in a direction that they improve the quality - quality of water, water storage and the water holding capacity, and in also thinking about the services that those ecosystems provide," Lohse said.
Lohse also said her team's research could act as a model for future research and for future restoration efforts on public lands in the west, and elsewhere.
"There is very little money to do the science," Lohse said. "This research and the ADVANCE grant are really providing us with an opportunity to ask those scientific questions and to answer some that are really burning for many managers."
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