Kurt Pregitzer
Kurt Pregitzer
“The Forest Service was looking for ways to partner with various institutions around the country.”

University, Forest Service Now Share Roots

by Dean Woodbeck

It was time for the U.S. Forest Service and Michigan Tech’s forestry school to come in out of the woods.

The two entities, with buildings located side-by- each, as they say in the U.P., had taken divergent paths in the last 30 years. In a classic case of gaining a value greater than the sum of the parts, the units are drawing closer together with research relevant to such diverse questions as global warming and exurban sprawl.

The School of Forestry and Wood Products and the U.S. Forest Service North Central Research Station have signed an agreement to formalize their relationship. Kurt Pregitzer, forestry professor at Michigan Tech, now directs the lab in Houghton and continues as a Tech faculty member.

"The Forest Service was looking for ways to partner with various institutions around the country," said Glenn Mroz, dean of forestry and wood products at Tech. "When they started to look at potential matches, they decided to align the interests of their station in Houghton with our interests."

The partnership will allow the organizations to share facilities. Forest Service scientists can also supervise Michigan Tech graduate students and teach Michigan Tech classes. In turn, students can work on Forest Service research projects, and Tech benefits from the Forest Service research budget.

"Forest Service scientists can walk into a $10 million facility with millions of dollars of instrumentation," Mroz said. "For the school, having more scientists in the area is critical. We are at 17.3 faculty members and there is a limit to what you can do."

Pregitzer was a natural to take a leadership role, with his national reputation in the area of focus for the Forest Service lab: below-ground forest processes. "Our mission is to conduct research and technology transfer on below-ground processes in support of sustaining and enhancing forest productivity," Pregitzer says. "We're focusing on a part of the forest that nobody sees."

To help in this mission, the Forest Service has approved two new permanent PhD-level positions, a forest ecologist and a forest microbial ecologist. "They will spend a large part of time on below- ground processes in forests and how those affect forest productivity," Mroz said. "In the school, we have a number of scientists working with Kurt on those same issues."

Two factors control growth in forests: water and nutrients. Those are available in the soil and root systems control how trees process these building blocks.

"Trees allocate more than half of their photosynthesis to growth below the ground," Pregitzer explained. "Soil organic matter is the largest pool of carbon in the terrestrial environment on Earth. Biota in the soil are the gatekeepers of the nutrients, so we want to try and understand these processes."

This isn't the first Forest Service collaboration with Michigan Tech. In Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Forest Service scientists and Michigan Tech faculty have developed a multi-million dollar project to study the effect of elevated levels of greenhouse gases on trees.

The free-air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) facility is 80 acres of growing forest. Twelve rings of gas-emitter tubes surround patches of aspen, maple, and birch seedlings. The tubes deliver a regulated amount of two greenhouse gases (ozone and carbon dioxide) to the growing trees, mimicking air conditions predicted for the year 2050.

Michigan Tech forestry professor Dave Karnosky is the lead faculty member on the project. The FACE researchers hope to learn not only how trees react to the mixture of gases, but how associated animals, insects, fungi, and soil bacteria react.

Pregitzer believes the new partnership has found a niche. "This is not as common as studies of wildlife or botanical studies," he said. "But the processes we study in this work unit are fundamental to the global carbon cycle and the global water cycle. We also spend time trying to understand human activities and their affect on forest growth."