Where Does It Hurt?

By Miller, D. Glenn | American Forests, November-December 1991 | Go to article overview

Where Does It Hurt?


Miller, D. Glenn, American Forests


A yearly "physical" is fast becoming a reality for our nation's forests. Because a variety of assaults, including the specter of acid rain, may be working synergistically to spell trouble for our trees, a sweeping federal-state campaign called the National Forest Health Monitoring Program has recently gotten underway to assess the health of America's forests.

Although monitoring is not expected to lead to an immediate bill of health (clean or otherwise), the program does promise a comprehensive national--even global--framework for addressing critical questions about forest health.

In the development of this new program, human health care has been a useful model. Joseph Barnard, the program's national manager, explains: "We went into the public health sector and sought out human epidemiological approaches to help develop the thought process."

But taking a health reading on a forest is not straightforwardly analogous to something like taking a human patient's temperature. With humans, the reading is compared to a well-established average of 98.6 degrees; with forests, no highly corroborated knowledge base exists to which we can compare the resource's current state in order to make a diagnosis of broad problems. For now, research must be concerned principally with building the data base for future comparisons.

The National Forest Health Monitoring Program is the latest and possibly most ambitious national effort in forest-health assessment. It began as a regional effort--the New England Forest Health Monitoring Program--in the summer of 1990 with the establishment of sampling plits for data collection. Monitoring will continue through the '90s and beyond.

If New England's forests are in the health-care equivalent of the examination room, those in other parts of the country are in the waiting room. Six additional states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama) were included in the monitoring program this year, and plans call for adding new states by regional groupings each year until the contiguous 48 states are all on line. The timeframe for inclusion of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico is subject to funding. Pilot projects have been established this year in California and Colorado (10 projects in each state) to test monitoring methods in the West.

The program functions through a multiagency nexus composed of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the six New England states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).

The Forest Response Program (FRP), which began in 1985 under the auspices of the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP), was a precursor to this new monitoring effort. The FRP has in effect been superseded by the comprehensive new monitoring program, but the legacy of previous efforts like the National Vegetation Survey, a component of the FRP, is anything but lost. In fact, these undertakings helped set the groundwork for the new program.

In a broader sense, Barnard says, forest-health monitoring falls under the umbrella of global change. Two main facets of the FRP--epidemiological concerns on the one hand and detailed studies of forest-response mechanisms to problems like global warming on the other--are being coordinated with the health-monitoring effort, as is the Forest Service's Global Change Research Program.

The new forest-health monitoring program is three-tiered in design, according to Margaret Miller-Weeks of the agency's Forest Pest Management division (recently renamed "Forests Heath Protection"). Miller-Weeks is the Forest Service's forest-health-monitoring coordinator for New England and New York. She explains that the program's first tier is direct "detection monitoring" of the plot network and seeks to answer the what, where, and when of forest health.

"Evaluation monitoring" and "ecosystem monitoring" complete the series. …

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