Gap analysis for forest productivity research

NCASI and the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station have completed a project titled Gap Analysis for Forest Productivity Research Investments. Project results have been published in a special issue of the Journal of Forestry (Vol. 108, No. 4; June 2010). Dr. Eric Vance of NCASI served as project leader. The following material was abstracted from the project summary.

The US forest sector is in the midst of an era of transition and opportunity. Expectations that forests are managed to sustain wildlife, water, soil, and other environmental values are increasing as are certification systems and state and national initiatives designed to insure those expectations are met. For landowners who expect a return on their forestry investment, a host of socioeconomic factors and competition from Asia and Latin America have created uncertainties in markets for conventional forest products and potential new ones for energy and biomaterials. Productive forests that generate fiber for a variety of markets are needed to capture emerging opportunities and provide incentives against converting forests to less environmentally beneficial uses. This can only be accomplished through forest technologies and management regimes firmly grounded in research; however, the infrastructure to support these advances has weakened because of reduced funding directed toward productivity objectives and declining industry capabilities. This convergence of factors requires that research gaps be identified to insure that limited research funds are efficiently allocated to address the highest priority questions.

Uses and Desirable Properties of Wood in the 21st Century” (by T. Wegner, K.E. Skog, P.J. Ince, and C.J. Michler) explores requirements for traditional and emerging wood markets and technologies ranging from building materials to new energy sources, chemical feedstocks, and nanotechnology. Although the U.S. remains the world’s largest producer and consumer of forest products, global competition is impacting the balance of domestic production and consumption of conventional products such as paper, plywood, and lumber. These and other conventional uses are projected to expand and continue as the largest U.S. wood markets for the foreseeable future, even as emerging markets for bioenergy and biomaterials increase. Examples of generally desirable wood properties include high uniformity, specific gravity and cellulose content, and low moisture. Properties required for some uses are more specific, such as low recalcitrant cellulose and high six-carbon sugar content for some biofuels and chemical feedstocks. By contrast, even needles and bark are acceptable feedstocks for thermochemical conversion to syngas and liquid fuels, which has less stringent requirements. Uncertainties in the direction and rate of socioeconomic and technological drivers of wood markets will require the flexibility to adapt, making an adequate research base all the more essential. Research gaps identified for wood uses and qualities include: (1) increase uniformity of wood properties from faster growing trees; (2) improve properties required for specific product categories; (3) develop products that are multifunctional and durable yet can still be recycled and reused; and (4) reduce energy consumption and emissions associated with product manufacturing.

“Enhancing Forest Value Productivity through Fiber Quality” (by D. Briggs) focuses on quality defined as suitability for specific uses. Enhancing quality requires an understanding of physical, mechanical, and chemical properties of wood linked to key product characteristics. Desirable properties vary with scales that range from meters (e.g., knots, juvenile wood) to nanometers (e.g., fibers, chemical structures). As forest products become more diverse and specialized, technologies to measure and monitor fiber quality become more important. Critical gaps related to fiber quality research include: (1) improve understanding of relationships between wood properties at different scales and product performance; (2) determine effects of physiological processes, genetics, silviculture and environmental conditions on fiber quality; (3) incorporate fiber quality into models to enhance forest investments, management, and marketing; (4) improve robustness and affordability of field-based wood quality measurement technologies; and (5) improve scientific infrastructure to address these gaps.

Research Strategies for Increasing Productivity of Intensively Managed Forest Plantations” (by E.D. Vance, D.A. Maguire, and R.S. Zalesny Jr.) describes the use and benefits of intensive management of loblolly pine in the Southeast, Douglas-fir in the Pacific Northwest, and hybrid poplar in the Midwest. Intensive management involves the manipulation of site resources, tree genetics, and stand structure to optimize tree growth and is most common on industrial ownerships. When practiced appropriately and under the guidance of forest certification systems and best management practices, intensively managed stands and associated forested landscapes provide clean water and wildlife habitat, allow more fiber to be grown on a limited land base, and provide economic incentives for landowners to retain their lands in forest. Intensive practices have increased forest productivity by up to six-fold over the past 40 years relative to unmanaged, naturally regenerated stands. Nutrition management, competing vegetation control, and site preparation practices that facilitate stand establishment account for much of this increase, with improved genetic stock developed from tree breeding programs contributing an increasing share in recent years. Critical research gaps for ensuring that planted forests remain a sustainable and competitive source of fiber include: (1) improve understanding and prediction of forest responses to intensive management; (2) incorporate ecophysiological, genetic, site, and wood quality parameters into tree improvement programs and growth models; (3) quantify the influence of repeated biomass harvests on sustainable productivity and develop practices to avoid or mitigate negative effects; (4) expand silvicultural research networks to examine responses across a range of sites; and (5) expand technology transfer and the use of improved genetic stock to a larger segment of landowners.

Research gap analysis for application of biotechnology to sustaining U.S. forests(by R.W. Whetten and R. Kellison) describes forest biotechnology as consisting of three components. The first, quantitative genetics and genomics, is used to assess genetic variation in populations, the genetic basis of traits, and adaptation of populations to changing conditions. Advanced propagation technologies such as somatic embryogenesis are used to efficiently produce uniform, high-quality planting stock. Genetic engineering, the third component, refers to the addition of a gene or genes to an organism’s genome to introduce desirable characteristics and has been successfully used to confer resistance to insects, diseases, and herbicides in agronomic crops over the past two decades. Potential benefits of biotechnology to forestry are enormous and include enhancement of tree pest and disease resistance, productivity, wood properties for specific uses, and tolerance to adverse sites and changing environmental conditions. Critical forest biotechnology research gaps include: (1) improve performance and reduce costs of somatic embryogenesis-derived planting stock ; (2) assess ecological risks associated with introducing transgenic trees in a range of environments; (3) assess effects of gene interactions and environmental conditions on tree growth using the Pine Genome Initiative genome sequence; and (4) use tree genetic diversity as a basis for introducing resistance, as done with chestnut blight and the American chestnut.  

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