How to Better Protect our Forests and Monitor our Land Use

Overview and Background

Earth’s soils are foundational to life.  Without them we could not produce the food, fiber and fuels that sustain us.  But soils are not infinite.  Those same lands that yield crops and forests to meet human and environmental needs must also support our homes, cities and roads.  When we convert the best of those lands from crops and forests, or mismanage how these lands are used, we risk degrading Earth’s ability to support life.

We need to understand and define the state of health of our forested lands.  They are far more than just the trees growing there; what other life is dependent upon those forests?

Globally, tens of thousands of acres of soil each year become so degraded they can no longer sustain life.  Millions of additional acres of forested land are converted to non-forest uses – both agriculture and development.  This challenge aims to study Earth’s forests, their dependence on healthy soils, and find ways to collaborate with other citizen scientists throughout the country and around the world to share ideas about sustaining healthy forests and forest ecosystems and their critical importance to our Earth.

Problem Statement

The United States represents a combination of extremes — highly urbanized areas surrounded by much larger expanses of agricultural and forested open space. Humans rely upon healthy forest ecosystems for products like food (nuts and fruits), clothing, paper, lumber, and even water. In fact, two out of three Americans get their drinking water from a forested watershed every day.  Water, a commodity that we can’t live without, is perhaps the most important “forest product.”  Forests also play a critical role moderating global climate—they are one of the most effective ways to store carbon, and products from the forest, such as lumber, can also store carbon for centuries.

Equally as important to the forests themselves is the knowledge that the health and productivity of those forests depends on active management. In some cases, forests are highly managed to produce wood and fiber at maximum rates. In other cases, forests are more gently managed to reduce fire hazard or disease spread, or to maximize environmental values. Either way, it’s important to understand that harvesting trees can be a very positive action, provided it is followed with proper regeneration and sustainable management

Maintaining large expanses of forests, and helping the public understand that managing those forests is a good thing, is there a top priority for people and the environment.

Ideation Challenge:
Protecting our Forests and Monitoring our Land Use

The Earth has a number of natural resources that humans need to survive. We often think of water, coal, and oil, but the land itself is one too. We need it for growing food, harvesting lumber (shelter) and protecting watersheds to support our ever-growing population.

We are looking for creative and new ideas related to the key topics listed below that will help support healthy forest ecosystems and the products they produce for a healthy planet.

  1. The majority of forests in American are owned by families. Propose ideas on how landowners can keep forests as forests. Often times, due to basic economic needs, landowners are placed in a position where they must sell their forested lands for development. Part of the reason for this is due to a predominance of low-value trees (small-diameter, poor form/cull, dying or dead) for which there are few if any commercial, revenue generating markets. What are potential new ways to use low-value trees to produce landowner income while retaining and upgrading forest health thus allowing landowners to retain their forested lands for all of their societal, environmental and economic benefits?
  2. Forested lands are extremely important for fresh water. Specifically, forested watersheds provide a wide array of environmental services that are supplied to local citizens from drinking water to floodways. What type of incentives or revenue generating options could be considered for forested watershed areas that could help keeps forests as forests?
  3. Inventorying forests even just to determine the size, species mix and condition of trees on a forested parcel is expensive and time consuming. Most states have inventories that are conducted only every 7-10 years.  Propose potential solutions on how forest monitoring can be achieved more efficiently and cost effectively and that can be implemented to either augment or transform the current methodology of forest monitoring.
  4. Forested lands play a critical role in our earth’s atmosphere. Describe the impact to climate change if we continue to lose trees and forested lands to non-forest uses.  Based on your assumptions and findings, please propose creative ideas on how we can sustain and increase forested areas to benefit our communities/national natural resources and corresponding impact on climate/atmosphere conditions. As part of your proposed ideas/solutions, include a synopsis on the critical interdependency and contributions that a healthy soil has on our forests.
  5. Finally, our development patterns are based on geopolitical boundaries (states, counties, cities, roads, water lines, etc.) and private landowner interest with little attention to ecosystem health or function. The result is a highly fragmented landscape with development, roads, homes and businesses such that management of forests for their many ecological and economic benefits is thwarted.  What could be done to incentivize development that is more compatible with ecosystem health and function?