A Glimpse into the Future: How Land Use Decisions Will Impact Forest Function

mountain road
Image Credit: Aleksandr Kozlovskii

How can researchers project the ways in which land-use changes will affect ecosystem services when they don't yet know what course development will take? Integrated scenario analysis models several possible trajectories to examine the interactive effects that land-use change could have on ecosystem structure and function.

When applied for Massachusetts forests, the approach suggested that even in the face of considerable development, trees will absorb more carbon than they release. All the development scenarios increased surface water runoff and nutrient pollution and degraded interior forest habitat to varying degrees, but the “Opportunistic Growth” scenario, characterized by minimal government regulation, had the greatest negative impacts.

The study's scenarios varied the amount and pace of commercial and residential development, agricultural development, and timber harvest. Researchers assessed what impacts these changes, together with changing climate, would have over a fifty-year period (2010 to 2060). The research identified win-win scenarios that could increase both landowner and ecosystem benefits at the same time, though researchers acknowledge that tradeoffs between individual economic returns and ecosystem services are more common.

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