Three areas of emphasis characterize the department’s current research program and provide a good general description of ECo research:
- Effects of urbanization on natural resource conservation
- Ecology and conservation of landscapes, watersheds, and estuarine ecosystems
- Ecology and conservation of plant and animal populations
Effects of urbanization on natural resource conservation
One of the rapidly developing areas in conservation science deals with the effects of urban and suburban expansion on ecosystems. The central issue is to determine how to provide for human habitation and commerce while minimizing impacts on biodiversity, water supply, climate, outdoor recreation, landscape aesthetics, and overall quality of life. Massachusetts is an excellent place to study ecology and resource management along an urban-suburban-rural gradient, with the strong shift in human population density from the Boston metropolitan area through the suburban region of Middlesex and Worcester Counties to the rural Berkshires. In Massachusetts, the management objectives for public and private lands and waters can be described as: creating ecologically healthy, livable urban centers; preserving the rural character of suburban areas; and maintaining rural landscapes and economies in the forest-and-farm region. Research focused on these objectives is clearly important for solving problems in the Commonwealth by creating new approaches for environmental conservation, smart growth, and land-use planning.
Faculty in arboriculture and urban forestry provide ECo with a long-standing strength in this research area. The building materials and wood technology group study energy efficient housing, green building, and the economics of forest products. Wildlife faculty conduct research involving urban impacts on habitats. ECo’s social scientists provide expertise in policy and provide a logical link with the college’s Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning department.
Ecology and conservation of landscapes, watersheds, and estuarine ecosystems
Sustainable management of forest, freshwater, and estuarine ecosystems (all of which are interconnected at the regional scale) is critical to sustaining human and ecological health. Agricultural land abandonment in Massachusetts over the past 150 years has led to recovery of forestland (now covering 70% of the state, from a low of 30% in 1850). Forest recovery has led to natural or managed reintroductions of black bears, moose, bald eagles, and fishers–species typically associated with large wilderness areas. The forest land-base is largely privately owned, mostly with recreation and conservation as the primary purposes of ownership; however, income from timber management is still quite important to allow owners to maintain their lands in an undeveloped condition. Watershed management is one of the most important regional concerns, with more than 35 million people in towns and cities throughout the Northeastern U.S. depending upon water from municipal reservoirs in forested watersheds. Coastal areas are also the focus of intense interest because of the combination of high human population density, commercial and recreational fisheries, and important wildlife habitat areas.
ECo has considerable strength in such areas as forest and watershed management, landscape ecology, geographic information systems, wildlife habitat management, wetlands science, policy analysis of land use and ownership, and social impacts of government agency programs–all contributing to interdisciplinary research on resource conservation at large geographical scales.
Ecology and conservation of plant and animal populations
Specific plant and animal populations become the focus of management in a number of situations: 1) when populations are quite small, especially when species are legally listed as rare, threatened, or endangered; 2) when species are important for their commercial or cultural value; 3) when species (often not native to the region) act as pest or disease organisms or invade and displace native species. There has been a trend toward shifting conservation objectives from a species orientation (e.g., deer, grouse, trout, white pine), which was common in the past, to a broader goal of restoring natural forest habitat structure or native fish and wildlife communities. However, there are still many situations where individual species are the center of attention. Much management of animal populations is carried out through modification of their habitats. Well-developed management plans must be based on sound basic knowledge regarding the population ecology of the species being managed and on an understanding of the social and economic impacts of these management actions on local stakeholders and the general public.
ECo has substantial strength in the areas of population ecology, life history characteristics, and behavior of species that are rare, or have grown in numbers to the extent of becoming problem species; social and policy analysis of hunting, trapping, and fishing; ecology and control of invasive plant species; ecological restoration methods of restoring habitats or populations of rare species.
Nearly all ECo faculty engage in outreach activities as a natural outgrowth of their research. Many participate in ongoing UMass Extension, continuing professional education, or other outreach or professional service programs. Others play a larger role in outreach by creating and organizing outreach courses and other programs. ECo has been successful in closely linking Extension staff and programs with faculty research–the model being promoted in UMass Extension.
A listing of our outreach programs can be found here.