Lessons from science in the community

UGA professor John Maerz talks with visitors to The Rickman Store in Cowee.

A central goal of the Coweeta Listening Project is to bring scientists and non-scientists together to exchange information, insight and experiences. We especially emphasize the word exchange because while many organizations promote environmental education, we want to support environmental dialogues. What kind of lessons emerge when landowners, ecologists, citizens, chemists, geologists, hunters, and business people all sit down together to talk about social and environmental changes in the Southern Appalachian Mountains?

We’ve been lucky enough to have these conversations with a range of local groups on a wide variety of topics. On Feb. 5, for example, we met with the Tuckaseigee Chapter of Trout Unlimited to discuss how local streams are being affected by residential development and climate change. Fishermen and women and Coweeta LTER researchers interact with many of the same streams, so it was not surprising that both groups have noticed serious impacts of development due to sedimentation and increased stream temperatures.

Ecology PhD student Peter Baas shared research from North Georgia by retired UGA professor Judy Meyer and others that showed that trout biomass decreased by 87 percent when stream buffers were reduced from 30 meters to 15 meters. As the fishers noted, even 15 meters is larger than the legal requirements in North Carolina. Baas also gave us a sneak peek at his own research. Previous research from Coweeta has found development to increase stream nitrogen pollution. Baas’ preliminary results suggest that residential development also causes nitrogen air pollution by greenhouse gases, likely due to increased nitrogen runoff and related changes in soil chemistry and micro-organisms.

On the flip side of our exchange, some of the fishers alerted us to the effects of golf courses in the region. They argued that these effects probably deserve more attention from researchers, and they also requested additional information about the effects of acid rain on individual mountain streams. We’ve written on this in the past but are trying to get more detailed information to share with the whole community.

On April 12, we had a similar conversation with members of the Nantahala Hiking Club. University of Georgia Professor Daniel Markewitz began this meeting by discussing how the forests of the Southern United States absorb carbon and slow climate change. Southeastern forests account for about 36 percent of the country’s carbon stocks and store enough carbon to offset a full 13 percent of national greenhouse gas emissions. “So, how we manage our forests,” Markewitz said, “might actually have a lot of importance in terms of what happens to the overall carbon budget” and heat trapping gases in the atmosphere.

Through detailed analysis of the carbon budget of forests,’ Markewitz hopes to inform decisions about forest management. For example, it is clear that fertilizer often makes trees grow larger and store more carbon, which should help slow climate change. But producing, transporting, and applying fertilizers produces two tons of carbon, so is fertilization really a good idea?

Perhaps surprisingly, after calculating all of the carbon produced and absorbed throughout the entire process of tree growth and fertilization, Markewitz found that fertilizing trees actually helps reduce carbon concentrations in the atmosphere faster than simply leaving trees to grow on their own. “My recommendation is not that we fertilize the world,” he said, “but in areas where you do this, you probably are going to accumulate more carbon in the trees. And of course it’s our choice societally whether we will do something with [that knowledge] or not.”

Members of the hiking club seemed particularly interested in Markewitz’s discussion of biofuels. Many popular biofuels, like corn-derived ethanol, offer very little bang for the buck: they require almost as much energy to produce as they provide once burned. However, research shows that alternatives like native loblolly pine could be extremely valuable, yielding much more energy than they require for processing and distribution. A member of the hiking club also raised the possibility that kudzu could be used as a fuel, based on research that he and others have done about a possible kudzu-based business.

We consider ourselves lucky to participate in these conversations and others that we’ve had with the Cowee Community, the Eco-Forum at the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Franklin Daybreak Rotary, the League of Women Voters, the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, and The Rickman Store. We always learn a lot, and we hope that we share a lot of interesting perspectives as well. If you or your organization would be interested to talk with scientists from the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program, please let us know.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at cwtlistn@uga.edu or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: The Coweeta Listening Project. Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. April 26, 2013.