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By Cinnamon Moore

nature-in-the-mountainsUNC’s Institute for the Environment recently joined up with the U.S. Forest Service to initiate a renewable five-year joint venture, based in IE’s headquarters in Chapel Hill.

The goal of the newly established relationship is to foster new innovative approaches to major environmental problems and study the role forests play in promoting ecosystem services.

Lawrence Band, director of IE, said the idea for the collaborative effort came from discussions with Jim Voe, a Forest Service scientist. For 15 years, the two worked together on research projects but realized that bringing UNC students and faculty together with Forest Service groups in one common space would be beneficial for both organizations.

“We recognize that there are complementary skills and interests at both the Forest Service and at UNC, so we thought this would be a good idea to try and facilitate it,” Band said. “Big ideas typically come not from formal meetings where you sit around, but almost chance encounters where you have the chance to sit down and run an idea by someone.”

By creating a space where UNC undergraduates, graduates, and faculty could work together with people from the Forest Service directly, Band hopes that the environment will allow the individuals to be spontaneous, creative, and innovative. Essentially, instead of formally planned meetings, collaborators will be able to pop their head around the corner and bounce an idea off of someone with complementary knowledge.

Combining individuals for the two organizations also allows for a more efficient research and operational initiative.

The Institute offers a plethora of knowledge and backgrounds. Having individuals with knowledge ranging from air quality to watershed science, to environmental planning allows those participating in the venture to have access to a wide range of research projects and individuals able to collaborate with. Members from the Forest Service are professionals from the field who have come face to face with the issues research projects seek to remedy.

“We come up with the fundamental science and the interdisciplinary approaches; they have the ability to translate that into actual management,” Band said.

The scope of the research projects extends throughout North Carolina and along the southeast United States and encompasses remote areas as well as urban forests.

According to Band, North Carolina has experienced a tremendous regrowth of forest over the past century and creates an excellent area of study for forest researchers.

Projects tackled by the joint force span from forest buffers around streams to green infrastructure. Overall, the projects attempt to assess forests’ abilities to provide ecosystem services, services provided by the environment that are beneficial to humans, and how these can be used most efficiently.

Band used mobile emission as an example.

Mobile emission, especially for those living in cities and along highways, can be incredibly unhealthy as individuals breathe in higher amounts of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and particulate matter.

“So what we’re looking at is how can you strategically increase the amount of tree canopy because trees can start to absorb pollution and improve the air quality. Some questions may include: what trees, where should you plant these trees, how do they actually absorb pollutants, what mix of trees, what sizes, and so forth,” Band explained.

The establishment of the new joint venture between IE and the Forest Service acknowledges that the current set of environmental problems faced by the world today is inherently interdisciplinary.

“We need a mix of skills, ranging across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities,” Band said. “It is of upmost importance.”

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