Research in the Changing Landscape of the South

Planning in a Time of Rapid Change

The need for strategic planning is directly proportional to the rapidity of change in an organization’s working and external environments and the demand for its products. In addition to providing wood and fiber, the South possesses among the most biodiverse forests in North America. Hence, it is imperative that our research strategy aligns with important resource and societal needs. SRS research has documented significant changes in the environment, including those related to forest ecosystems and the social context of forests, at local to global scales. Southern forests continue to face significant threats, including expansion of invasive species, disease, and other unexpected events. Meanwhile, growing demands for ecosystem services, including water, forest products, recreation, and biodiversity, coupled with a burgeoning population and changing land use throughout the region, are of increasing concern. At the same time, SRS faces changes in how we communicate, how we recruit and staff our units, and how we adjust to budgetary and other constraints.

Charting the Future

SRS will continue to build on long-term data collected over the past century to address forest restoration and management questions. Emerging issues such as climate change, the introduction of invasive pests, population growth and urbanization, and communication and technological advances also are being integrated into our plans. As just one recent example, the Southern Forest Futures Project started in 2008 with input from 15 public workshops across the South. This effort resulted in a science-based set of possible futures now being used to inform management decisions and policies shaping southern forests and the values they provide decades into the future.

The Southern Forest Futures Project outlined how forest conditions, population growth and urbanization, markets for wood products, demands for ecosystem services, climate change, and other issues have evolved over the past decade. For example, since 2000, more than 40 million acres of managed forest lands have changed ownership, the population of the South has grown by about 15 percent, and year after year of record-high global temperatures have bolstered concerns about the nature and magnitude of human impacts on the environment.

Embracing New Approaches

The SRS needs to continue adopting new approaches to the work of research. Science evolves over time, offering new methods, technologies, and organizational networks to help address natural resource issues. For example, new, remotely-operated sensors, digital measurements over multi-scaled observational platforms, and sophisticated simulations on high-speed computers can generate maps in near real-time, enabling managers to analyze the effects of catastrophic wildfires, ice storms, hurricanes, insect infestations, and other major disturbances within days or weeks of the event.

The expanding role of scientific collaboration and the means of knowledge transfer have fundamentally changed in recent years. Today, researchers can exchange data instantaneously, collaborating from their desks with scientists in other states, regions, and countries. Technology also lowers barriers between SRS organizational units, allowing for more collaboration among scientists, technicians, and support personnel in dispersed locations, and between research work units with a variety of science specialties.

This capability provides new challenges and opportunities for SRS organizational structures, as collaborations form across units and blur traditional boundaries. The public now demands greater access to the knowledge SRS scientists generate; delivering this information requires staff to embrace emerging communication technologies.

Sustaining Our Organization

New research questions continue to arise as growing local, regional, national, and even global populations look to the South’s forests to meet their demands. Simultaneously, changes in the scientific disciplines that comprise SRS require considerable investment in both technology and infrastructure. However, investing in our people is equally important in ensuring that SRS research and development remains viable and relevant in the future.

To accomplish this, the SRS must attract and retain talented employees representing diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise. Having our organization reflect the diversity of the communities we serve is critical to improving the effectiveness of the work we do. Maintaining this momentum and sustaining the effectiveness of SRS will require a mix of investments in technology, people, and infrastructure and the ability to set priorities that deliver the maximum possible benefits to our organization in the face of fiscal constraints.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

We seek to be as efficient as possible in delivering on our mission. The South, the nation, and the world are facing profound changes, and our research program seeks to provide the tools to anticipate and respond to these changes before they impact forest ecosystems and the people who depend on them. Our organization and science must stay ahead of the curve, to effectively respond to evolving research needs and approaches.

Comment on the Strategic Framework