The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded a consortium of land-grant institutions in the South, which includes Virginia Tech, a Coordinated Agricultural Grant to study the effects of climate change on southern pine forests.

In making the announcement, Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, said, “The five-year grant will study climate change mitigation and adaptation as it relates to southern pines, particularly loblolly. It reflects a lot of hard work and cooperation with many researchers. Securing this level of support is a very impressive effort.”

The 34 million acres of southern U.S. pine forests produce more timber than any other country in the world. These forests sequester 12 billion metric tons of carbon each year, 36 percent of the carbon sequestered annually by all forests in the lower 48 states.

Forestry is a major economic engine in the economy of all southern states. Virginia forests provide more than $27.5 billion annually in benefits to the commonwealth, where 144,000 people are employed in forestry-related industry jobs.

The research partnership is led by the University of Florida and, in addition to Virginia Tech, includes the following universities: Alcorn State, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and Virginia State.

Thomas Fox, professor of forest soils and silviculture in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, is the lead principal investigator (PI) from Virginia Tech on the $3.4 portion of the grant going to his department. He serves as the overall lead PI for silvicultural research on the grant as well as the Integration Team Leader for mitigation.

In this role, Fox will help coordinate and synthesize the work of the more than 29 scientists working on the project, including scientists from the 11 Southeastern universities, eight forest industry research cooperatives, and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as climatologists from the Southeastern states.

“The aim of the grant is to develop the knowledge needed to sustainably manage southern pine forests from Texas to Virginia in the face of changing climate,” said Fox. “Our overall goal is to improve the health, productivity, and sustainability of southern pine forests and provide landowners the tools they need to better manage their forests in the future to mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

The grant builds on more than 40 years of research conducted by industry/university research cooperatives in forestry, including two cooperatives housed at Virginia Tech: the Forest Modeling Research Cooperative, directed by Harold Burkhart, University Distinguished Professor of Forestry and co-PI on the grant, and the Forest Productivity Cooperative, directed by Fox. “The National Institute of Food and Agriculture clearly recognized the immense value of the long-term data brought to the project by these industry/university partnerships,” stated Fox.

“Another key aspect of the grant was the outstanding team of scientists we were able to assemble to work on this project,” Fox pointed out. Additional faculty members from the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation who are serving as co-PIs on the grant include Randolph Wynne, John Seiler, Jason Holliday, Valerie Thomas, and Brian Strahm.

“NIFA required us to bring together a large, multi-institutional, transdisciplinary group of scientists to comprehensively address the impacts of climate change on southern pine forests. Without the expertise and contributions of the entire team of PIs at Virginia Tech, this grant would not have been possible,” Fox noted.