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According to China’s State Forestry Administration, China increased its forest cover from 8.6% to 20.36% between 1949 and 2008. Driving this trend are reforestation programs like the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP), established in 1998 to control soil erosion after large-scale flooding was attributed to rampant logging on the steep slopes of the Upper Yangtze watershed. Despite great gains in total acres reforested, one particular criticism of China’s reforestation programs is that they have suffered due to a prioritization of the quantity rather than the quality of restored forests by focusing on large-scale plantations and planting non-native species, sometimes in monoculture.

This summer, second-year CEE doctoral student Chris Hakkenberg secured an East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute (EAPSI) Fellowship to investigate precisely this: the “quality” of the NFPP’s young forests, and specifically how natural regeneration has influenced the rate and spatial patterns of successional change.

Co-sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the EAPSI Fellowship allows US graduate students to conduct scientific research in coordination with Chinese universities over the summer. Beyond lab and field work, the program arranges a number of forums and symposia in Washington DC and Beijing to facilitate a dialogue in science and technology between in the two countries. By engaging with members of government and academia, it is a chance for young scientists to participate in science diplomacy.

Chris was hosted by the Key Laboratory of Biodiversity and Biogeography at the Kunming Institute of Botany but spent little time in this city of seven million people. Instead, armed with a backpack of forestry surveying equipment, Chris and Wu Junwen, a colleague from China’s Southwest Forestry University, set off for the northwest portion of Yunnan Province. This region straddles the lower Himalaya at an average elevation of 4000m and is populated largely by ethnic Tibetan communities.

“My research focused on one particular aspect of this large-scale ecological restoration project: dispersal of tree species from isolated patches of late successional forests to proximate newly reforested lands”, Chris states.

“To properly test for significant results that could be easily replicated, I chose Tibetan village sacred forests abutting NFPP lands because the discrete boundaries between the two allowed for logistically feasible and scientifically meaningful comparisons.”

While the new forests emerging in China’s heavily human-impacted landscapes may not match the original forests in structure and community diversity, restoration activities hold the potential to re-establish some vital ecosystem functions to degraded lands. Chris Hakkenberg’s research examines the degree to which China’s reforestation programs might alleviate persistent ecological barriers to succession on degraded lands. These barriers might otherwise preclude many species’ recruitment to the area. Understanding the successional trajectory of these new forests is critical to long term efforts to restore habitat for many of the area’s endangered and threatened flora and fauna.

Chris remarked: “Beyond the insights into ecological theory, this work is, I believe, of scientific merit as an indicator of progress for one of the world’s largest reforestation programs in one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions.” Chris is a PhD student in Dr. Conghe Song’s Remote Sensing and Ecological Modeling Group. His summer research is part of a larger project to investigate the role of reforestation programs in facilitating the emergence of increasingly species-rich and structurally diverse forest communities on a degraded land mosaic in montane southwest China.

To contact Chris Hakkenberg:

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No.1209563.

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