Forests and rangelands (including lands under both federal and non-federal ownership) represent significant ecological and economic assets within the United States. They are also areas which experience a range of unique impacts from drought or other climate extremes, and require unique management and response strategies. At the same time, forests and rangelands have often received less attention for drought or climate monitoring and management, given remoteness, complex terrain, and the resulting difficulty in accessing these regions, among other reasons. The use of remotely sensed data provides an opportunity to view trends across larger landscapes and coarse scale analyses, but this comes with challenges for forested ecosystems, including validation and difficulties with measurements through dense forest canopy cover.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Northern Research Station (NRS) is leading an initiative to establish ground-based soil moisture monitoring within national forests to support the full range of resource management needs, from harvesting and other land management decisions to assessment of drought, fire, and other risks. Between FY 2021–2023, a Steering Committee has been empowered to develop a framework and strategy for launching the USFS Forest Soil Moisture Monitoring Network (FSMMN). This committee includes representatives from USFS NRS, USFS regional programs, USFS research and development, USDA and other federal partners, state partners, and academic experts.
The Forest Service’s approach to developing a National Forest Soil Moisture Monitoring Network involves four core elements:
- Expanding existing ground-based monitoring networks, such as the Remote Automatic Weather Stations (RAWS) network (which currently includes 17 stations equipped for soil moisture monitoring)
- Building the knowledge base within the USFS and across other forest management agencies
- Developing forest observational systems and protocols to help link shifts in soil moisture to broader changes in forest conditions
- Creating a centralized data repository for easy national access.
These elements are interrelated, and all support the goal of filling current data and knowledge gaps around forest soil moisture and conditions.
With increasing climatic and environmental stressors threatening the sustainability of water and forest resources, there is a growing need for new and improved approaches to monitor and maintain healthy forests, grasslands, and watersheds. As conditions change, resource managers need to have access to and use rapidly updated information to make decisions and allocate limited resources. Access to readily available soil moisture and forest condition information will increase the capacity of land management agencies to make informed decisions and adopt proactive adaptation and mitigation strategies in response to drought, disturbances, extreme events, and other climate change stressors that affect soil moisture availability.
The FSMMN initiative hosts regular opportunities for cross-agency knowledge exchange on current research related to soil moisture and forest management. Plans are also being developed to host a national conference in FY 2023.
The FSMMN initiative is sponsoring a series of pilot studies to improve soil moisture monitoring in forests and rangelands. These studies are intended to address various limitations in current monitoring methodologies, and to develop improved monitoring and assessment tools. These pilot studies include:
- In partnership with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):
- In partnership with NIDIS:
The FSMMN initiative is affiliated with the NIDIS-sponsored National Coordinated Soil Moisture Monitoring Network (NCSMMN), which has identified forests and rangelands as priority underserved ecoregions for soil moisture monitoring and tool development (see NCSMMN Strategy).
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