University of New Mexico Ph.D. student Kevin Willson, who is working with assistant professor Matthew Hurteau in the Department of Biology, was awarded a predoctoral fellowship from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture in December. It is a three-year fellowship worth $153,059 that is funded via the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

Willson will use the fellowship to focus on his research surrounding tree growth response to recurrent fire and drought disturbances in semi-arid forests.

Kevin Willson
Kevin Willson

"Climate change and removal of fire from the landscape have increased forest vulnerability to disturbance effects in the southwestern U.S. More trees and greater aridity in the region have reduced water availability, exacerbating the effect of drought on trees and increasing the risk of tree mortality and other disturbances over time,” Willson said. “While recurrent, unobtrusive wildfire can reduce forest density and local water use, it remains unclear how this type of fire affects tree growth during drought because of the continual damage recurrent wildfire may inflict on trees. Maintaining forests in the southwest is important to communities in the region that use these forests for recreation, water purification, timber extraction, and tourism as well as CO2 uptake that reduces the effects of climate change around the world.”

Willson will address this knowledge gap in his doctoral research project by measuring tree basal growth over two multi-year droughts in fire-maintained and fire-excluded forests to determine how recurrent wildfire affects growth after fire and during drought. To do so, he will collect tree cores to determine annual growth and measure nearby trees to quantify competition around cored trees.

“I will use these data to develop tests and analyses that identify the ecosystem factors that affect tree growth during drought and after fires. Addressing these questions will provide novel scientific knowledge to inform future management and policy of forests in the region for a climatically dynamic future, which advances science, improves agricultural climate adaptation, and informs agricultural science policy leadership. Because I expect fire-maintained forests to exhibit better growth and drought resilience than fire-excluded forests, this research will also study ways to improve plant health and production and ensure productive and sustainable use of our national forest system lands," he explained.

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