Larson collaborates on $310,000 research grant from NSF

June 20, 2014

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PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Dr. Evan Larson, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, along with his co-principal investigator Dr. Kurt Kipfmueller, associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, was recently awarded a $310,000 grant from the Geography and Spatial Sciences program at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va. Of the total award, more than $210,000 will go toward supporting research efforts at UW-Platteville.

The NSF is a federal agency that promotes the progress of science and serves as one of the primary and most competitive sources of support for fundamental research across all fields of science. Larson’s grant is specifically funded through the Geography and Spatial Sciences program of the NSF, which sponsors research on the geographic distributions and interactions of human, physical and biotic systems on the Earth’s surface.

The funding will support research examining the historical role of fire in the forests of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota in an effort to identify influences of past Ojibwe land use on the area’s vegetation communities.

The project will span the summer of 2014 through the spring of 2017 and includes support for up to four undergraduate students each year of the grant, as well as a post-baccalaureate fellow from UW-Platteville during the first year of the grant, a research technician the first two years of the grant, and undergraduate students and a Ph.D. student from the University of Minnesota.

"Dr. Larson's work is ground-breaking, and far-reaching in its effects,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Throop, dean of UW-Platteville’s College of Liberal Arts and Education. “He will advance our knowledge of the behaviors of First Nations peoples and their interactions with forests as well as provide significant opportunities for collaboration with our undergraduate students. Research projects like this exemplify what is outstanding about a UW-Platteville education:  Dr. Larson is opening doors for our students and, just as importantly, for science and the search for truth."

Lane Johnson, a geography lecturer teaching Geographic Information Systems courses at UW-Platteville, will serve as the research specialist on the project. Johnson, an environmental geographer whose previous tree-ring-based fire history research in the BWCAW provided a vital foundation for the funded proposal, is planning for extensive fieldwork beginning August 2014.

“There is an incredibly complex tree-ring-based fire record available to us in the pine forests of the Boundary Waters landscape,” said Johnson. “With each passing year, portions of this rich natural archive are lost to modern wildfires and rot. This project is a significant opportunity for us to salvage a fading ecological record that will help inform best fire management practices in northeast Minnesota for years to come.”

According to Larson, the focus of the project research is to transform the working definition of wilderness and deepen the understanding of the geographic, social and ecological underpinnings of the environment and environmental change.

“The BWCAW is the location of some of the earliest and most important fire history research in the discipline,” said Larson. “One aspect of this project will be to update and revise work done by Miron 'Bud' Heinselman, an ecologist who helped establish the field of fire ecology. It is humbling to think that we'll be paddling the same waterways that Bud did, as wilderness advocate Sigurd Olson did before him and as the voyagers and Ojibwe did before them.”

The research team will document patterns in the frequency and size of fires in the BWCAW over the past several centuries and examine these patterns in the context of human land use, travel and trade networks. The results of this work will help explain the role of fire on the landscape, how humans influenced the fire regimes in the area and what that means for the understanding of wilderness.

“I am very excited to move forward with this project,” said Larson. “The BWCAW is one of the iconic landscapes of the Midwest – the largest wilderness area east of the Rocky Mountains – and it is vital to the sense of place and identity many of us share.”

This research will provide critical information on how to manage the BWCAW in the future. “What if this place that we value so greatly and that we hold up as a pristine wilderness was actually created through the activities of people and their impacts on the land?” Larson postulated. “By protecting this incredible area as wilderness, are we actually dooming the very place we hope to preserve?”

This project is the second large NSF grant to operate through the UW-Platteville TREES Lab, the first being a three year, $275,000 Research Experience for Undergraduates grant received by Dr. J. Elmo Rawling III, geography professor at UW-Platteville, that ended in 2012. These projects, along with several other grants, are a continuation of research across Wisconsin, the Great Lakes Region, the United States, Canada and Sweden.

Contact: Dr. Evan Larson, department of social sciences, (608) 342-6139, larsonev@uwplatt.edu

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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