Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reindeer program gets wide publicity

Rip the reindeer on a visit to a high school science class
It’s Christmas and the media’s mind turns to reindeer. Each December UAF’s Reindeer Research Program Manager Greg Finstad can expect phone calls from reporters looking for a cute angle about the animals who allegedly pull Santa’s sleigh.

This year was no exception. Last week, Associated Press writer Betsy Blaney contacted Finstad to ask whether "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" was male or female. Blaney linked the Reindeer Research Program website to her story, which ran in newspapers across the country.

In the AP article, "Wildlife experts ponder gender of Santa's reindeer," Finstad suggests that Rudolph was likely a castrated male (steer). His theory was that females would be pregnant at Christmastime and if Santa was good at animal husbandry he would not hook up expectant moms to a sled.

By Friday, Finstad was fielding calls from newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, and receiving numerous e-mails. Radio talk show hosts queried him about spending tax dollars researching the sex of Santa’s reindeer. “You wouldn’t believe all the phone calls,” Finstad said. “I got a lot of grief.”

Finstad tries to use these occasions to educate the public about the reindeer industry in Alaska, the economic importance of the animals, and the healthy benefits of eating reindeer meat. He also points out the real research his program does, including meat science, range management and nutrition, educational outreach, animal health, radio and satellite telemetry.

The wave of grievance phone calls was exhausting. “I was not so cheery by the end of the day,” Finstad said. But he was glad that the situation was not as bad as the year he shared with reporters his family tradition of cooking a reindeer hindquarter on Christmas Eve. When he jokingly referred to the dish as “rump of Rudolph” media representatives were not amused. “You eat Santa’s reindeer?” was the astonished reaction.

Reindeer Pot Roast
1 3-pound reindeer pot roast
1/4 lb salt pork
1 1/4 c water
salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
4 carrots, peeled and cubed
4 turnips, peeled and cubed
4 potatoes, peeled and cubed
6 small onions
Wipe meat with damp cloth, then. Rub with flour, salt, and pepper. Fry salt pork (or bacon) in dutch oven over medium heat. Brown meat on all sides in the fat. Remove meat. Brown 2 tablespoons flour in fat. Set meat on low rack in dutch oven. Add water and seasonings. Cover and simmer for about 3 hours, or until meat is nearly tender. Place vegetables around and over meat and continue cooking for about 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Serve roast, sliced, surrounded with vegetables. Thicken the gravy if necessary with 2 tablespoons flour blended with 2 tablespoons butter and serve with meat. Serves 4.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

UAF deciding fertilizer recommendations

Researchers from UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and outreach specialists and agents from the Cooperative Extension Service met in Anchorage Dec. 22 to determine unified fertilizer recommendations for farmers. The scientists will review current recommendations, bring them up to date, and publish any new results, once they are determined.

The university representatives seek to assist Alaska growers who face challenges due in part to the depletion of the state’s sole supply of urea and a 300 to 400 percent increase in fertilizer prices. The problem surfaced when Agrium Inc. closed its urea plant in Nikiski a year ago. Urea, a white crystalline solid containing 46 percent nitrogen, is widely used in the agricultural industry as fertilizer. A dwindling supply of the product remains but Alaska farmers are beginning to order fertilizer from out of state and will have to pay associated shipping costs. There are nitrogen fertilizer sources within the state, but world economic factors have resulted price increases in most fertilizer components. These price increases and the new price volatility have increased risk for commercial agricultural producers.

Associate Director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station Milan Shipka said committees with specific areas of expertise were formed. “We are going to review what publications we have now and get a handle on what’s out there,” he said. The participants will come up with recommendations for specific crops and identify what research needs to be conducted. Hay crops, turf grass, grains, and vegetables will be included in the recommendations. When farmers have the best information it helps them plan better and run their businesses more efficiently, Shipka explained.

Tying together the work of the agriculture school and experiment station with CES was another outcome of the session. “We are working at greater collaboration to better benefit Alaskans,” Shipka said.

Publications featuring past fertilizer research:
Agroborealis Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 1996, p. 12, "Agronomist discusses nitrogen biological nitrogen fixation" by Stephen D. Sparrow
Agroborealis Vol. 16, No. 1, January 1984, p. 9, "What Happens to Fertilizer Nitrogen?" by Stephen D. Sparrow, Charles W. Knight, Larry D. Hinzman; p. 43, "Do Slow-Release Nitrogen Fertilizers Have an Advantage for Lawn Fertilization in Southcentral Alaska?" by W.M. Laughlin
Agroborealis Vol 15, January 1983, p. 15, "Planting and Fertilizing Options in Barley Production" by Charles Knight
Agroborealis Vol. 14, January 1982, p. 69, "Nitrogen: Transformations and Availability in Alaskan Soils" by George A. Mitchell, Joseph R. Offner

Further reading:
"Alaska farmers face fertilizer shortage," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Jan. 4, 2009, by Rena Delbridge
"Factors to Consider in Selecting a Soil Testing Laboratory" CES Publication FGV-00045, October 2006, by Peter Bierman, Tom Jahns (PDF)
"Small Farms Series: Animal Manure as Fertilizer" CES Publication LPM-00340, August 2005 (PDF)
"Fish waste enriches Alaska soil" Sept. 17, 2008 blogpost by Nancy Tarnai
Fertilizer price follow, Anchorage Daily News blog "Talk Dirt to Me," Jan. 14, 2009, by Fran Durner

(updated January 5, 2009)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Forestry professor included in new climate change book

The work of Glenn Juday, UAF professor of forest ecology and expert on the relationship of tree growth to long-term climate change, is included in a recently published book that seeks to explain climate change to children and young teens.

How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming by Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch compiles a wide range of scientific study relating to the environment and presents the work in short vignettes.

According to author Lynne Cherry’s press release, “The book depicts scientists at work; teaches children the language, methods and process of science; imparts knowledge of technological tools and data collection; provides methods and ideas for school and home projects about weather and climate; describes and encourages participation in citizen-science programs; shows how each child can immediately reduce their carbon footprint and inspires them to do so by showing the effects of many kids working together already influencing communities to change.”

Juday, who has been a faculty member at UAF’s School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences since 1981, specializes in forest biodiversity, climate change assessment, climate change and forest growth, and old-growth forest ecology. He holds a doctorate from Oregon State University. The section of the book about his work details his involvement with rural Alaska high school students, who assisted Juday in taking tree core samples and tree growth measurements with a goal of understanding how boreal forests respond to climate change.

According to Cherry’s press release, the citizen-science projects described in the book allow students to see how they can contribute to understanding global warming and, “by seeing how scientific information leads to informed decision-making, students will understand the excitement, utility, and practical applications of careers in science.”

The book is a finalist in the AAAS/Subaru Best Science Book Award, and was named a School Library Journal’s Best Books of 2008. It won the 2008 National Parenting Publications Association Gold Award (Ages 9 to 12), the Publishers' Weekly 2008 - Green Books For Kids Selection, and the National Best Books 2008 Award/ Young Adult Education USA Booknews. It is included in the National Science Teachers Association Recommends list and was endorsed by the International Polar Year.

Further reading:
"People on the front lines of climate change," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, July 25, 2008
"Boreal Forest Biodiversity Meets Climate Change," Defenders of Wildlife conference, Washington, D.C., Sept. 27, 2007 (slide show by Glenn Juday)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Researchers study holiday plants

Poinsettias brighten a dark Fairbanks winter
On the west side of America’s arctic university is an oasis of warmth and greenery—a place where researchers and students can get their hands in the dirt year around. During the darkest season of the year, when the outside of the UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station greenhouse is coated in snow and icicles the inside blooms in a sea of brilliant red and creamy white poinsettias.

Under the direction of Professor of Horticulture Meriam Karlsson, the poinsettias are part of the Introduction to Applied Plant Science course. Her research concentrates on environmental plant physiology as it applies to commercial horticulture at high latitudes, with special attention on understanding relationships of temperature, light, and environmental conditions for whole plant development, growth, morphology, and flowering.

As well as being used for research and educational purposes, the poinsettias help set the holiday scene for campus events, including the chancellor’s Christmas party. Although the poinsettias take center stage in the greenhouse, they are not alone. Black-eyed Susans, exotic pepper plants, tomatoes, corn, thyme, mint, parsley, and some houseplants used in various studies fill the shelves.

Surprisingly, the researchers find the lack of light in a Fairbanks winter undaunting. In fact, it gives the advantage of allowing pure research to be conducted. With virtually no sunlight to contend with, the horticulturists have total control over the amount and type of light the plants receive and can conduct tests accordingly. Various light and temperature treatments are experimented with and the students learn about plant identification, nutrition, and responses to the environment.

Even farther west on campus, at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, the Controlled Environment Agriculture Laboratory (CEAL), directed by Karlsson, is a state-of-the-art horticulture facility where growing techniques are evaluated and developed. Production systems, crop lighting, irrigation technologies, climate management, crop and variety selections, and the sustainable use of alternative energies are researched. CEAL staff work with greenhouse operators, high school students, farmers’ market producers, and other businesses in exploring and advancing the relevance of horticulture science and controlled environment agriculture throughout Alaska.

As with most research facilities, the SNRAS greenhouses are not open for viewing, but during the summer, tours are given at the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge greenhouse and Chena Hot Springs Resort greenhouses, two local businesses with which SNRAS researchers are developing guidelines and protocols to support efficient crop production in greenhouse, modified, or controlled environments.

Under Karlsson’s direction, graduate student Yosuke Okada will begin working with Chena Hot Springs Resort greenhouse tomatoes in the spring semester. Several undergraduate student assistants work in the greenhouses with Karlsson and researcher Jeff Werner during the summers.

Further reading:
Agroborealis magazine Fall 2006, Vol. 38 No. 1 articles, "Controlled Environments in Alaska," page 26 by Doreen Fitzgerald and Meriam Karlsson, and "Greenhouse tomato production for Alaska," page 27 by Meriam Karlsson (PDF)

"FFA hydroponics program offers education, hope for sustainability," Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Aug. 31, 2008 by Erica Goff

Friday, December 12, 2008

Graduate student assigned to Paraguay

Matthew Helt with new friends in Paraguay
Even though it is extremely hot and humid, Matthew Helt is learning to like Paraguay. Helt is a SNRAS graduate student enrolled in the Peace Corps Master’s International program. Helt is the second student from the school to participate in the cooperative master’s degree program that allows students to integrate graduate studies with international development experience.

After months of intensive Peace Corps training in Paraguay Helt is now assigned to a village of 150 people outside Ybycui. In e-mail messages to Associate Professor of Resource Planning Susan Todd, chair of the SNRAS graduate program, Helt expressed satisfaction that his village has a working farmers’ group, youth group, and women’s group. “I am truly excited to spend the next two years working on community development and empowerment in this community,” he wrote.

During his training period, Helt learned to deal with cold water showers and to request more vegetables for dinner. Even though surrounded by lettuce fields, his host family was more accustomed to serving meat dishes. Helt attended sessions on agroforestry, crops, beekeeping, and environmental education, and he went to workshops on culture, health, safety, music, religion, and learning styles. He has grafted citrus and mango, planted a garden, and worked on a tree nursery.

Helt noted that deforestation is a major problem in Paraguay, with large plantations growing cotton, soybeans, and sugar cane for export on land that used to be forests. His assignment is to work with the local farmers who only have a few acres.

On Dec. 5 Helt was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer at the U.S. Embassy in Asuncion. “It’s not every day that one is able to do such a thing so it was rather exciting for most of us,” he said. “To put icing on the cake, at the end of the ceremony the Charge D'Affairs extended us an invitation use the pool when we're in Asuncion on business.”

Helt earned a B.A. from George Mason University before enrolling in graduate studies at UAF.

Students may pursue several areas of interest within the UAF Natural Resources Management M.S. degree, including horticulture, soil science, agronomy, animal science, forest ecology, silviculture, resource economics, land planning, parks/recreation management, and resource policy. The university provides a six-credit tuition waiver for Peace Corps Master’s International students, and allows them to maintain their active student status during their assignment. Contact Susan Todd at or Tony Gasbarro

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Doctoral student focuses on forest future

Doctoral student David D'Amore stands next to an epikarst feature on Prince of Wales Island. Epikarst is the eroded surface of limestone bedrock.

What will the next 100 years of forestry bring? USDA Forest Service Soil Scientist Dave D’Amore is trying to answer that question…but cautiously. “You have to be careful making predictions.” Restoration of forests and streams and climate change, including the adaptation of plants, biomass energy, and hydrology, are on the horizon, he said. As glaciers recede and snowpack melts, D’Amore said there are uncertainties about the consequences of such changes on the watersheds, including the large coastal temperate rainforest of southeast Alaska. The decline of yellow cedar is one example of the impact of changing precipitation patterns due to decreased snowpack.

D’Amore, a UAF SNRAS doctoral student studying with Associate Professor of Soils Dave Valentine, presented his research findings at a graduate student seminar at UAF in November.

The Coastal Temperate Rainforest (from northern California to Prince William Sound) is D’Amore’s focus, particularly the Tongass National Forest. Southeast Alaska is best known for its old-growth forests dominated by western hemlock, and large deposits of woody debris on the ground. The Tongass National Forest features six major tree species, fire is rare, and woody debris accumulates leading to large amounts of stored carbon in the forest.

Looking at the region historically, aboriginal use of the forest was limited and of very low intensity. In the early twentieth century logging was selective and limited to the shoreline and valley bottoms. The level of logging increased during the two world wars and concentrated on Sitka spruce due to its value as an aircraft wood. The 1950s found the pulp mill industry conducting extensive clearcutting. As a result, today there are 263,250 hectares of young-growth forest on the Tongass. The rapid regeneration of trees and lack of understory have become a problem for the wildlife and understory diversity in these types of stands, D’Amore said.

Another issue of importance is the abundance of water in Southeast Alaska. With 3,000 to 5,000 millimeters of precipitation per year, there is no lack of moisture. The area has plentiful bogs, forested wetlands, and scrub forest that form a mosaic with more productive forest overstory, D’Amore said. “It’s not all the same forest.”

Remarking on the decline of yellow cedar, he said there are 200,000 hectares of dead trees standing in the Tongass. Even yellow cedar that has been dead for sixty years still has high quality wood. Integrating the need for restoration with getting use out of the wood is important. Determining how to harvest dead trees and plant new yellow cedars will create a template for how to manage other types of trees in a changing climate.

Understanding the role of dissolved carbon is another priority for D’Amore. He and his colleagues at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau are working to establish predictive models for carbon flux in the watersheds of the coastal temperate rainforest. “Southeast Alaska has the highest area of weighted dissolved organic carbon flux in the world,” he said. Carbon flux is the transfer of carbon from one pool to another. Quantifying the movement of carbon dioxide into and out of the atmosphere is important for understanding carbon sinks and sources.

Most of D’Amore’s work has been accomplished with colleagues in forest pathology and aquatic ecology at the Juneau Pacific Northwest Research Station. “I implore you to create creative partnerships and get out of your shell,” he said. “Establishing partnerships has helped me expand understanding of fundamental components of coastal temperate rainforest ecosystems.”

For further reading, see:
"Arctic soil reveals climate change clues," SNRAS Science & News, 9/10/08.

Carbon and carbon research (PDF), SNRAS/AFES Miscellaneous Publication 2004-09.

"Classification of Forested Histosols in Southeast Alaska", by David V. D'Amore and Warren C. Lynn, Soil Science Society of America Journal, 66:554-562 (2002).

"Soggy Soils and Sustainability: Forested Wetlands in Southeast Alaska" (PDF), by Sally Duncan, Science Findings, issue 41, February 2002.

Monday, December 8, 2008

UAF and Chinese Academy of Sciences pursue partnership

From left, Professor Guodong Cheng, SNRAS Dean Carol Lewis, Youfen Zhang, doctoral student Ruixia He, Professor Huijun Jin pause in their dicussions of an exchange program to exchange gifts.

This week representatives from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing are visiting UAF to plan a student and faculty exchange and research program.

Two professors and a doctoral student from the Cold and Arid Regions Environment and Engineering Research Institute will meet with representatives of the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering and Mines. The visiting academic delegation members’ disciplinary focus is in geocryology, the study of frozen soils. They will be meeting with UAF soil scientists as well as visiting some local sites that demonstrate road stability research. The UA Museum of the North, a permafrost tunnel, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline are also on the itinerary.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences, China's comprehensive research and development center in natural sciences and high-tech innovation, attaches great importance to the academic exchange and cooperation with international science and technology communities. The center works with more than 60 countries, carrying out various kinds of collaboration with its foreign partners, such as joint investigations, ventures, laboratories, young scientist groups, workshops, training courses, and seminars.

International cooperation has made significant contributions to the improvement of science and technology standards, training of talents, upgrading of experimental conditions, acquisition of foreign investment, and exchange of information, according to the CAS website.

UAF Professor Chien-Lu Ping, who is involved in the proceedings, is internationally known for his soils research. UAF Associate Professor Mingchu Zhang and UAF Assistant Professor Jingjing Liang, both originally from China, are involved in the process also.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

CESU supports cooperation between university, federal agencies

Kennecott mill buildings
Coordination of research efforts is the focus of the North and West Alaska Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit. This collaboration makes it possible for vital research to be conducted as smoothly and efficiently as possible, assisting public land managers in making decisions based on solid information.

Across the nation, CESUs are structured as working collaborations among federal agencies and universities. Each CESU focuses on a biogeographic region of the country. Alaska’s North and West region is coordinated by UAF, under the direction of Associate Professor of Outdoor Recreation Management Peter Fix. “The CESU facilitates research that might not be undertaken otherwise,” Fix explained.

Types of research include arctic and subarctic anthropology, ecology, archeology, and physical and biological sciences. Current projects across Alaska are studying black bear ecology, permafrost temperature measurements, nutrition of arctic ungulates, and landslide hazards in Glacier Bay National Park.

The National Park Service’s Lois Dalle-Molle, NWA-CESU research coordinator, said the advantage of this collaboration is the ability to work together on projects from start to finish. “CESUs make working cooperatively possible,” she said.

“We value the opportunity of working with the UA system. We have benefited a lot from their expertise, especially concerning northern ecosystems and climate change modeling. That long-term perspective is valuable to us.”

SNRAS Dean Carol Lewis said “Participating agencies enjoy the advantage of university resources, which in turn gain financial support and enhanced personnel. The idea behind the CESU partnerships is that sharing resources and expertise serves all the interests involved.”

Partner universities and institutions are:
University of Alaska Anchorage
University of Alaska Fairbanks
University of Alaska Southeast
University of New Hampshire
Alaska SeaLife Center.

Cooperating federal agencies include:
Bureau of Land Management
• National Park Service
Natural Resources Conservation Service
US Fish and Wildlife Service.

One example of how the NWA-CESU facilitates research is the 2004 visitor preference study at Kennecott Mill Town, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Working with the National Park Service through a CESU cooperative effort, Peter Fix conducted on-site surveys that linked visitor motivations, trip characteristics, demographics, information preferences and evaluations, and time of visitation. Park managers are using the information to assist them in making decisions regarding park interpretation. Fix’s research is helping the managers design interpretive programs and services that target visitor groups most likely to participate, while taking into account how other groups might respond.

The park service does not have the staff to do this kind of research, Dalle-Molle explained. Without the cooperative effort provided by the CESU it would be much more difficult for the parks to obtain the expert information they need to serve the public. “University of Alaska researchers provide us with the best information about Alaska parks from an Alaska research institution,” Dalle-Molle said.

Further reading:
Agroborealis article, "Kennecott Mill Town" (pdf)
"Visitor Preferences for Interpretation in the Kennecott Mill Town, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park"(pdf)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Agriculture department takes new name

Corn research is an ongoing summertime project at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm.

The Department of Plant, Animal, and Soil Sciences, or PASS, has a new name – High Latitude Agriculture.

Dr. Milan Shipka (below), department chair, said most people did not understand what PASS meant or what activities and research were included in the disciplines contained in the department. “With the concept of global climate change looming large in Alaska, it is most appropriate to have the word agriculture in a department name at UAF,” Shipka said. “Our faculty members are the primary force of agriculture at UAF.”

After the PASS faculty voted in September for the name change, it was approved by SNRAS Dean Carol Lewis, Provost Susan Henrichs, Interim Chancellor Brian Rogers, and President Mark Hamilton. The new name became official Dec. 2, 2008.

High Latitude Agriculture provides statewide education, research and outreach in agriculture, soils, revegetation, and bioremediation through UAF at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm, Georgeson Botanical Garden, the Palmer Research and Extension Center, the Matanuska Experiment Farm, the Delta Junction Field Research Site, Nome, the Seward Peninsula, and other locations across the state. The Department of High Latitude Agriculture faculty provide instruction in Fairbanks and Palmer, as well as through the Bristol Bay Campus, for undergraduate and graduate degrees in Natural Resources Management with an emphasis on concepts based on agricultural sciences. Non-credit short courses are also offered through the Georgeson Botanical Garden.

Examples of High Latitude Agriculture research include:
  •  reindeer research at Nome and Fairbanks
  •  reproductive performance in domestic ruminants
  •  the role of light in high latitude crop production
  •  controlled environment plant growth
  •  cultivar selection of vegetables in Alaska
  •  potato disease
  •  management practices for forage and turf grass
  •  peony cultivation and marketing
  •  arctic and subarctic soils.
For more information about the department, visit the High Latitude Agriculture web page.