DUBOIS, Pa. — New research published by Robert Loeb, a professor in biology and forestry at Penn State DuBois, outlines his efforts to bring the experience of rural forests to those who live in cities, with an eye toward what Loeb calls “environmental justice.” The article appears in the April issue of the publication Urban Forestry and Urban Greening.
Loeb’s article details new research discoveries about urban forests that veer from his typical concentrations. For decades he has studied forests in locations like New York City and Nashville, stewarding forest regeneration by examining the impact that wildlife and humans alike have on the forest and finding ways to curb this impact. This has led to work in a new urban-forest management protocol, “SAFE” — Soils, Aliens, Fire, Exclosure — with the goal of increasing natural regeneration through soil treatments, alien species treatments, fire surveillance, and fencing to eliminate problematic browsers such as deer.
Loeb took a turn toward research in soils when in 2014 he began to study tree regeneration in an urban forest in Philadelphia known as “The Good Woods,” part of the larger Haddington Woods in Cobbs Creek Park.
“The Good Woods is exceptional in having a mature canopy, a normal layer of leaf litter and organic matter, a large number of native tree seedlings, and less herbivory than typically expected," said Loeb. "During 2015, an exclosure fence for deer was placed around the Good Woods and an act of arson caused a ground fire in approximately half of the forest.”
What sets the Good Woods apart from other similarly situated urban forests is that many native species seedlings and saplings grow naturally below the canopy created by larger trees. Loeb’s goal is to determine why this happened at this particular site, to hopefully replicate the natural tree regeneration in other cities.
Loeb recalled, “Growing up in the Bronx, I was accustomed to seeing urban forests with only tall trees. One summer I was awarded a scholarship from the Student Conservation Association to conduct research in Vermont. What struck me the most was that the forests there had seedlings that are lacking in urban areas. I’ve been trying throughout my career to sort out this lack of natural regeneration so that people in urban settings can enjoy the beauty of rural forests when we visit urban forests.”
The most trusted theory Loeb has on the difference in soil composition impacting the natural regrowth of new trees is one that he believes is rock-solid, so to speak.
“If you have more rocks, you have less soil. So, naturally you have a smaller population of trees," he said. "I found many of the urban parks to have a great number of stones and even boulders in the soil. One particular area of the Good Woods is almost free of stones, and the soil there supports a greater growth of young trees.”
These findings could go a long way in helping Loeb to recommend soil studies and remediation in other urban forests. “Soils are a critical issue and need to be treated,” he said. “When I was young, horticulturalists taught me that if you spend $100 to plant a tree, you spend $10 on the tree and $90 on the soil. That is a formula that has not always been in use recently, but a historical perspective that maybe we need to revisit now.”
Loeb began to work on urban forest research at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx as a teenager, and his interests have their roots in this early experience. His long-standing research program focuses on urban forests and undergraduate students are members of his research team.
He began teaching at Penn State in 1985. He currently teaches introductory biology, economic botany, and introductory soil science, including both face-to-face and online sections. Awards he has received include recognition as a senior ecologist from the Ecological Society of America and as a Kenan Fellow of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. His work for diversity and equity was recognized with Penn State’s John Romano Diversity Award in 2015 and the Penn State Alumni Association’s Dr. James Robinson Equal Opportunity Award in 2018. He was also named Educator of the Year at Penn State DuBois in 2013 and recieved the University’s prestigious Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2015.