Though difficult to quantify in dollars, vegetative ecosystem services such as water filtration, carbon storage, erosion and runoff prevention, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and scenic beauty provide extraordinary value to society. Perennial vegetation in the form of biomass crops that reach bioproduct and biofuel markets are becoming more of an option for farmers, landowners, and land managers, and they can also supply these ecosystem services. Many of these crops exhibit conservation or site rehabilitation value, introducing new opportunities for simultaneous economic and environmental benefits. (More: see eXtension )
On April 5-6, Penn State Extension hosted a short course program aimed at providing an in-depth look at opportunities for the use of perennial biomass crops, including grasses and short-rotation woody crops, in accomplishing conservation and rehabilitation goals on a landscape scale. The program kicked off with an afternoon of field tours to sites near State College where perennial vegetation was functioning in this capacity. At a trial planting of 3 perennial crops - switchgrass, shrub willow, and miscanthus - on a reclaimed mineland site near Philipsburg, PA, attendees were introduced to both the benefits and challenges of establishing vegetation on sites like these, where "marginal land can mean marginal yield," an idea underscored by the subsequent view of healthy, well-established shrub willow plants at the much higher-quality Rockview site. We also visited the Penn State "living filter," strips of woodlands and managed crops laced with pipelines that spray the university's wastewater onto these vegetated areas, filtering out impurities and managing groundwater recharge. Finally, a visit to a planted riparian buffer highlighted the function of these stream-adjacent vegetated spaces but also introduced attendees to a few challenging realities of managing these systems, including combatting the encroachment of invasive species.
The day after the tours, an even larger group of conservation professionals, farmers, researchers, consultants, policy experts, and others gathered for a full day of presentations and discussion. One of the emphases in comments throughout the program was that locations for plantings and other interventions had to be carefully selected on the landscape based on where they would achieve the highest impact for a particular set of goals; broad-brush, overgeneralized mandates likely won't do. That reality complicates the suite of incentive options and markets available to these ecosystem service plantings across our region, but productive partnerships across agencies and major sectors (public, private, academic) that consult a wide array of stakeholders can make strides.
Attendees commented on the value of the breadth of speakers and the informative, relaxed discussion atmosphere among participants. These interactions are likely to be the starting point for some interesting opportunities in the days to come.