MISSOULA – The University of Montana recently was selected to lead one of the first-ever Regional Innovation Engine awards from the National Science Foundation. UM’s project is designed to advance precision forestry and rangeland technologies.
As with the 43 other awardees selected across the country, UM will receive an initial $1 million over two years. This will support and develop a team that will create an implantation proposal, which could lead to as much as $160 million in additional regional economic investment over 10 years.
UM has 18 partners on the project all working in forest and rangeland management. They include regional research universities and tribal colleges, national nonprofits, federal and state agencies, industry associations and venture capital firms.
“This innovation engine is designed to create a new economic driver for the rural states in the Upper Missouri River Basin,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship, who is the principal investigator on the project. “The expertise developed by our team will deliver ecological and economic solutions to other regions of the country and world, where forest and rangeland management – along with fires, droughts and floods – are regional problems of great consequence.”
He said the regional project is intended to become a national model for the use of precision forestry and rangeland management. An important partner in managing these lands is the timber industry.
Julia Altemus, director the Montana Wood Products Association, said a plan developed by the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council has identified 3.4 million acres in the wildland urban interface as high priority acres in need of restoration.
“Therefore, we are at a critical forest health juncture,” Altemus said. “This project will develop a national model for use of precision forestry and rangeland management to maximize the economic benefit of federal, tribal and private forests and rangelands, while minimizing ecological impacts such as fire and flood. We are looking forward to working with the University of Montana and partners on this important project.”
Each Regional Innovation Engine was required to define a region of service. The area for the UM-led project is U.S. Forest Service Northern Region, which manages 25 million acres of public land across five states. The region’s 12 national forests are spread across northern Idaho, Montana and a sliver of northeastern Washington. The four national grasslands are in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Whittenburg said the region’s economy depends in part on natural resources. The forestry and rangeland sectors are important economic engines for these states.
Another important project partner is The Nature Conservancy, which works in partnership with communities to restore and improve management of working lands and supports the leadership of Indigenous peoples.
Tourism also is a large economic driver for this region, and devastation from wildfires and flooding can have major negative impact for this industry. Whittenburg said ensuring the economic importance of these industries requires better monitoring and forecasting, and solutions that integrate that data into decision-making that sustain both social and ecological systems.
The partners on the innovation engine project are UM, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the Cobell Institute of Land and Culture, the Aaniiih College Nic?-Mni Center, the Rocky Mountain Research Station, the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region, the Montana/Dakotas Bureau of Land Management, the Montana Innovation Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, South Dakota State University, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, Boise State University, Idaho State University, the University of Wyoming, North Dakota State University, the NRNP Mesonet/State Climate Offices, the UM FireCenter, the Montana Wood Products Association and Next Frontier Capital.
Contact: Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship, 406-243-6670, firstname.lastname@example.org.