Research in Dr. Cara Nelson's Restoration Ecology Lab focuses on four primary areas: 1) effects of large-scale disturbance on understory plants and trees, 2) conceptual basis for ecological restoration, 3) efficacy and ecological impacts of restoration treatments, and 4) sampling methods for detecting changes in understory plant abundance. These topics are being explored at landscape, population, and organism scales, through field experiments, retrospective studies, and meta-analyses. Cara and her students are particularly interested in projects that both contribute to basic knowledge of plant and restoration ecology and provide managers with timely information about the ecological effects of management interventions.
Effects of disturbance on plants– This area of research focuses on how plants respond to changes in biotic and abiotic environments. During the last four years, Cara and her students have investigated: plant physiological and demographic responses to disturbance, including whether plants of similar functional groups vary in magnitude and mechanism of response; the extent to which changes in biotic environment (e.g., due to invasive plants) are driving natural selection in understory plants; and the extent to which biotic environment (competition) modulates climate-growth relationships in trees.
Conceptual basis for ecological restoration– As a relatively young field, the conceptual basis for restoration ecology and ecological restoration is still being developed. Cara and her students are engaging in the dialogue by assessing the role of history in restoration and the management implications of novel ecosystems.
Efficacy and ecological impacts of restoration treatments – Cara and her students are interested in understanding the efficacy and effects, both target and non-target, of restoration treatments on plants. They have explored these issues in large-scale observational studies (e.g., assessing 44,000 treatments implemented under the National Fire Plan) and in smaller-scale experiments. Projects include assessing plant responses to fire-mitigation and fuel-reduction treatments, herbicide treatments, and road removal.
Efficacy of sampling methods – Cara's newest area of research aims to understand the efficacy of sampling designs for assessing changes in abundance of understory plants. Along with her students, Cara has undertaken several evaluations of commonly used designs. In addition, she is working with local restoration practitioners to assess the designs currently being used for ecological monitoring in western Montana.