Old-growth forests, alpine meadows, and sacred birds in the Chinese Himalaya

In 2008, Jodi Brandt, now the leader of the Boise State Land Use Lab, landed one of the best PhD fellowships imaginable -- exploring old-growth forests, trekking to remote alpine mountain-tops, and stalking threatened birds in the Himalayan mountains. Over four field seasons in China, she met many wonderful people and ate a lot delicious food! And along the way, she discovered important relationships between culture, economic development, and biodiversity conservation.

Alpine meadows

Highly-diverse alpine meadows are disappearing as shrubs expand to higher elevations

There is no place on earth that is changing faster than the Chinese Himalayans, one of earth’s Biodiversity Hotspots. The region is experiencing rapid economic development, with “ecotourism” as the engine. Cultural change is happening quickly, as ethnic minorities — Tibetan, Bai, and Yi people to name just a few — are subsumed by majority Han culture. In terms of climatic change, the Himalayan region is know as the “Third Pole”, with temperatures warming at three times the global average. During her PhD, Jodi used satellite imagery to investigate the patterns and drivers of landscape change from 1974 to 2009, and integrated ecological field data to understand how the observed changes influenced biodiversity.

Photograph of valleys in the Himalayas

Looking into Tibet from a mountain top in Yunnan, China

Photograph of deforested mountainside.

Old-growth logging

The first chapter of her PhD research, on forest change and its drivers in the southwest China, showed that China’s strong forestry policy (e.g. the national logging ban) was successful to slow logging rates overall, but that economic policies (specifically ecotourism development) led to an acceleration of old-growth forest logging (Brandt et al., 2012). The paper highlighted how forest change can be driven by complex interactions between policy, economic development, and conservation activities. Her second chapter integrated remote sensing data with interview and climate data to discover a “critical transition” in Himalayan alpine zones (Brandt et al. 2013a; Haynes et al. 2014). For her third chapter, she studied songbirds in Tibetan sacred forests and demonstrated their importance for conservation (Allendorf et al. 2014; Brandt et al. 2013b; Wood et al. 2014). She collaborated with a Tibetan linguist, a medicine doctor, and a teacher to write “Birds of Shangrila”, a 266-page, tri-lingual ecological and cultural guide to the birds of my study area (Brandt and Bartee 2012).

Photograph of reforestation

Logged areas suffer suffer erosion and grazing impacts and regenerating forests are typically less diverse and of low habitat quality

Photograph of Pudacuo National Park lake and hills

Pudacuo National Park outside of Shangri-la

The PhD experience taught Jodi humans and the environment are inextricably interlinked, and that interdisciplinary approaches are necessary to more fully explore complex dynamics of change. As such, directly stemming from her PhD research, she initiated two collaborative research projects with scientists from other disciplines. First, with economist Dr. Van Butsic, they applied advanced statistical models (matching and difference-in-difference regression) to my remotely sensed land cover data to better understand socioeconomic drivers of change, as well the relative effectiveness of different protection policies in my study area (Brandt et al. 2015). Second, with human-dimensions conservation biologist Dr. Teri Allendorf, they conducted village interview surveys to understand the management of Tibetan community sacred forests, and explore their potential for conservation planning (Allendorf et al. 2015).

Photograph of stream and forest in autumn

A Tibetan sacred forest with exceptionally high bird diversity

Photograph of tall trees in autumn

Old-growth forests

HES Researchers